David Rockefeller, the former chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank, whose perhaps-unrivaled range of business relationships, institutional affiliations, and personal connections, as well as membership in one of the nation’s best-known families, earned him the unofficial title “chairman of the American establishment,” died Monday morning at his home in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. He was 101.
His death was confirmed by a family spokesman, Fraser P. Seidel.
How well connected was Mr. Rockefeller? In an alcove off his Rockefeller Center office, he kept a spinet-sized Rolodex with the names of about 150,000 people he’d had dealings with over the years. “In a surprising number of countries,” he once wrote, “I’ve met every head of state since World War II.” It was no hyperbole when Fortune magazine described him in 1977 as “the nation’s leading business statesman.”
Mr. Rockefeller’s reach extended far beyond business. A nephew, former US Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, once called him “probably the most powerful man in America.” Mr. Rockefeller scoffed at the title, but the perception that he presided over the intersection of financial and political influence in this country, if not the world, made him a favorite target of conspiracy theorists at both ends of the political spectrum.
Mr. Rockefeller’s vigorous and longstanding advocacy of globalization (he visited 103 countries and traveled 5 million air miles during his 35 years at Chase, which became JPMorgan Chase, in 2000) added fuel to the fire. Seeing internationalization in economic rather than political terms, Mr. Rockefeller never disguised the fact that his interest in making business deals was not limited to democracies. The accusation “David Rockefeller has never met a dictator he didn’t like” was frequently heard.
While Mr. Rockefeller’s reserved, bankerly nature made him an unlikely object of demonization, it ideally suited him for service on institutional boards. At various times he was chairman of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Council on Foreign Relations, Harvard University’s board of overseers, the Japan Society, and the Trilateral Commission. The commission, of which he was cofounder, was a special bugbear of the far left and right: No fewer than 15 members held positions of influence in the Carter administration, including the president and vice president, as well as the secretaries of state, defense, and treasury.
Mr. Rockefeller never ventured out of the private sector. When his brother Nelson was governor of New York, there was talk of Mr. Rockefeller running for mayor of New York. Richard Nixon twice asked him to be secretary of the treasury. Jimmy Carter did so once, also seeking him as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Mr. Rockefeller declined all four offers, instead preferring, as he put it in his “Memoirs” (2002), “the fascinating and personally rewarding life of a commercial banker.” His closest brush with politics came in 1979 when Mr. Rockefeller’s efforts to gain the exiled shah of Iran admittance into the United States became a cause celebre.
Only part of Mr. Rockefeller’s influence stemmed from his wealth and position. Forbes magazine stated his worth as being $3.1 billion in 2016. Yet that sum placed him only 214th on its list of the richest Americans. Mr. Rockefeller owed fame even more to his surname.
So much of the Rockefellers’ unique status had to do with its great ongoing commitment to philanthropy. The list of institutions the Rockefellers either founded or notably assisted includes the University of Chicago, Rockefeller University, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Brown University, Spelman College, the Museum of Modern Art, to name just the best-known examples. Mr. Rockefeller was very much aware of that legacy and worked to advance it.
Calling philanthropy “a tradition in our family,” Mr. Rockefeller was brought up to believe that “with opportunities go obligations,” he said in a 2002 Boston Globe interview.
“It seems to me that’s a pretty simple but basic lesson for just about anybody,” he said. “It would be a sad waste of one’s life if one didn’t use those opportunities to do things that are constructive for society as a whole.”
Besides those institutions and causes already noted, Mr. Rockefeller involved himself with numerous others. He took a great interest in Latin America, one result of which is the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard. As president of Morningside Heights Inc., he helped build middle-class housing in New York near Columbia University in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. He was instrumental in the redevelopment of lower Manhattan, with the siting of Chase’s 60-story headquarters there in the late ‘50s; and, as chairman of the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, with the building of the World Trade Center.
Famous for his energy, Mr. Rockefeller never let it go to waste. Asked in that 2002 interview why he waited until he was 87 to publish his autobiography, Mr. Rockefeller replied, “Maybe I was just too busy.”
The son of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Abby Greene (Aldrich) Rockefeller, he was born on June 12, 1915, in New York City. David Rockefeller was the favorite of his grandfather, the founder of the family fortune — and the grandchild John D. Rockefeller felt was most like himself.
Mr. Rockefeller had five siblings: John D. III; Abby; Nelson; Laurance, a pioneering venture capitalist and leading environmentalist; and Winthrop, the two-term governor of Arkansas. All predeceased him. Mr. Rockefeller was considered the “serious” one among his generation of the family.
“I don’t think I had the typical childhood,” he said with characteristic (if also extreme) understatement in the 2002 interview. The nine-floor Rockefeller home was the largest private residence in New York; and his father wore black tie to dinner every evening, his mother a gown. Like many boys, Mr. Rockefeller collected bugs (in his case beetles) — only his collection grew to 2000 species and 150,000 specimens. He was so serious about the subject that two species are named for him. The family spent summers at Seal Harbor, Maine. There Mr. Rockefeller developed a lifelong love of sailing. In celebration of his 100th birthday, he donated 1,000 acres of adjacent land to the Mount Desert Island & Garden Preserve, as a “gfit to all the people of Maine.”
Graduating from Harvard in 1936, Mr. Rockefeller did graduate work there with the economist Joseph Schumpeter, then studied with the economist Friedrich von Hayek at the London School of Economics. He earned a doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago in 1940, publishing his dissertation a year later as “Unused Resources and Economic Waste.”
Mr. Rockefeller spent a year and a half as an unpaid aide to New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, then worked for six months in New York’s federal defense preparedness office. Enlisting in the Army in 1942, he served in military intelligence in North Africa and France, rising to the rank of captain.
Upon leaving the army, Mr. Rockefeller joined what was then the Chase National Bank; his maternal uncle was chairman. “I didn’t want to be given jobs and opportunities because of my name. I wanted to feel that I had done things on my own,” he said in 2002. “I think, to a considerable extent, getting a PhD was an indication that I had earned something on my own. Therefore, when I got a job at the bank I didn’t have to be embarrassed about it.”
Mr. Rockefeller rose from assistant manager in the foreign department (starting at $3,500 a year) to assistant cashier to second vice president, then vice president. He became vice chairman in 1957, and chief executive officer and chairman in 1969. He retired in 1981. His first 12 years at the bank he rode the subway to work. During Mr. Rockefeller’s chairmanship, Chase was the nation’s third largest bank. He emphasized its foreign business, greatly raising its global profile.
In 1998, President Clinton awarded Mr. Rockefeller the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Asked in 2002 if being a Rockefeller had been more blessing or burden, he answered without hesitation. “The benefits have far outweighed the disadvantages.”
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.