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Ron Chernow Discusses Business "Titans" of the Past and Present.

Writer Ron Chernow has written a new biography one of America's most powerful men. His book is "Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr." (Random House) Chernow has also written: "The House of Morgan," "The Warburgs," and "The Death of the Banker." The New York Times this month called Titan "a triumph of the art of biography."


Other segments from the episode on May 26, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 26, 1998: Interview with Cissy Houston; Interview with Ron Chernow.


Date: MAY 26, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052601np.217
Head: Cissy Houston
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Cissy Houston has sung on the gospel circuit since she was a child. She's also sung secular music. She performed with the "Sweet Inspirations," the group that backed Aretha Franklin, and she sang backup for Solomon Burke (ph), Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett, Van Morrison, "The Drifters," and Dionne Warwick.

Another notable contribution she's made to singing: she's the mother of Whitney Houston. Now, Cissy Houston has written her autobiography, which is called "How Sweet The Sound: My Life With God and Gospel."

Let's start with some music from Cissy Houston's recent gospel album "Face to Face." This is "God Don't Ever Change."



God in all creation
God when Adam fell
God way up in heaven
God way down in hell

Oh, he's God
God don't ever change
He's God
Always will be God

You see he's spoken to the mountain
Said "how great I am"
Want you to get up in the morning, children
Shift around like lambs

He's God
God don't ever change
He's God
Always will be God

He's God in the time of sickness
God is a doctor, too
Any time of trouble
He's truly a God to you

Oh, he's God
God don't ever change
He's God
Always will be God

GROSS: Cissy Houston, welcome to FRESH AIR.

HOUSTON: Thank you so very much for having me.

GROSS: So how old were you when you started singing in the family group?

HOUSTON: Five years old. I was five years old. They had to put me on a stool in order to see me. And of course, at five years old, I wanted to be out playing with everyone else. And it was kind of difficult for me. But there was no question. I didn't have a choice.


GROSS: Did you love to sing then?

HOUSTON: I did not love to sing at that point. I grew to learn to sing, because you know what happens when your relatives -- when you have singers in the family and at that time, you did what you were supposed -- you were told. And when the family came over, which was like weekends, or we went over there, that was their request. They wanted to hear some singing and that's what we did.

GROSS: You must develop a great ear for harmony when you start singing close harmony at the age of five.

HOUSTON: For sure. I really did. And I prefer it. I like that -- a lot of times, a cappella. That is first and foremost in teaching, as far as I'm concerned -- that the harmonies be right.

GROSS: So how did you first start hearing secular music and who were some of the performers that you first heard?

HOUSTON: Well, Dinah Washington was one of my favorite people. And I love her -- today I love her. Sarah Vaughan went to school with my sister, so she was lived -- she lived in the neighborhood also. I listened to her, Jimmy Witherspoon (ph), I loved him, BB King -- you know, people like that. The blues -- I love the blues; things like that.

GROSS: I'd love to hear the story of how you became a backup singer. I think this -- that Dionne Warwick relates to this story -- Dionne Warwick and her sister DeDe (ph)...

HOUSTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ... were backup singers. And, had you known them from church choir?

HOUSTON: No, they're my nieces.

GROSS: They're your nieces?

HOUSTON: Yes, they are.

GROSS: Oh. Oh. Oh. Well, small world.


HOUSTON: Both of them are.


GROSS: So, how does Dionne Warwick's having been a backup singer relate to you having become one?

HOUSTON: Well actually Dionne had something else to do that night, with "The Shirelles" (ph). And my husband was managing them at the time.

GROSS: Managing the Shirelles or Dionne Warwick?

HOUSTON: No, no, no -- Dionne and her group in background singers. DeDe, Dionne, and another kid -- Sylvia. And he was managing them and he had a session to do. And of course, he couldn't stop her from going with The Shirelles. That was a great opportunity for her.

So he asked me, would I do it? I said: "yeah, I'll do it." You know, I didn't really want to do that, because, I had just had a baby like a month before that, and -- but anyhow, I did. We wrapped up and went into New York. And at first, the guy didn't want -- he didn't want -- he wanted to cancel the session. So I was going to say: "well, just listen," you know, what not. And they did.

And after that, they wanted me -- I finished the whole week with them. They wanted me. They didn't want -- you know -- didn't want to go back -- they liked the sound and all of that. And that's how I got started in it.

GROSS: After singing backup for a while, you ended up singing with Aretha Franklin as one of her backup singers.

