Ron Chernow

Ron Chernow

Past Event: Tuesday, March 7, 2000

Literary Arts Icon

Literary Arts

Ron Chernow was born in 1949 in Brooklyn, New York. After graduating with honors from Yale College and Cambridge University with degrees in English Literature, he began a prolific career as a freelance journalist. Between 1973 and 1982, Chernow published over sixty articles in national publications, including numerous cover stories. In the mid-80s Chernow went to work at the Twentieth Century Fund, a prestigious New York think tank, where he served as director of financial policy studies and received what he described as “a crash course in economics and financial history.”

Chernow’s journalistic talents combined with his experience studying financial policy culminated in the writing of his extraordinary first book, The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance (1990). Winner of the 1990 National Book Award for Nonfiction, The House of Morgan traces the amazing history of four generations of the J.P. Morgan empire. The New York Times Book Review wrote, “As a portrait of finance, politics and the world of avarice and ambition on Wall Street, the book has the movement and tension of an epic novel. It is, quite simply, a tour de force.” Chernow continued his exploration of famous financial dynasties with his second book, The Warburgs (1994), the story of a remarkable Jewish family. The book traces Hamburg’s most influential banking family of the 18th century from their successful beginnings to when Hitler’s Third Reich forced them to give up their business, and ultimately to their regained prosperity in America on Wall Street.

Described by Time as “one of the great American biographies,” Chernow’s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1998) brilliantly reveals the complexities of America’s first billionaire. Rockefeller was known as a Robber Baron, whose Standard Oil Company monopolized an entire industry before it was broken up by the famous Supreme Court anti-trust decision in 1911. At the same time, Rockefeller was one of the century’s greatest philanthropists donating enormous sums to universities and medical institutions. Chernow is the Secretary of PEN American Center, the country’s most prominent writers’ organization, and is currently at work on a biography of Alexander Hamilton. He lives in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

In addition to writing biographies, Chernow is a book reviewer, essayist, and radio commentator. His book reviews and op-ed articles appear frequently in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He comments regularly on business and finance for National Public Radio and for many shows on CNBC, CNN, and the Fox News Channel. In addition, he served as the principal expert on the A&E biography of J.P. Morgan and will be featured as the key Rockefeller expert on an upcoming CNBC documentary.

Excerpt from Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1998)
In April 1874, as befitted the status of this new oil colossus, Standard Oil moved into a new four-story building that Rockefeller and Harkness had erected at 43 Euclid Avenue, east of the Public Square. Behind a heavy stone facade, the two Standard Oil floors were roomy and airy, drawing extra light from a skylight above the central stairway. Every morning at 9:15 sharp, Rockefeller arrived, elegantly attired, with the letter R neatly incised in his black onyx cuff links; for someone from a frugal, rural background, he was unexpectedly fastidious. “Mr. Rockefeller came in with an air of calm dignity,” recalled one clerk. “He was immaculately dressed—he looked as if he had been turned out of a bandbox. He carried an umbrella and his gloves, and wore a high silk hat.” He placed such faith in polished shoes that he provided, free of charge, a shoe-shining kit for each office unit. Tall and pale, with neatly trimmed reddish gold side-whiskers, he had a barber shave him each morning at the same hour. Extremely punctual for all appointments, he said, “A man has no right to occupy another man’s time unnecessarily.”

In his imperturbable style, Rockefeller quietly bid his colleagues good morning, inquired after their health, then vanished into his modest office. Even within the Standard Oil kingdom, his employees found his movements as wraithlike as his most paranoid Titusville antagonists did. As one secretary remarked, “He is sly. I never have seen him enter the building or leave it.” “He’s never there, and yet he’s always there,” echoed an associate. Rockefeller seldom granted appointments to strangers and preferred to be approached in writing. Ever alert against industrial espionage, he never wanted people to know more than was required and warned one colleague, “I would be very careful about putting [someone] into a position where he could learn about our business and be troublesome to us.” Even close associates found him inscrutable and loath to reveal his thoughts. As one wrote, “His long silences, so that we could not locate even his objections, were sometimes baffling.” Schooled in secrecy, he trained his face to be a stony mask so that when underlings brought him telegrams, they couldn’t tell from his expression whether the news was favorable or not.

Selected WorkTitan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1998)The Death of the Banker: The Decline and Fall of the Great Financial Dynasties and the Triumph of the Small Investor (1997)The Warburgs: The 20th Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family (1993)The House of Morgan : An American Banking Family & the Rise of Modern Finance (1991)

LinksInterview with Ron Chernow