Editor's Memo, October 2012: Researching the Rockefeller Family's Roots in Westchester

Here, just a short list of places you may have heard of: Rockefeller Center, The Museum of Modern Art, Arcadia National Park, The Cloisters, Kykuit, The Riverside Church, Rockefeller University, Union Church. I could go on, but I only have two-thirds of a page for my memo. Still, I believe the point is clear, even without a more exhaustive list: The Rockefeller family has left its mark just about everywhere.

And what’s thrilling for us in Westchester is that the Rockefellers, one of the most powerful families in the history of our nation and one of its wealthiest, lived here—and that many of them still do. And there’s no doubt the family has influenced our county enormously—preserving many of its treasures, keeping it green, and even feeding it. (Been to Blue Hill at Stone Barns to dine or to its farmers’ market yet?)  

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Just a quick note about the family’s wealth: John D. Rockefeller is still regarded as the richest man, for his time, who has ever lived; yes, even wealthier, accounting for inflation, than Bill Gates—a tidbit I learned when I last toured Kykuit, the family estate in Pocantico Hills.

We decided to take a look at how far and deep the Rockefeller family’s roots go in our county and asked freelance writer Nathan Laliberte—who grew up in Portland, Maine, but lived in Hastings-on-Hudson for a while—to do so. You can read his article on page 91. Here, we asked him about researching the piece.

Photo by Cathy Pinsky

Freelancer Nathan Laliberte

What surprised you most when working on the Rockefeller story? I had no idea how committed the Rockefellers are to effecting change through global philanthropic ventures. From Asia to Africa to Westchester County, the family has funded everything from studies that develop climate change resilience in China to helping rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—all through an extensive network of non-profit organizations.

What impressed you the most? During the course of my research, I read a number of biographies of John D. Rockefeller. His story, a true rags-to-riches tale, was both inspiring and humbling. His tremendous success came not by luck but through endless hours of hard work and perseverance. Even when he was a billionaire living in a townhouse on West 54th Street, it was reported that John D. was up at five am, going over matters related to Standard Oil and his burgeoning philanthropic efforts. Moreover, it was well known among family members that John D. was so obsessed with maintaining good health that he religiously chewed each bite of food exactly ten times—even soup! He may have been an obsessive and a bit of a control freak.

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Are there any other Westchester families you’d like to research? I have always had a fascination with railroads. Jay Gould (who bought the Lyndhurst estate in 1880) was a railroad magnate and notorious financier. I could envision doing a profile of the Gould family (maybe just for a private tour of Lyndhurst) in the future.

Esther Davidowitz               

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