HOUSTON: Yeah, well, I worked -- I worked with Aretha when she was on Columbia also.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

HOUSTON: Her earlier days before she got to Atlantic, which she did some marvelous music; just wasn't appreciated, I guess, like it should have been. Then she came to Atlantic -- yeah, and it looked like our paths met again, and wound up singing background for her, yeah, a lot.

GROSS: In your memoir, you say that one of your favorites of the Aretha tracks is "Natural Woman," and you worked out the background parts on this. Can you tell us a little bit about how you did that? What you were looking for?

HOUSTON: Well, I don't know. You always -- when you work out back -- I worked out background parts on most of the things that I did. But Natural Woman was like, you try to meet -- make -- enhance what she's done, you know, and that's the point. That's the gist of doing backgrounds -- to make it better, you know. And a lot of times backgrounds make songs, and really sell them.

And I don't know how I worked it out right now. It was just repeat -- you know -- repeating and thinking about, you know, doing something. And you try one thing and that works or it doesn't work; you try something else.

GROSS: Now, did you come up with the "ah-oohs" (ph) or was that a producer who suggested that?

HOUSTON: Now, that was me.

GROSS: That was you?

HOUSTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I always wonder, like how do you know what syllable to use? Like why "ah-ooh" instead of "ooh-ah" or...


... "wah-ooh" or...

HOUSTON: Neither do I. I don't know why. You try the one that works, I guess.

GROSS: Well why don't we hear Natural Woman -- Aretha Franklin. Cissy Houston is one of the backup singers on this, and she did the vocal arrangements; the harmonies.


When my show was in the lost and found
You came along to claim it
I didn't know just what was wrong with me
'Til your kiss helped me name it
Now I'm no longer doubtful
Of what I'm living for
And if I make you happy
I don't need to do more
'Cause you make me feel
You make me feel
You make me feel
Like a natural woman

Oh, baby what you've done to me
You make me feel so good inside
And I just want to be
Close to you
You make me feel
So alive

You make me feel
You make me feel
You make me feel
Like a natural woman

You make me feel...

GROSS: That's Aretha Franklin with Cissy Houston, my guest, as one of the backup singers, and she did the vocal harmonies for that track.

Cissy Houston, did you feel a connection to Aretha Franklin through gospel music?

HOUSTON: Somewhat, because we both were in gospel music; did the same kind of, you know, thing -- stirring kind of gospel. And yes, I felt like a camaraderie with her.

GROSS: And when you were doing backup vocals for Aretha Franklin, did you find that everything you needed to know, you knew from gospel music that the harmonies you were using came out of gospel music.

HOUSTON: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. One thing about us -- we pushed one another. We would just, you know, we'd beat up one another, which made it a terrific sound and such a great, you know, audience participation. They just loved it.

GROSS: Now, how would you record in the studio? Did you all sing at the time or was everything over-dubbed?

HOUSTON: No, sometimes we sang at the same time. With Aretha, at that point, yeah -- everything was over-dubbed. On Columbia, now, we sang at the same time. She sang in the booth and we were in either maybe a booth or outside in something else.

GROSS: What was your preference?

HOUSTON: Well, booth is good and over-dubbing is greater because you can really get a down sound, you know -- good sound; balance and all that kind of business. And things that you'd think of, you know, that you -- that might work better on something, you don't have to stick with it, you know.

GROSS: What did you enjoy and what didn't you like about singing backup?

HOUSTON: I didn't like anything, you know. I loved singing background. I just loved singing it, and loved -- creating something that -- and realizing the outcome and make -- it was sounding great and good. And we sounded good and great. And most of all, it sold records.

GROSS: My guest is singer Cissy Houston. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Cissy Houston. She's a gospel singer who's written a new book called How Sweet The Sound: My Life With God and Gospel.

Now, you had an album of your own in the mid-70s that has since been reissued. And on this, you were the lead singer -- all secular songs; all cover recordings.

HOUSTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And in fact, why don't we pause here and listen to a cover you did of one of your niece's hits...


... and this is "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" -- one of the Burt Bacharach songs. Do you want to say anything about recording this and doing it your way?

HOUSTON: Well, I always -- I just liked the song; always did. And there was no kind of reason to cover, except that I just liked the song and wanted to try it another way.

GROSS: Why don't we hear it? And this is from the mid-'70s. Cissy Houston.



