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225 225 13 raising the curtain: rockefeller support for the american theater Stephen D. Berwind Rockefeller—for most of the twentieth century, the name represented the great family fortune, a kind of riches beyond measure. John D. Rockefeller , a man who began life modestly, but over the course of his lifetime became the richest man in the country, built this great business and personal fortune primarily by recognizing the potential of the oil business at its earliest stage. If in the early twenty-first century newer and larger fortunes with names such as Gates and Walton surpassed the Rockefeller fortune, the Rockefeller name and legacy continue because of the many public benefits provided by the philanthropy of both the family and the family’s foundation. An examination of the history of the creation of the foundation, and specifically its support for theater, reveals the role that the Rockefeller Foundation plays in filling the chronic income gap that plagues all arts organizations. In 1909, John D. Rockefeller, then the richest individual in America, created the deeds of trust that set aside a major portion of his fortune for 226 stephen d. berwind the creation of a philanthropic foundation. In 1910, Rockefeller suggested that the trustees apply to the U.S. Congress for a corporate charter.1 Rockefeller had successfully applied for such a charter when he created another charitable foundation, the General Education Board, in 1901. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Rockefeller’s philanthropy created a series of foundations: the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later Rockefeller University), in 1901; the General Education Board; the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, in 1909; the Rockefeller Foundation, in 1913; and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Foundation, in 1918. His gifts totaled $446,719,371.22—a true, down to the penny, Rockefeller reckoning.2 Rockefeller’s fortune grew quickly during the first decade of the twentieth century, but his personal reputation sank in inverse proportion to his economic fortune. President McKinley closely allied his administration with businessmen such as Rockefeller who had helped elect him. Following McKinley’s assassination in 1901, the new president, Theodore Roosevelt, espoused progressive politics much less sympathetic to rich industrialists. During his administration, he gradually moved to rein in the money and power concentrated in the hands of what he called the “malefactors of great wealth.”3 Both public and press regarded John D. Rockefeller and his business interests centered in the Standard Oil Trust with a mixture of skepticism, hostility, and envy, in part because of essays by crusading journalist Ida Tarbell, first serialized in McClure’s in 1902 and later published in 1904 as a book. This muckraking journalism exposed the ruthless business tactics Rockefeller used in assembling the trust. By 1905, Rockefeller faced seven major lawsuits, filed in part because of Tarbell’s allegations. Progressive senator Robert Lafollette, of Wisconsin, called Rockefeller “the greatest criminal of the age.”4 In 1907, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled against Rockefeller and Standard Oil in the first of these cases to be adjudicated and levied a $29 million fine on the company. Even though appellate decisions greatly reduced the fine, attitudes toward wealth changed in the country’s political climate between 1901 and 1909. Anti-Rockefeller progressives stymied the request to incorporate the foundation in Congress, despite the efforts of Rhode Island Senator Nelson Aldrich to find compromise language for the articles of incorporation that was acceptable to all parties. Aldrich, related to the Rockefeller family 227 raising the curtain by the marriage of his daughter Laura to John D. Rockefeller Jr., worked strenuously to negotiate conditions for the trust that would gain congressional approval. While negotiations on incorporation continued through 1911, Rockefeller received another apparent setback when the United States Supreme Court ordered the breakup of Standard Oil Trust. Ironically, the dissolution of the trust made Rockefeller even richer. He still owned a controlling interest in the new component companies, and traders on Wall Street quickly recognized that the value of the new oil companies created in the breakup exceeded that of the old trust.5 Despite three years of effort, Senator Aldrich could not get the foundation charter through Congress. President William Howard Taft saw the move to incorporate the foundation as a bill to “incorporate Mr. Rockefeller .” He and his attorney general, George W. Wickersham, opposed the approval of this corporate charter because they did not trust Rockefeller to actually act for the general good.6 Theodore Roosevelt expressed the public attitude toward...


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