January 7, 2022
Excerpt - Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick - Winner of the Book of the Year Award for Traditional Non-Fiction
By Andrea Friederici Ross
Growing Up Rockefeller
There were no great celebrations upon Edith’s birth.
Sure, the doctor overseeing the delivery in their upstairs bedroom on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland on August 31, 1872, would have offered Laura “Cettie” Spelman Rockefeller and John Davison Rockefeller sincere congratulations. Edith was their fourth daughter. Baby Alice had died of scarlet fever as an infant; the other two girls, Elizabeth (Bessie) and Alta, were healthy and strong.
But another daughter was not what Senior had desired. His wishes would be fulfilled two years later when John D. Rockefeller Jr. was born. That day would feature office toasts, backslaps, and hearty celebrations. Years later, Mother Cettie recalled, “How glad all were that the baby was a boy—for there had been four girls . . .” It is said Senior “literally danced” about the office. Once Junior came aboard, there were no more pregnancies. There was no need. The longed-for son had arrived.
This is not to say that Edith wasn’t loved. She was. The Rockefeller family was a close one, tight-knit for a reason. The year of Edith’s birth would be marked in the history books by the Cleveland Massacre, the year her father, at the helm of Standard Oil, claimed control of twenty-two of twenty-six competing oil companies in Cleveland—quite ruthlessly, some would maintain. It was the year in which John D. Rockefeller began keeping a revolver by his bed for safety. The Rockefellers drew together in part to keep the public at arm’s length, for they were hated.
But as a small child, Edith had no idea. Her childhood in Cleveland was fairly idyllic. A few years after Edith’s birth, the family purchased a large property in Forest Hill, an estate that grew to seven hundred acres. Originally intended as a hotel, it was an ideal retreat including two artificial lakes, hiking trails through woods and ravines, bridle paths and a racetrack for horses, and tennis courts. The children could ride bicycles and horses, sled, swim, and explore to their heart’s content, without ever encountering another human being.
There were scant reasons to leave the property, with church being the chief exception. Church also provided one of the few opportunities for play with children beyond siblings or cousins (Uncle William lived nearby with his family). Their closest friends were the children of Minister Strong. There were precious few opportunities for bad influences.
Governesses and tutors were brought to the house to instruct the children, including accomplished musicians who shaped the foursome into a formidable quartet, with Junior on violin, Bessie on viola, Edith on the cello, and Alta at the piano. They could earn five cents an hour for practicing, and Edith would spend many hours at a stretch with her arms encircling her cello—easily her favorite chore. Music would be a lifelong passion for Edith.
Other chores for which the children could earn pennies included raking leaves, pulling weeds, sharpening pencils, killing flies, and similar mundane tasks. They earned five cents for attending Sunday school. While Senior was making millions in scandalous new ways, his children dutifully earned and saved cents. Spending was heartily discouraged, except as donations to the church plate. Giving to others was the priority before spending for self.
Once Junior was old enough, Senior appointed him the family accountant, responsible for overseeing his older sisters’ ledgers, where they were required to account for every single penny. Junior would continue this role well into adulthood. And, yes, even then, pennies counted. Junior reported that, “because I was the only boy in the family,” he played a key go-between role: “Although I was the youngest, my parents turned to me for advice on many questions, including my sisters, particularly their love affairs . . .”
Growing up Rockefeller wasn’t butlers and ball gowns. Rather, it was a constant tug-of-war between wealth and denial. Despite the family’s incredible wealth and their expansive estate, they lived fairly frugally. The children all wore hand-me-downs, including Junior, who was sometimes attired in his older sisters’ outgrown dresses. Even Cettie’s dresses were patched numerous times. Senior was fond of preaching, “Willful waste makes woeful want.” Only Senior knew the full extent of their wealth: this was not information he shared, even with his wife. Cettie would never really understand the magnitude of their estate. Even if Senior had divulged this information, in Cettie’s defense, it was virtually incomprehensible at the time.
It was a household under very tight, very deliberate rein.
Every minute of their day was carefully scheduled: prayer, study, chores, music, play. For, while work was the focus, Senior and Cettie recognized that daily play was critical to mental well-being. It was to be wholesome activity, however; there would be no card playing or dancing or other activities Senior and Cettie deemed frivolous.
Surprisingly, one of the children’s favorite playmates was Senior. Though the public saw John D. Rockefeller as a brutal capitalist, savage in his business dealings and largely humorless, the children knew a different side of him. It was frequently Senior who instigated the games, with Junior reporting their father participated in rounds of blindman’s bluff “with all the zest of a child.” Or he might tie a white handkerchief to his back so they could chase him on a nighttime bicycle race through the wooded trails. At dinner, his eyes twinkling, he might suddenly balance a porcelain plate on his nose, much to Cettie’s dismay. He was adept at telling mesmerizing tall tales or suddenly bursting into song, though it was most likely to be a hymn.
More than anything, the Rockefeller clan worshipped together. As Baptists, their days began with family prayer before breakfast, with latecomers charged five cents. In an ironic twist, it was Senior who most frequently had to pony up. The children learned the value not only of a cent but also of being punctual. Later in life, all would maintain a strict and unforgiving adherence to punctuality, down to the minute. It all mattered: every cent, every minute. Visiting ministers were their most frequent dinner guests, and the day ended with more prayer.