Won't you help me
'Cause I don't know what to do with myself
Just don't know what to do with myself
I'm so used to doing
Everything with you
Planning everything for two
But now that we're through
I don't know what to do with myself

I don't know what to do with myself
I'm so lonesome for you, I could cry
Going to a movie
Oh, it makes me feel bad
Parties make me feel so sad
'Cause I'm not with you
I don't know what to do
No, no, no

Like a summer...

GROSS: That's Cissy Houston from a secular album that she made in the mid-'70s. Now, where were you in your career when your daughter Whitney Houston was born?

HOUSTON: I was pretty much doing a lot -- a great deal of backgrounds. In fact, I was in the studio the night before I went to the hospital.

GROSS: What were you recording?

HOUSTON: I don't know what we were recording. We were recording -- I was putting on somebody -- I imagine it was for Aretha or somebody like that. And Tom Doud (ph) who was the engineer at that point said: "Cissy are you all right? Are you all right?" I said: "fine, come on, roll the tape."


And they were nervous -- they were a nervous wreck.


GROSS: Well, it must have been hard to take those big deep breaths you need to sing when you're, you know, ready to give birth.


HOUSTON: Not really. You don't even think about it, you know.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

HOUSTON: I was singing like a mockingbird when I was pregnant.


GROSS: So when you became a mother and you were on the road a lot, you know, in recording studios and I guess doing some performing as well, what was it like for you to be away from the children?

HOUSTON: Painful, painful. It was very painful for me to be away because they reacted to my being away. I guess maybe if they hadn't acted like, you know, they missed me and they cry and all that kind of business -- that's difficult to go away and watch. Yet, you know what you're going for, you know. I wanted them to have a good education.

I wanted them to have the things that some of us didn't have, you know what I'm saying? And that was my reason for doing it in the first place -- to keep a home; to -- you know, we needed a car. I had three children that I wanted to educate and you know, look nice and what not. And all that goes with it. So but that, you have to work.

GROSS: When did you decide to come off the road?

HOUSTON: Well, it just -- I really got tired. I got tired of hearing my children cry "Mommy, why do you have to go?" -- you know, da, da, da, da. And I decided that I would do something else by myself.

GROSS: What?

HOUSTON: And -- well, I was becoming an artist in my own right, and I had an opportunity to do so. That's when I left the Sweet Inspirations and became a single artist, because I was the oldest one of the group and they wanted to do other things. They wanted to wear things that I didn't feel like I would -- could afford to do that with my three kids, and representing my, you know.


GROSS: You want to give us an example...

HOUSTON: I decided...

GROSS: ... of what you mean?



HOUSTON: No, not really -- it just, just -- clothes that, you know, didn't become me.

GROSS: Right.

HOUSTON: That's all. Then I -- I didn't feel good by doing -- wearing them. And I decided that I would not, you know, I was -- that was the end of that. And I came off the road and I was home with my children.

And then I went back on the road with Dionne for a lot of time, but just -- then I could take my daughter with me and I could take my children sometimes with me. You know, it was different.

GROSS: When did you realize that Whitney could really sing?

HOUSTON: I guess she was -- must have been around 11. She really sang her first solo and it was great. She had -- before that, she always liked to practice in the basement of some kind; and she loved to dance and things like that. And I used to take her with me all the time, so she was exposed to that kind of, you know, thing.

So she -- and she was good at what she did, you know. But then at 11, I think that's when I really realized that she really could sing. And I never did think about her having a future in it until she decided that that's what she wanted to do. I thought she was going to be a veterinarian.


GROSS: And when you realized that she wanted to sing professionally, did you try to encourage or discourage her?

HOUSTON: Well, I tried to tell her of the -- all the negatives, you know. And there were so many positives also, but it's your choices that you make.

GROSS: So when she was starting out, what were some of the things you did to make sure she got on the right track right away professionally?

HOUSTON: Well, I thought I would teach her how to sing and how to breathe and how to project, and that kind of thing, which helped her immensely in becoming the star that, you know, she is.

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, your speaking voice today sounds a little raspy. Your singing voice sounds really full and clear.


GROSS: Does your voice kind of change during the day? Or is your singing voice and your speaking voice different?

HOUSTON: It's different.

GROSS: It's different?

HOUSTON: Yes. Uh-huh. Everybody's always so surprised when I sing so high, right?

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

HOUSTON: And my voice is so really low, like you said. It's raspy. And -- but I am tired. I have a cold, so that's probably why. I'm usually not this raspy.

