Statesman banker David Rockefeller, guardian of legendary fortune, dies at 101
Billionaire was an emissary for capitalism, who held a landmark meeting with Zhou Enlai in 1973
David Rockefeller was the last of his generation in a famous American family that taught its children that wealth brings great responsibility. Even as children, he and his siblings had to set aside portions of their allowances for charitable giving.
That lesson lasted throughout his life; to mark his 100th birthday in 2015, Rockefeller gave 1,000 acres of land next to a national park to the state of Maine.
Rockefeller - a billionaire statesman for capitalism who held a landmark private meeting with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1973 - died Monday in his sleep at his home in Pocantico Hills at age 101, according to his spokesman, Fraser P. Seitel.
He was the grandson of Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller - widely regarded as the richest man in modern history - and the youngest of five sons and one daughter born to John D. Rockefeller Jr. He was also the guardian of his family’s fortune and head of a sprawling network of family interests, both business and philanthropic, that ranged from environmental conservation to the arts.
Unlike his brothers Nelson, the governor of New York who hungered for the White House and was briefly vice president, and Winthrop, a governor of Arkansas, David Rockefeller wielded power and influence as a banker businessman without ever seeking public office. Among his many accomplishments were spurring the project that led to the World Trade Center.
“No individual has contributed more to the commercial and civic life of New York City over a longer period of time than David Rockefeller,” said Michael Bloomberg, a former mayor and fellow billionaire. “I have long admired his commitment to the city, which began with a dollar-a-year job working as a secretary to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. During my time in City Hall, he was always there for the city when we called.”
Unlike his other brothers, John D. 3rd and Laurance, who shied from the spotlight and were known for philanthropy, David Rockefeller embraced business and travelled and spoke widely as a champion of enlightened capitalism.
“American capitalism has brought more benefits to more people than any other system in any part of the world at any time in history,” he said. “The problem is to see that the system is run as efficiently and as honestly as it can be.”
Rockefeller graduated from Harvard in 1936 and received a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago in 1940. He served in the Army during World War II, then began climbing the ranks of management at Chase Bank. That bank merged with the Manhattan company in 1955.
He was named Chase Manhattan’s president in 1961 and chairman and CEO eight years later. He retired in 1981 at age 65 after a 35-year career.
That career would take him around the world. Rockefeller was estimated to have met more than 200 rulers in more than 100 countries during his lifetime, and often was treated as if he were a visiting head of state.
In his role of business statesman, Rockefeller preached capitalism at home and favoured assisting economies abroad on grounds that bringing prosperity to the Third World would create customers for American products.
His landmark meeting with Zhou on June 29, 1973, came on the heels of US president Richard Nixon’s visit a year earlier. Rockefeller and Zhou reportedly spoke long into the night, their private meeting having been framed by the Rockefeller family’s long involvement in philanthropy in China in the first half of the 20th century. He would return from 10 days in China with the news that Chase would become the first US bank to open a correspondent relationship with the Bank of China since the revolution.
“Whatever the price of the Chinese Revolution, it has obviously succeeded not only in producing more efficient and dedicated administration, but also in fostering high morale and community of purpose,” Rockefeller wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times upon his return from the trip.
Under Rockefeller, Chase — now known as JPMorgan Chase — was also the first US bank to open offices in the Soviet Union and, in 1974, the first to open an office in Egypt after the Suez crisis of 1956.
In his early travels to South Africa, Rockefeller arranged clandestine meetings with several underground black leaders. “I find it terribly important to get overall impressions beyond those I get from businessmen,” he said.
But Rockefeller took a lot of heat for his bank’s substantial dealings with South Africa’s white separatist regime and for helping the deposed, terminally ill Shah of Iran come to New York for medical treatment in 1979, the move that triggered the 13-month US embassy hostage crisis in Tehran.
He parted company with some of his fellow capitalists on income taxes, calling it unseemly to earn a million and then find ways to avoid paying the taxes. He didn’t say how much he paid in taxes, and he never spoke publicly about his personal worth. In 2015, Forbes magazine estimated his fortune at US$3 billion.
As one of the Rockefeller grandchildren, David belonged to the last generation in which the inherited family billions were concentrated in a few hands. The next generation, known as “the cousins”, are more numerous.
In addition to the philanthropy that “touched and lifted innumerable lives,” Rockefeller’s “connections and keen aptitude for issues made him a valuable adviser to presidents of both parties — yours truly certainly included,” said former President George H.W. Bush. He said Rockefeller was a “wonderful friend” to him and his wife, Barbara.
Rockefeller maintained the family’s patronage of the arts, including its long-standing relationship with the Museum of Modern Art, which his mother had been a fervent patron of. His private art collection was once valued at US$500 million. The Rockefeller estate at Kykuit, overlooking the Hudson River north of New York City, is the repository of four generations of family history, including Nelson’s art and sculpture collection.
One of the major efforts of Rockefeller’s later years was directed at restoring family influence in the landmark Rockefeller Center, most of which had been sold in the 1980s to Japanese investors. He eventually organised an investor group to buy back 45 per cent of the property.
His philanthropy and other activities earned him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, in 1998.
“Throughout his life he used his fame and fortune to do good here and abroad,” former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton said in a statement. “His tremendous support of arts and humanities in America gave millions of people in communities across the country the opportunity to experience our great heritage of painting, dance, music, and so much more.”
Rockefeller and his wife, the former Margaret McGrath, were married in 1940 and had six children — David Jr., Richard, Abby, Neva, Margaret and Eileen. His wife, an active conservationist, died in 1996.