Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Rockefeller

Heir to Big Oil

Michael Clark Rockefeller and his twin, Mary, were born in 1938, the last of five children of Nelson and Mary Rockefeller.

His great-grandfather was John D. Rockefeller, who was both a ruthless industrialist and civic-minded philanthropist.

John D. Rockefeller
John D. Rockefeller

Born near Ithaca, N.Y., in 1839, John D. Rockefeller moved with his family to Cleveland when he was 16. He was a natural businessman. By age 24, Rockefeller was a partner in a small Ohio oil refinery. And just after his 30th birthday, Rockefeller and three partners founded Standard Oil Co.

Through mergers, merciless overpowering of competitors, sweetheart deals with railroads and strict control of distribution, Rockefeller and Standard soon had the oil business in a monopolistic grip.

In his day, Rockefeller's wealth and domination of an industry was comparable to that of Bill Gates, who made billions in computers, and Sam Walton, who created the Wal-Mart retailing empire.

By the time he retired, in 1911, John D. Rockefeller had amassed more money than he and his heirs could ever hope to spend.

He spent the last 25 years of life giving it away.

Rockefeller founded the University of Chicago, and he donated generously to the YMCA and the Baptist Church. He gave an estimated $500 million to various health, education and child welfare causes, including the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York. ($500 million in 1925 would be equivalent to about $5 billion today, based on the Consumer Price Index.)

Rockefeller's son and grandsons continued the old man's philanthropic projects.

John D. Jr. funded construction of Riverside Church, one of New York City's grand palaces of worship, as well as the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. He donated the property on which the United Nations was built in Manhattan, and he helped created Rockefeller Center in midtown.

John D. Jr.'s son Nelson chose politics over industry.

A liberal-to-moderate Republican, Nelson Rockefeller was elected governor of New York in 1958 and won reelection three times. While governor, he campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, '64 and '68 but failed each time. In 1974, following the resignation of Richard Nixon, President Gerald Ford named Rockefeller his vice president.

Nelson Rockefeller campaigns while governor of New York
Nelson Rockefeller campaigns
while governor of New York

Nelson's mother, Abby, was an art enthusiast, and her keen interest rubbed off on her children.

While still in his early 20s, Nelson began amassing his own art collection. He favored primitive and native art, which he judged as underappreciated. He was a trustee of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, and in 1957 he founded the Museum of Primitive Art in New York, which featured the art of indigenous cultures.

He had a particular interest in the native populations of Oceania, the watery continent of the southern hemisphere that includes Australia, New Zealand and thousands of islands, including Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia — and New Guinea.

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