BOOK REVIEW: ‘America’s Medicis’
AMERICA’S MEDICIS: THE ROCKEFELLERS AND THEIR ASTONISHING CULTURAL LEGACY
By Suzanne Loebl
Harper, $34.99, 429 pages
The title may be a little lame - a shade too reminiscent of “An American in Paris” or, worse still, “The Beverly Hillbillies” - but the story veteran author Suzanne Loebl has to tell in “America’s Medicis”is a fascinating one: the account of a single family’s massive, largely positive multigenerational contribution to the arts in America. Unlike the Medicis of Renaissance Florence, Italy, the descendants of robber baron John D. Rockefeller Sr. were never very aristocratic. Wealthy, yes. Educated, yes. But no one ever dreamed of calling John D. Jr. or his sons - John D. III, David, Winthrop and Nelson - “the Magnificent.”
Instead, most Rockefellers of the second, third and fourth generations seem to have inherited - albeit in modified form - the personal modesty and stern Protestant work ethic of their Baptist ancestors. Even while the founder of the dynasty ruthlessly pursued his oil millions, Ms. Loebl reminds us that “his greatest pleasure was found in singing hymns in a working-class Baptist church” and that, from an early age, though he had no personal interest in the arts, he wanted to use some of his money “for the good of humanity.” It is not surprising, then, that his descendants “absorbed his god-fearing nature, though they translated it into social consciousness, and their goal was to be remembered as responsible American citizens.”
Because the family already had amassed incredible wealth, later Rockefellers could channel much of their money and their energetic work ethic into civic and cultural causes. The results, unlike the Rockefellers themselves, were often truly magnificent. The Rockefeller cultural legacy - a major role in at least 30 large and small museums and significant architectural projects, among them such landmark institutions as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center and Colonial Williamsburg - is emblematic of our country’s unique approach to high culture.
Beginning in the 19th century, in nearly every major American city, cultural institutions accessible to ordinary people began springing up like mushrooms, almost all of them paid for by wealthy private citizens. Sometimes the largesse was on a national scale, as in the case of the hundreds of free lending libraries built by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
More often, local millionaires - miners, brewers, mill and department store owners or bankers - endowed their hometowns with everything from medical colleges to concert halls, museums, art galleries and symphony orchestras. Ego had a lot to do with it, and many of the most splendid antiquities and works of art were acquired originally for private family collections. But, in the end, they became part of our national patrimony and continue to benefit all of us to this day.
In the case of the Rockefellers, the love of art for its own sake entered the family through marriage. Abby Greene Aldrich, the daughter of wealthy Gilded Age politician Nelson Aldrich and the wife of John D. Jr., considered art “one of the great resources of my life. I believe that it not only enriches the spiritual life, but that it makes one more sane and sympathetic, more observant and understanding, regardless of whatever age it springs from or whatever subject it represents.”
On a more mundane - but equally important - note, Ms. Loebl reminds readers that Abby Aldrich Rockefeller also loved to shop. She delighted in buying furniture, dinnerware, clothes, knickknacks and art, most of which was paid for with Rockefeller dough. But because her husband hated modern art, she used her own family money to acquire “prints, and out-of-favor and contemporary art.” This in turn led to her founding of MoMA, which art critic Aline Saarinen would later describe as “the most important taste making institution in the world.”
Even two of Abby’s crasser, politically ambitious sons, Nelson and Winthrop, inherited some of their mother’s respect for - if not understanding of - art. Nelson, who would squander millions in his unsuccessful quest for the White House, did manage to buy his way into the governorship of New York. As governor, he established the country’s first state endowment for the arts, which later would serve as the model for the rather checkered National Endowment for the Arts.
His brother Winthrop, something of a playboy and certainly not the brightest bulb in the family chandelier, had to settle for a considerably smaller prize than New York, managing to parlay millions in local largesse into the governorship of Arkansas; in 1966, he became the first Republican to occupy that office since the Civil War.
No one man could reform Arkansas’ corrupt political culture, but Winthrop brought personal honesty to the job and left a lasting legacy in the form of the Arkansas Arts Center, home of the state’s most valuable art collection. (In the next generation, another not particularly distinguished Rockefeller would follow his Uncle Winthrop’s example by transplanting himself to a small, poverty-stricken state where an unlimited bank account could open political doors: John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV, after serving as Democratic governor of West Virginia, would be elected to the U.S. Senate, where he has remained since 1985.)
If there is one major weakness in Ms. Loebl’s Medici metaphor, it is this: If the Rockefellers really are the American Medicis, why have they failed to discover a single American Michelangelo? Though they managed to amass great collections of Old World masterpieces, their roll as patrons of contemporary American artists is far less impressive. That, however, may be more of a reflection on the dubious quality of most modern American art than it is on the Rockefellers’ collective discernment.
Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, was nominated to the National Council for the Humanities by President Reagan and subsequently confirmed by the U.S. Senate. His writings on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts have been published widely in America and overseas.
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