Cettie and Senior were united in their beliefs that service to God was of paramount importance. The Rockefeller family was the first to arrive at church on Sundays, where Senior would toll the large bell to welcome others. Both parents taught Sunday school and were very active church members. When the collection plate passed, the children were expected to deposit a good percentage of their hard-earned pennies. Senior made modest donations, with none of the children suspecting that behind the scenes he was writing much larger checks, accounting for nearly half the church’s entire income. And when the service was over, Senior, as volunteer janitor, promptly went around extinguishing all the gaslights, mindful of saving every possible penny. Perhaps he used religion as a way to cleanse his sins.
Sundays also brought Cettie’s “Home Talks,” in which she would discuss a passage from the Bible, followed by summoning each child before her individually to discuss their digressions and determine how they could improve. Her favorite phrase was “Is it right, is it duty?”
Edith always seemed to have more to confess than her siblings. Not that Bessie, Alta, and Junior didn’t occasionally misbehave, but Edith had a rebellious streak her siblings lacked. Whereas her sisters and particularly Junior accepted the rules as a given, Edith went beyond and questioned why, frequently pushing to test her real boundaries.
“Why can’t I have a second piece of cheese?” There was no shortage of cheese in the house; one piece a day seemed a meaningless rule. But when she dared to break this arbitrary rule and sneak a second piece, it resulted in Alta tattling to Senior, who would solemnly proclaim that “Edith was greedy” on numerous occasions the rest of the day. Restraint and economy were the constant ideals.
“Why must we share one tricycle?” Initially they were consigned to one tricycle so they would learn to share; later the bicycle races commenced. They were not to have their wishes granted too easily. Cettie was once overheard telling a neighbor, “I am so glad my son has told me what he wants for Christmas, so now it can be denied him.”
Perhaps the biggest “why” Edith dared was “Why does the minister know better than anyone else?” For pious Senior, this was the ultimate rebellion. Shortly before her death, Edith recalled, “When I was a child I was sent to the Baptist Sunday School, in Cleveland. . . . Even in those days my questionings began but because of my youth (or so I thought) I was silenced. I bore with my doubts, hoping that maturity might make my vision clearer or perhaps give me an opportunity to confront the church with my convictions and endeavor to reach a reconciliation.” In the years to come, religious differences would starkly divide Edith and her father in a way not experienced by her siblings.
Standard Oil business demanded more and more that Senior be in New York. For nearly ten years, the family assumed winter residence in hotels there—first the Windsor, then the Buckingham. When Edith was in her teens, the family finally moved to a four-story brownstone on West Fifty-Fourth Street in New York City, returning to Cleveland for summers or vacation. And here in Manhattan the world closed in, Edith’s parents no longer able to keep the news and public at bay. By now, all four children were old enough to read the papers and letters, and the nation did not seem to be fond of the Rockefeller success.
Growing up as part of the nation’s wealthiest family seems desirable. But if one’s father is the most hated man in America, the day’s newspaper is likely to have a cartoon lampooning him as an octopus or anaconda or to feature headlines maligning his business practices. The daily mail brought hundreds of letters of request, many detailing terribly sad circumstances and pleas for financial assistance. The children once endeavored to tally up the number of letters received in a month: a whopping fifty thousand.
As the children gradually became aware of their unusual position in society, Senior drew them into the action, asking them to read the letters of request and selecting ones that were most worthy. It was part of their education. Mixed in with the mail, however, would be angry letters of disappointment and even death threats.
The outside world became a scary place to Edith and to the other three children. Best to draw together, to keep their distance from others. This was a learned behavior Edith would find impossible to shake in later years. Danger lurked around every corner. The public wanted, needed, demanded.
Rockefeller biographer Ron Chernow concluded, “Junior developed an upside-down worldview in which the righteous Rockefeller household was always under attack by a godless, uncomprehending world.” In The Rockefeller Century, the authors surmised that “a childhood . . . perpetually concerned with introspective soul-searching and striving to perfect one’s conduct, left Junior with both a lifetime creed and an initial fear of normal social contact.” Safety could be found only within—in the home, in the family, in a piece of music, in the pages of a book.
Edith was a natural student. She was quoted as saying that reading was “more important to me than eating. . . . I must feed my mind more than my body.” She was able to process and remember facts with remarkable accuracy. In particular, she was drawn to language and soon was reading great works of literature in their native languages. Linguistics was not a field her father considered of great value, but for Edith, it was like breathing.
Edith later recalled, “As a little girl every hour of my day was scheduled and efficiently occupied. In my primary school days I had tutors in each subject that I was to study. I quickly began with foreign languages. I seemed to feel that spoken and written languages of different peoples offered gateways to the mind that made other studies not only less difficult but gave to me easier access to the path of education which I was seeking to pursue. And so it was that before I was ten years of age I was proficient in three languages and gradually, and with most carefully considered outline of study, I was to become fluent in all the modern languages and an earnest student of ancient tongues.”
Rockefeller historian Clarice Stasz stated, “Edith was the most like her father in disposition, if not in interests. She was the most intelligent of the four children, a natural scholar, at ease with abstract thought. She absorbed languages easily. . . . On the other hand, she was certainly the one passionate member of the family, as expressed by long hours with legs wrapped about the resonating buzz of her cello.”
It was a somber life but a safe one. This childhood stew of fear, piety, and frugality was a potent mix and would leave permanent marks on Edith.
Reprinted with permission. From Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick, by Andrea Friederici Ross (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2020, 2021). Copyright © 2020, 2021, by Andrea Friederici Ross.
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