GROSS: Right. OK. OK. And what's it like for you to sing in a range that's different from your speaking range? Has it always been that way or...

HOUSTON: Yeah, it's always been that way.

GROSS: Even when you were a girl, you were singing higher than you were speaking?

HOUSTON: I -- I was a contralto when I was a kid -- very low voice. Very low, very deep, you know, pronounced you know, with -- wonderful, like an organ. And I always wanted to sing high, so to develop my range, that's what I did. I did scales and kept going up and up. You know what I'm saying?

GROSS: OK. I think a lot of listeners when they hear, say, an Aretha Franklin record, act as if they are one of the backup singers -- singing along. It's actually, I think, a life-long fantasy of a lot of people to have been -- I guess to have been you, in a way -- to have been the backup singer on Aretha's records.

HOUSTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I'm wondering, like, do you sing backups when you hear one of those records played back, say, in a restaurant or something?

HOUSTON: All the time. All the time. In fact, rather than learn the lead parts, I'm usually doing the background, you know, in my house or whatever you know.

I think that's the most -- they made a lot of the record sound. You know, the background was most important.

GROSS: It sure -- it sure was. Do you have a favorite of all the records you've -- you've sung backups on?

HOUSTON: I guess I like that one -- Natural Woman.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOUSTON: I like "Preacher Man" by Dusty Springfield. And I did a couple of Whitney's -- I loved all those.


GROSS: Oh, I guess I should have realized that. You're doing the backups on Whitney's records.

HOUSTON: Some of them, yes. "I Want to Dance With Somebody" and "How Will I Know" and ones of -- oh, I forget the name of the other one; it was a slow one about "Her Man" -- "My Man" -- whatever.

GROSS: Yeah, that must have felt good.

HOUSTON: It felt very, very good. It felt odd, you know. You -- I'm doing the backup on my baby's -- my kid's record, you know.


You know, and it was great. It was great.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

HOUSTON: It's my pleasure. And thank you for having me.

GROSS: Cissy Houston -- her memoir is called How Sweet the Sound: My Life With God and Gospel.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Cissy Houston
High: Gospel Singer Cissy Houston has released her biography titled "Cissy Houston, How Sweet The Sound: My Life with God and Gospel." Cissy Houston won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel album for "Face to Face." She is the minister of music at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey and lives in Fort Lee, NJ. Her daughter is the singer Whitney Houston.
Spec: Music Industry; Gospel; Books; Authors; Cissy Houston
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Cissy Houston
Date: MAY 26, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052602np.217
Head: Titan
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:32

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The U.S. Justice Department's antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft is scheduled to come to trial in September. Microsoft's operating system, Windows, runs about 90 percent of the nation's personal computers. The Justice Department is accusing Microsoft of using its dominant position to control the market for related products and services.

There are certain parallels between Microsoft and the key antitrust case of the industrial age -- the case against Standard Oil. In 1911, the Supreme Court found Standard Oil guilty of violating the antitrust laws and broke up Standard into over 30 oil companies.

My guest Ron Chernow has written a new book called "Titan" about John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil. It's a portrait of the man, as well as the business and the financial worlds of his era.

I asked Chernow to compare the Microsoft and Standard Oil cases.

RON CHERNOW, BIOGRAPHER, "TITAN: THE LIFE OF JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, SR.": Well, I think that the Standard Oil case was really the case, Terry, that defined the rules of the game in the industrial age in the early 20th century. I think that in the same way that the Microsoft case is going to define the rules of competition in the information age, in the late 20th century.

Standard Oil was the quintessential company of the industrial age. It was at a time when oil was finding hundreds and hundreds of applications in different industries. It was becoming the most important strategic commodity, and people were saying that it was too important a commodity to be in the hands of one man and one industry, in the same way that computers are acquiring such a pervasive presence in our lives.

They're just omnipresent that -- and really forming the infrastructure of the entire American economy; that people are worried that one man and one company have too much leverage over this essential product. So that there is an analogy, although the particular antitrust charges against the two companies are quite different.

GROSS: How does the place that Standard Oil have in its market compare to the place Microsoft has in its?

CHERNOW: Standard Oil refined and marketed 90 percent of all the oil in the United States. Microsoft manufactures 90 percent of the operating systems in new personal computers. So like many things, there are these eerie parallels.

