America’s Medicis

America’s Medicis
The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy
Suzanne Loebl
HarperCollins, 448pp

Review by Peter York

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The Rockefellers are riveting — but spooky too. Riveting because, more than any other family brand, they sum up the idea of the American 19th-century robber baron plutocrat. Bigger, richer, rougher, the Rockefellers were, most historians agree, the world’s richest family in John D Rockefeller Sr’s time, before his business Standard Oil was broken up and Rockefeller money was diffused — some might say hidden — in a hugely complex network of trusts.

They were also a more durable influence than, say, the Astors or Vanderbilts. Real Rockefeller power was exercised in their arts philanthropy, the subject of Suzanne Loebl’s America’s Medicis; in US politics, especially through Nelson Rockefeller; and in business and international relations, though his surviving banker brother David, at 95 the last surviving grandson of JDR Sr. 

They’re not finished yet: in 2005 David gave $100 million to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, co-founded by his mother Abby, and more is willed to the arts from his $2.2 billion estate. A new cohort of young, idealistic Rockefellers is actively protesting Exxon-Mobil’s environmental policies.

The Rockefellers are spooky because any sixteen-year-old with half a GCSE in world conspiracy theory knows the discreet power they have exercised in US and world politics: they are the Establishment in America, and played a pivotal role in the Council on Foreign Relations, the IMF, the World Bank, the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group. There are links to real spooks, too: David and Nelson’s connections to the CIA went back to the Second World War and the Rockefellers are threaded through the stories of Iran, Chile and many other CIA operations.

Against that context, Loebl’s book is devoted to one theme only: the Rockefellers as arts philanthropists. We’re all interested in rich Americans and their arts philanthropy, of course, now that public and corporate-sector support for the arts is shrinking away. Everyone in the arts is re-examining the American way and looking to the rich.

Arts philanthropy is different in the US. You get tax breaks and social mobility. You get things named after you in your Midwest home town. And when you croak it, the New York auction catalogue of your collection from the Fifth Avenue apartment and the house in the Hamptons — stuffed with Impressionists, over-restored English 18th-century Stunnas and a few safe Surrealists — say how Milton and Myrtle X worked tirelessly for their favoured arts charities after they sold Consolidated Custards.

But as Loebl makes clear, the Rockefellers’ contribution was at an entirely different level, in terms of its scale, its impact (the foundation of MoMA, for instance) and its sheer historic commitment. They’ve been at it for something like a century.

Loebl makes a good case for what sounds at first like a ludicrously inflated title. The comparison with the Medicis falls down here and there — the Rockefellers weren’t quite city-state rulers and they were more inclined to buy and support than commission art.

But the contribution to New York alone is dazzling. In her introduction, Loebl does a tour d’horizon of the Rockefeller buildings. There is the Rockefeller Center — famous, golden, the setting for dozens of films; MoMA; and, at Manhattan’s northern end, the mock-medieval Cloisters with its collection of real medieval artefacts. There is the huge Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, built in 1927, with its massive echoes of Chartres.

And postwar, when the International Style was new and glamorous, there were the Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters; the United Nations, built on Rockefeller-donated land; the Lincoln Center; and the Asia Society on Park Avenue. And on: outside Manhattan the Rockefellers conserved and built for themselves in Maine and were central to the restoration of Williamsburg in Virginia to Rhode Island’s art museum and to projects further yet, in California and Texas. Plus Cairo and Jerusalem, and a really substantial grant to wash and brush up Versailles between 1924 and 1936.

So it’s quite a mission to summarise the Rockefellers’ cultural legacy in its own right. Loebl looks at 30 arts institutions and initiatives where the Rockefellers have been central. The emphasis is on that curious couple JDR ‘Junior’ (1874–1960) and his wife Abby (the former Miss Aldrich). Junior was reserved, conservative in every way, social and artistic, and a tough and distant father to David, Nelson and their five siblings.

Abby, instinctive and rather inspiring, found her own path to modern art against every Establishment prejudice, and used her own money to buy prints, out-of-fashion and new art. She introduced Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to Park Avenue. Junior, by contrast, initially collected Chinese porcelain, Persian rugs and early tapestries and felt their civilising, low-keyness would help absolve him from the Rockefeller taint.

Loebl’s book is really 30 well-researched monographs, of very varied size and importance, on the Rockefeller arts projects. But it doesn’t answer the questions that rivet me. The questions about motives, about the search for redemption, public and private (JDR Sr was a notable Baptist enthusiast) and about the role of public relations in all this. The Rockefellers employed Ivy Lee, one of the pioneers of major corporate PR, in 1914 to defend the family from muck-raking journalists who accused them of creating a market-rigging oil monopoly with the roughest tactics. Loebl only mentions him once, and then fleetingly.

She doesn’t begin to examine the relationship of PR to philanthropy and JDR Jr’s Damascene conversion to a life of obsessive philanthropy. These questions drove me back to Ron Chernow’s Titan, his big Nineties biography of JDR Sr, where you begin to understand how this persistently extraordinary family fits together.