Ron Chernow’s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. is a powerhouse from beginning to end. Chernow is fast becoming one of my favorite biographers after reading Alexander Hamilton and now this. In both books, he is able to keep you turning the page while, at the same time, building carefully rendered portraits of these complex historical figures.
In Titan, he is at his best, describing Rockefeller as both a great philanthropist and also a man possessed by greed. Chernow’s Rockefeller can be as consumed by creating a great Baptist University [University of Chicago] as building tactical alliances that will squeeze out any hope of competition for his company, Standard Oil.
With his first brush stroke, Chernow paints the picture of Rockefeller’s father a mountebank, philanderer and a bigamist. From meager beginnings, it is amazing to see the determination with which Rockefeller builds himself up. Rockefeller’s ability to move so rapidly from a life of destitution and failure to one of unparallelled wealth and success is built with clear precision though at a dizzying pace.
Chernow’s decision to focus so heavily on Rockefeller’s father in the beginning of the book is important because the man Rockefeller becomes is a repudiation of everything his father stood for. The son in this case knew what a scoundrel his father was and acted in every way to become everything he was not. The father was a philnaderer, while the son remained devoted to his one wife even when he had become wildly successful. As the father placed his own interests ahead of his family’s needs, the son put his family ahead of everything else. And in the realm of business, the father had become a complete failure, while the son achieved successes beyond the wildest expectations of anyone to that point.
But, for all of his success and his blindess to the fact, Rockefeller grew up to be much like his father. His father’s ability to con his way out of any situation at any cost was a built in feature of Rockefeller’s personality. No matter how much good he did in the world and how much he evolved as a man, he was his father’s son. This was no more evident than in the way Rockefeller did business as the leader of Standard Oil. He removed any and all competition at any cost.
For all of his achievements, Rockefeller was never able to completely remove that original strain of human frailness that his father gave him. This was what eventually led to the downfall of Standard Oil and which made Rockefeller Sr. such a complex figure both beloved and hated by those who knew him or of him.
Despite his profound understanding of the mechanics and psychology of the business world, it is Chernow’s ability to develop strong character studies that make his books so admirable. During many of the best parts of Titan, Chernow is developing a colorful hybrid of supporting characters every bit as interesting as Rockefeller himself. What makes it all the more impressive is that Chernow does so while carefully tying everything in to build the theme within Rockefeller’s life. You get the idea from reading Chernow that you are witnessing the actual motivations of the characters he writes about.
Reviewed by: Zubair Khan
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