In fact, when the federal antitrust case was filed against Standard Oil, by the time it was over, 21 states had separate antitrust actions going against Standard Oil. When Janet Reno and company announced the new antitrust action against Microsoft, it was the federal government plus 20 states and the District of Columbia. So, even the numbers have an eerie parallel to them.

One very important difference is that the case against Microsoft may outwardly look very drastic and sweeping, but the government is only asking Microsoft to modify its business practices. The Standard Oil case when it was filed in 1906 was to dissolve the company as the company itself being a conspiracy in restraint of trade. So that the bar was set much higher in the Standard Oil case. At the very worst, Microsoft will simply have to modify its business practices as a result of this. So, it does not threaten the demise of the company.

GROSS: The -- the antitrust case against Standard Oil wrote some of the rules about business practices and competitions in the industrial age. The Microsoft case will probably end up writing some of the rules in the information age. What's the difference between the two ages in terms of what, you know, business rules and competition?

CHERNOW: I think the most difficult thing here, Terry, is this -- that antitrust law says that you cannot leverage your monopoly power in one product to force people to buy another product. It's called "tying." It used to be in the old-fashioned days of antitrust law, it was very easy to specify the products in the industries.

We're in a period of accelerated technological innovation. And one of the things that that is causing is different industries to converge and overlap, so that we used to have a separate banking and insurance and brokerage and investment banking industry. Now, they're rolling into one big financial services industry. You know, we used to have separate media, entertainment, cable, television, computers, telephones, et cetera. Now, they're all rolling into one big information age industry.

When we look at the computer, we have to ask ourselves the question: inside that box that we all have on our desktop, are there many different industries that are crammed into that box now? In which case, Bill Gates should not be able to leverage his power in one industry into another. Or, are we looking at one product and one industry, in which case Bill Gates should have unrestricted freedom to do what he wants.

And so, it really has become, I think, almost a metaphysical puzzle to try to figure out what constitutes a feature of a computer system versus a product versus a brand-new industry, because technology is forcing the integration of so many things that could be or may still be separate products. This is why I think people are wrestling with this case and it's so difficult to resolve.

GROSS: Well actually, let's actually look at John Rockefeller, the subject of your new autobiography Titan -- and my guest is Ron Chernow.

When John Rockefeller entered the oil business back in 1850, what was the oil industry like?

CHERNOW: Well, in the early days in the 1860s when Rockefeller got into the business, it was completely concentrated in Western Pennsylvania -- in backwoods country. And it was a free-wheeling, rip-roaring place -- a lot of, you know, hard-drinking dissolute men who were trying to strike it rich. Many of them were demobilized Civil War veterans who were trying to just drain the oil as rapidly as they can.

Oil had not been discovered in significant commercial quantities anywhere else in the world except for Russia. And so, a lot of people imagined that once the oil around Titusville, Pennsylvania was drained, that the industry would come to an end.

One of the reasons that John D. Rockefeller succeeded was that he had this quasi-religious faith in the future of the industry at a time when people were just trying to drain the wells as quickly as possible. In fact, very often they would actually drill down diagonally and drain their neighbor's wells.

The industry was also wracked by boom and bust cycles, so that there would be shortages of oil and the price would go way up; and then suddenly there would be a surplus of oil, and the price would go way down. And it was one of the reasons that by the late 1860s, Rockefeller, who was probably the largest refiner in the world by that time, although he was in his late 20s, despaired of competition. He began to see competition as a very vicious, egotistical, dog-eat-dog world.

In this interview that I keep quoting in the book that he did privately in his later years, he almost sounds like a Marxist. And he felt that he was going to introduce this brotherhood of oil refiners and marketers called Standard Oil that would take this industry that had been wracked by boom and bust cycles, establish it on a much more modern and stable basis.

And he claimed that he would not only, in that way, be bestowing cheap kerosene on the masses, because kerosene was the basic petroleum product at that time, but he felt that he could then guarantee decent conditions to workers and that he wouldn't have to lay them off every time there was a recession or an oil glut.

So, he had this kind of over-arching vision in terms of what he was doing. And it gave him a certitude, really, a rather dangerous certitude in what he was doing in certain ways.

GROSS: Yeah, when he killed his competition off, he didn't use those words. He said that he wanted to replace competition with cooperation in the industry -- a very lofty way of looking at knocking off the competition.

