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Rockefeller, David


(b. 12 June 1915 in New York City), chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, international financier, and developer of lower Manhattan.

The fifth and youngest son of multimillionaire industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Abby Greene Aldrich, Rockefeller received both his elementary and secondary education at the Lincoln School attached to the Teachers College at Columbia University. He graduated from Harvard University with a B.S. in English history and literature in 1936, performed postgraduate work at Harvard and the London School of Economics, and in 1940, earned his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. On 7 September 1940 he married Margaret McGrath, with whom he has six children.

Rockefeller worked in New York City government from 1940 to 1941, serving as secretary to Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia. In World War II Rockefeller enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private in 1942, saw service in North Africa and France, and left as a captain in 1945. Returning home, he went to work in 1946 at the Chase National Bank, whose chairman was his uncle, Winthrop W. Aldrich. By 1951 he was senior vice president.

The 1955 merger of Chase with the Bank of Manhattan began a quarter-century in which Rockefeller became one of the most powerful men in New York City, and indeed, all of the United States. First he became executive vice president of Chase Manhattan Bank, with responsibility for the development department, and by 1957 he was vice chairman of the bank's board, with control over administration and planning. In addition, Rockefeller, who had long had an interest in international affairs, served as vice president for a foreign financing subsidiary, Chase International Investment Corporation.

Much greater influence came in 1961, when Rockefeller became chairman of the board at Chase Manhattan, a position he would hold for the next twenty years. From 1961 to 1968 he also served as president and chairman of the executive committee and, from 1969 to 1980, as chief executive officer. During the 1960s, Rockefeller formed the International Executive Service Corps, composed of volunteers whose purpose was to provide businesses in developing nations with the benefit of their managerial experience and technical expertise. In addition, he wrote the book Creative Management in Banking (1964).

One legacy of Rockefeller's years at the helm of Chase Manhattan produced quite literally a concrete reminder of his work: the lower Manhattan redevelopment project, which became the site of the World Trade Center towers. As early as 1947, real estate broker and former Florida governor David Sholtz had presented New York governor Thomas E. Dewey with a plan for the revitalization of the New York ports and Washington Market area, but the time was not yet right, and the plan had been shelved. Although it seemed that the lower Manhattan revitalization project had no future, Rockefeller became enamored of it, and during the mid-1950s, heavily invested both Chase Manhattan and private funds in a building at One Chase Plaza. To push through his plan for the Chase Plaza building and the area around it, in 1956 he organized one of the first business improvement districts in New York or any other U.S. city. The Downtown–Lower Manhattan Association (DMLA), which Rockefeller chaired, spent the next decade attempting to win over opponents. And opposition there was, from the owners of retail stores, as well as the operators of repair shops on "Radio Row," and of various light industrial sites—all of which would be obliterated in the creation of the new business district. These small businesspeople, however, acted too late, and they lacked the political and financial clout of the DMLA, which included not only Rockefeller, but also Henry Alexander of Morgan Guaranty, Robert Lehman of Lehman Brothers, Henry S. Morgan of Morgan Stanley, and many other luminaries of Wall Street. The election of Rockefeller's brother Nelson as governor of New York in 1958 virtually sealed the fate of Manhattan's southwestern corner.

In a July 1960 New Yorker article, Rockefeller explained that the DMLA had submitted a report to New York mayor Robert Wagner and others recommending that several thousand buildings "be torn down to make way for improved industrial and commercial structures and middle-income housing, and that many of the smaller streets and lanes be closed." As justification for the demolition, Rockefeller asserted that many of the buildings were more than 100 years old. By that point, One Chase Plaza had been completed, and Rockefeller was clearly winning the war for lower Manhattan. Already he had recommended the creation of a "world trade center," and by the late 1960s, the actual World Trade Center—whose functions had long since become divorced from those implied in its name—was well underway. The twin towers eventually acquired the nickname "Nelson and David," for the two brothers who made them possible.

With interests that went far beyond New York City, Rockefeller has been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations since 1949, and in 1973 founded the Trilateral Commission to promote greater integration and networking between North America, western Europe, and Japan. He also helped establish the Council of the Americas, and served as chairman of the Americas Society. In 1981 Rockefeller retired from active management of Chase Manhattan, but he continued with the bank's advisory committee until 1999.

Rockefeller's status as a citizen of the world is reflected not only in the international organizations with which he has been involved, but the varied honors he has received from dozens of countries: the Order of the Aztec Eagle from Mexico, the Order of the White Elephant from Thailand, the Order of the Humane African Redemption from Liberia, and so on. Rockefeller's philanthropic activities included being a trustee of the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research (now Rockefeller University), the Rockefeller Brother's Fund, and the Museum of Modern Art. Yet his most significant contribution to American life may well have been his role in creating the business district in southwestern Manhattan.

Assessments of that contribution are mixed. There was an unmistakable strong-arm element behind the Rockefeller brothers' machinations to push through their urban redevelopment plan, and it is hard to imagine such a plan gaining acceptance in today's preservation-conscious environment. Yet they also helped turn an area of small, gray, old buildings into a district of gleaming high-rises, and with the tragedy of 11 September 2001, the once-disputed ground on which the World Trade Center towers stood became forever hallowed.

Rockefeller published his Memoirs (2002), and there is only one other biography, William Hoffman, David: Report on a Rockefeller (1971). Observations on Rockefeller's role in business in the United States can be found in Joseph R. Frese and Jacob Judd, eds., American Industrialization, Economic Expansion, and the Law (1981). For insights about the Rockefeller family, see Myer Kutz, Rockefeller Power: America's Chosen Family (1974); Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty (1976); and John E. Harr and Peter J. Johnson, The Rockefeller Century: Three Generations of America's Greatest Family (1988). A profile of Rockefeller is in the New York Times (10 Dec. 1995).

Judson Knight

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