CHERNOW: Right. He had the very high-toned language. You see, I discovered that there was an inner-dialogue that he carried on with himself, where he was trying to elaborate a theoretical justification for what he was doing, because he was a devout Baptist, and he had to square what he was doing with his conscience and his creator. And I was amazed going through his private papers how much time he had devoted to it.

So, he saw himself as representing this new economic dispensation that would replace the vicious system of competition. So that he was someone with a very lofty sense of his place in history.

GROSS: My guest is Ron Chernow. He's written a new biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. called Titan. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Ron Chernow. We're talking about his new book Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

When he decided to go after his competitors, I think he took over 22 of them -- 22 out of 26 of them in about six weeks?

CHERNOW: That's right. He started his march to supremacy in Cleveland, where he had bought his first refinery. And he took over 22 of his 26 competitors in a two-month period. And he did it as follows.

He had crafted a conspiracy with the railroads that would not only give highly preferential rates to Standard Oil, but absolutely punishing, crushing rates to his rivals. His rivals in Cleveland felt that it would be impossible for them to compete, and they felt that Rockefeller had orchestrated an atmosphere of intimidation and that they were forced to sell out to him.

Now, the oil industry at the time was in a terrible slump, and Rockefeller, in very religious language, said that he felt that they were an "ark of salvation" and they were saying to their brethren in the industry: "come into the ark with us; you're in a slough of despond; we will save you."

He then repeated those tactics, marching from city to city, taking over all the refiners. He did it in Pittsburgh; then he did it in Philadelphia and Baltimore and New York. And pretty soon, he had 90 percent of the refiners.

Interestingly enough, in going through his papers, Terry, I discovered that he deliberately allowed competition to persist in 10 percent of the industry, so that he could always point to a picture of vibrant competition in the industry, so that there were always a few refiners who were eking out a meager living on the fringes of the industry so that Rockefeller could tell government investigators: "oh, look, there are plenty of competitors out there."

GROSS: So, did he have like a carrot and stick approach? Like, if you persist in maintaining your business, we're going to crush you; but if you give in, we'll buy you out and you'll get some money.

CHERNOW: He bought them out. You know, in fact, when he bought people out, he hoped that they would take Standard Oil stock in payment, 'cause he really didn't have enough cash to buy everyone out. He was a very persuasive man and he actually hoped to retain people as managers. So, he didn't try to antagonize them.

Usually when he bought competitors, he bought them secretly. Very often, his rivals who vaunted that they were taking on the Standard Oil octopus and this was why people should deal with them -- very often, those companies were secretly in wholly-owned subsidiaries of Standard Oil.

But he was operating in the era before the Sherman Antitrust Act was enacted in 1890. And he did things that were absolutely unimaginable by today's standards. Let me give you an example.

If you opened a refinery across the street from Rockefeller, you might suddenly find that Standard Oil had bought all of the barrels on the market so that you had nowhere to put your oil. You might find out that he had bought up all of the existing chemicals on the market necessary to refine the oil. You might find that suddenly he had placed orders to fill up all of the tank cars that might transport the oil.

So he had a thousand and one different ways of tying his competitors up into knots.

GROSS: Ron Chernow is my guest. We're discussing his new biography of John Rockefeller.

You describe him as somebody who -- who liked to have a kind of patronizing attitude toward workers. You know, "I am the boss." "I'm smarter than you are." "I will take care of you." But if the workers started to unionize, there was no way he would stand for that. He was very anti-union. He never acknowledged the legitimacy of organized labor.

CHERNOW: Yeah. I would say, Terry, I think that probably "paternalistic" would be the better word than "patronizing" because he actually liked, you know, the common man. He liked to consider himself a democrat with a small "d."

The strange thing is that, you know, here he's the terror of the oil industry, but he's a model boss. People who worked with him for decades never remember him a single time raising his voice or saying an unkind word or losing his temper. He actually was pioneering in terms of paying pensions to people. He always paid a little bit above the prevailing wage -- not too much.

But again, he had this deep ideological hatred of unions that was completely uncompromising. And that was the one unforgivable thing. And then of course, in the great Ludlow massacre in 1914 -- the Rockefeller family owned a company called Colorado Fuel and Iron.

The United Mineworkers tried to organize them. The state militia was called in. Two women and 11 children were killed. It was really the great disgrace in the Rockefeller family history, and a great turning point in the family history, 'cause they were genuinely traumatized both by those deaths and by the public reaction to it.

GROSS: Why was he so against organized labor?

CHERNOW: I think that this was really very common among businessmen at that time; that they felt that nobody should really interfere with their right to do business. You have to remember, John D. Rockefeller went into business in the 1850s.

It was really only when Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901 that we had a government that intervened in the economy, and that felt any kind of responsibility in terms of working conditions and the safety and purity of products and things of that sort.

So, it was not in the -- in the atmosphere for these hard-bitten industrialists of the 19th century to imagine that anyone could second-guess them or interfere with their business. This was something that was only -- you know, I always tell people -- free markets don't exist in a state of nature. They're really a creation of custom and law.

And what was demonstrated in late 19th century history is that free markets, if left completely to their own devices, can wind up terribly un-free. And by 1900, without significant government intervention, you know, almost every major American industry had fallen under the sway of one trust or another. And it was at that point that the government intervened in order to create competition.

You know, now many people associate the government with somehow stifling competition or interfering with competition; where the government actually had to, through antitrust cases like Standard Oil, set down the rules of competition.

GROSS: When the government decided to prosecute Rockefeller's Standard Oil in 1911, what exactly was the case against Standard?

CHERNOW: Well, it was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Standard Oil was accused of colluding with the railroads to favor Standard Oil and punish rivals. They were accused of industrial espionage; of secret ownership of subsidiaries; of predatory pricing -- that is, selling products at or below prices, which was really their most deadly weapons; and other conspiracies in restraint of trade.

The actual thing that broke up the company was that Standard Oil of New Jersey was the holding company. And so, Standard Oil of New Jersey was itself ruled a conspiracy in restraint of trade. And to give you an idea just of how large this organization was, in 1911 when the Supreme Court broke up Standard Oil, the companies that came out of that include the companies that are today Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Chevron, Arco, Conoco, BP America, Cheesebrough Ponds (ph), and 26 other companies. That's how huge this globe-straddling enterprise was.

GROSS: What were the precedents that this antitrust suit created?

CHERNOW: Well, that companies were not allowed to abuse monopoly power. To create a monopoly is not illegal if you do it fairly. In fact, Teddy Roosevelt admired the trusts, even though he was the first great trust-busting president.

He felt that they had brought industrial power to the United States and he wanted the efficiency. He wanted the huge economies of scale. He divided the world into good trusts and bad trusts. Good trusts passed along the lower prices and improved services and products; and the bad trusts gouged consumers.

He picked on Standard Oil as an example of an abusive trust. And so I think that the Standard Oil case really defined the fact that if you had a monopoly, you could not abuse that monopoly power. If you were the dominant producer, you could not do things that a small startup company would do.

And it's actually the same issue that we have today with Microsoft. You know, Bill Gates' strategy has been to sit back and to devise all sorts of applications and services that he could leverage off the Windows system.

Now, when he was a smaller and a younger company, we all glorified him. We thought he was the boy wonder of American business for doing the exact same thing that he's doing today. But there are certain things that you're not allowed to do if you have a 90 percent market share, because it's considered a way of stifling competition. If you do it when you're a smaller company, everybody hails you.

GROSS: How did Rockefeller take it when Standard Oil was broken up?

CHERNOW: Well, that's an interesting question, because John D. Rockefeller was a man of steely self-control. And he was golfing in May, 1911 when the news came to him. He was golfing with a Father Lennon (ph). He was very -- strangely partial to the company of clergymen. And he turned to Father Lennon and he said: "Father Lennon, do you have any money?" And the priest, who was rather startled by the question, said: "no. Why?" And Rockefeller said: "buy Standard Oil."

Now, what happened in 1911 is exactly what happened after they broke up the Bell monopoly. That is, individual investors decided that these companies that were spun off when traded separately were worth much more than the former whole. So between 1911, when the Standard Oil trust is broken up and Rockefeller is worth $300 million; two years later, he's worth $900 million. He's approaching becoming history's first billionaire.

The greatest windfall of John D. Rockefeller's career was losing the Standard Oil antitrust case. It tripled his -- his fortune. He made more money in those two years than he had made in decades of building up Standard Oil.

GROSS: My guest is Ron Chernow. He's the author of the new book Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Ron Chernow is my guest, and his new book is a biography of John Rockefeller called Titan.

In a lot of ways, you know, Rockefeller epitomized the capitalist model of the self-made man. His own roots are pretty interesting and were, to me, pretty surprising. Tell us a little bit about his father and his career.

CHERNOW: Yeah, John D. Rockefeller had these crazily mismatched parents because his mother, Eliza, was a very strict, devout God-fearing woman who sort of looked and was much more like Rockefeller -- believed in thrift and hard work and the Baptist Church.

And John D.'s father, William Avery Rockefeller, was a colorful, disreputable scoundrel. This man was a kind of fast-talking mountebank who would spend weeks and months on the road selling snake oil to gullible country yokels. And then suddenly, he would appear again in the middle of the night.

During John's childhood, William Avery Rockefeller was accused of everything from rape to horse theft. I point out in the book that John D. did not know that he had two illegitimate sisters. In fact, when John's parents got married, "Big Bill" as he was known invited his mistress right into the house, so that there was one of the stranger menage a trois' of the 19th century in this rustic, upstate New York house where Bill is having alternately legitimate children with his wife and illegitimate children with his mistress under one roof.

I don't think that John D. ever knew that there were four children born during the first two years of his parents' marriage. Then finally, when John D. is in his teens -- and he worships his father when he's a boy. Then suddenly, his father abandons the family and takes up the name of Dr. William Livingston; meets a young woman from Canada named Margaret Allen (ph). They get married. They're married for 50 years -- for 50 years, Margaret knows this man as Dr. William Livingston.

It was only after 48 years of marriage that she suddenly discovered that she was married to the father of the richest man in the world. He got a fever and he was raving in his delirium. And he looked at her one night and said: "you're not my wife. Eliza's my wife." And she thought that he was just talking crazy. He then began babbling on and mumbling the names of these five children. And she thought that this was just madness.

But in his fever, he was going back to his earlier years and to the wife and the five children that he had fathered with Eliza. It's a most extraordinary story, and one that was at best only hinted at in earlier biographies.

And I was able to reconstruct a lot of it because I argue in the book the thing that made John D. Rockefeller so secretive and so wary of people, and also so disciplined, was that he was reacting to this completely raffish and irresponsible father who'd drifted out of his life.

And they were never -- they never lost touch. John D. was never able to acknowledge how much he despised his father. He would always speak kindly of him, but they were scarcely on speaking terms for long periods of time.

GROSS: I'm wondering what questions your biography of Rockefeller raises for you about the proper distribution of wealth, and about the relationship between government and business.

CHERNOW: Mm-hmm. Well, in terms of the distribution of wealth, back in the gilded age and at the time of the antitrust suit, one of the things -- and this was not on a conscious level, but this was something in the air -- was that people saw these immense trusts being created and colossal fortunes thrown up.

It was a period very much like our own, Terry, to the extent that there were many, many new industries being created. And when you have new industries created and a rapid technological advancement -- in those periods, you get great new fortunes being created.

People like Rockefeller and Carnegie created these philanthropies in part because they had to prove the legitimacy not only of their own wealth, but of the system. Carnegie wrote an essay in the 1880s in which he said -- it was called "The Gospel of Wealth" -- he said: "the man who dies rich, dies disgraced."

Carnegie gave away virtually all his money. He felt that the rich should almost completely recycle it back, rather than passing the money onto their children. In fact, Carnegie believed that there should be very stiff inheritance and estate taxes to prevent money being passed on to children.

Rockefeller eventually, I would estimate, between 80 and 90 percent of the money that John D. Rockefeller made went to philanthropy. He gave away $500 million. Then in the late 19-teens, he gave his son $500 million. His son, in turn, gave away as the money appreciated, about $1 billion.

And I think that that was because the -- the very equity of the system was at stake, and that he felt -- I'll tell you, I think that he and people like Carnegie, felt actually a stronger need to legitimate and to justify their wealth. It's quite remarkable to me that people invariably, when you say "John D. Rockefeller," the first name that springs to mind, the first adjective, is always "ruthless."

And yet John D. was tithing from the time he was a teenager; gave away the overwhelming majority of his fortune. And all these young high-tech entrepreneurs whom we so lionize today seem, frankly, so chintzy in comparison and nobody calls them ruthless, you know?

GROSS: Well, Ron Chernow, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

CHERNOW: My pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Ron Chernow is the author of Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Ron Chernow
High: Writer Ron Chernow has written a new biography one of America's most powerful men. His book is "Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr." Chernow has also written: "The House of Morgan," "The Warburgs," and "The Death of the Banker." The New York Times this month called Titan "a triumph of the art of biography."
Spec: Business; Economy; Wealth; Finance; John D. Rockefeller
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Titan
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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