Rockefeller, Abby Aldrich (1874–1948)

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Rockefeller, Abby Aldrich (1874–1948)

American philanthropist. Born Abby Greene Aldrich on October 26, 1874, in Providence, Rhode Island; died on April 5, 1948, in New York; one of the eight children, five sons and three daughters, of Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich (a businessman turned politician) and Abby Pearce (Chapman) Aldrich; tutored at home; attended Miss Abbott's School for Young Ladies, Providence, Rhode Island, in 1893; became first wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (b. 1874), on October 9, 1901; children: Abby Rockefeller (b. 1903); John Davison Rockefeller III (1906–1978); Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (b. 1908); Laurance Spelman Rockefeller (b. 1910); Winthrop Rockefeller (1912–1973); David Rockefeller (b. 1915). John D. Rockefeller, Jr., also married Martha Baird Rockefeller .

The daughter of Abby Chapman Aldrich and a powerful U.S. senator from Rhode Island, Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller was born in 1874 and grew up in homes in Providence and Washington, D.C. She was strongly influenced by both her father's wealth and his passion for art and books. Well educated at home by a Quaker tutor and later at Miss Abbott's School in Providence, she developed into an intelligent, compassionate, and charming young woman, whose outgoing personality and sense of adventure drew people to her like a magnet. Following her coming-out party in 1893, Abby immersed herself in volunteer work in Providence and read widely in her father's library. She also accompanied the senator on several trips abroad and frequently filled in for her mother as his hostess at official Washington events.

As a young debutante, Abby entertained a legion of eligible suitors, among them John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the only son of the founder of the Standard Oil Trust, who was a student at Brown University. The product of a Puritanical upbringing, John was a stiff, serious-minded young man, and hardly seemed a match for the bright, gregarious Abby. However, she obviously saw beyond his shyness and lack of social skills. "She treated me as if I had all the savoir-faire in the world and her confidence did me a lot of good," he later told his biographer. After a seven-year courtship, the couple married on October 9, 1901, at the Aldrich summer home on Warwick Neck, Rhode Island. Following a honeymoon at Pocantico Hills near Tarrytown-on-the-Hudson, the home of the elder Rockefellers, they lived a short time with John's family in New York City before moving into a rented house nearby. (Ten years later, they built a larger home on the same block.)

"Perhaps, indeed, no two partners in marriage could have been less innately similar than they," wrote biographer Mary Ellen Chase of the Rockefeller union. For Abby, this meant a period of adjustment, both to her husband's reclusive personality and to the public hostility toward the Standard Oil monopoly overseen by her father-in-law. During her first 15 years of marriage, Abby's life largely revolved around the couple's six children, a daughter and five sons. She tended to the children's religious and cultural education, protected them from publicity, and helped to soften the blows of their father's stern discipline. She also instilled in them her deeply felt conviction that with wealth came responsibility.

Abby's influence on the public and private life of her husband was also considerable. She introduced him to the world of art and served as an unofficial consultant when he built Rockefeller Center and restored Colonial Williamsburg. In 1914, during a miners' strike against the managers of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, the company's hired enforcers caused the deaths of some 18 to 20 miners and members of their

families, including 2 women and 11 children, in what became known as the Ludlow massacre. The public outcry that ensued was directed against John and his father (both major absentee stockholders in the company). Abby worked closely with labor expert and future Canadian prime minister William Lyon MacKenzie King to help rebuild and expand labor relations.

"John D. Rockefeller, Jr., esteemed his wife for her sharp, intuitive judgment and her original insights and depended on her for emotional comfort and validation," writes Bernice Kert . "He quite literally wanted her nearby whenever possible and was relaxed only in her presence. Abby met such needs unreservedly, whatever the price, and it can safely be stated that such a relationship brought her passion, satisfaction, and stress in equal measure."

Public hostility toward the Rockefellers dissipated somewhat after the dissolution of the Standard Oil Trust and the oil industry's contribution to the Allied victory during World War I. As a result, Abby felt free to enter into a period of public service. Having served on the board of the Providence YWCA as a debutante, she reestablished her bonds with the organization as a member of the national board of the YWCA in New York, for which she served as vice president and as chair of many of its committees. As head of the National Housing Committee, she was instrumental in the building of the Grace Dodge Hotel in Washington, D.C., for professional and business women. She also devoted her time and attention to International House, a meeting place in New York for foreign students which was built with money donated by her husband.

Perhaps the public project nearest to Abby's heart was the Bayway Community Center, which grew out of her concern for the immigrant employees of the Standard Oil Company. In 1920, she had a model worker's house erected in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on a plot of land on which the Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) had constructed some 50 small houses for its employees. Originally, it was to serve as a model for possible future homes, but when Abby realized that the community desperately needed a meeting place, she turned the model home into a Community Cottage, with rotating activities. Cooking classes, a young mother's club, and a baby clinic quickly attracted the women of the neighborhood. "I held twenty-five naked, squirming babies today in our new baby clinic at Bayway," Rockefeller wrote her daughter in 1921, "some of whom took the occasion to drench me. Most of them were fat, rosy, and cheerful, but once in a while they all began to howl at once. I had a wonderful time." In 1926, when the cottage needed more space for its functions, Abby and the Standard Oil Company together built a Community House adjoining it, which held a clubroom and a gymnasium. In 1939, it was expanded again with another addition, in which was housed eight bowling alleys for the men of Bayway. By 1947, realizing how important the center was to its employees, the Standard Oil Company took over the expense of maintaining the buildings, which serviced nearly 97,000 people in that year alone. Abby, however, remained close to the center until her death, attending club functions, decorating various rooms, and even bringing art works from her own collection to the center so that her friends there could enjoy them. "It was never what she did for us, though that was very much," said one of Bayway's immigrant residents after Abby's death. "It was not even what she taught us, though she taught us many new and good things. There was something inside her that got quick inside us and made us cry and laugh at once. What was inside her somehow knew the things that were inside us."

In the late 1920s, Abby developed an all-absorbing interest in modern art, a passion not shared by her husband, who held firmly to the Renaissance and 19th-century masters (as well as Chinese porcelains and medieval tapestries, of which he had an outstanding collection). In deference to John, Abby made most of her modern art purchases with "Aldrich money" and hid them on the 7th floor of the 54th Street mansion, in a children's playroom she had converted to a gallery. In 1929, at the suggestion of her friend Edith Halpert , Rockefeller also began collecting American "primitives," or folk-art, eventually amassing a collection of about 400 objects (now preserved in one of the restored houses at Williamsburg, Virginia).

Although she was not the sole founder of the Museum of Modern Art, as has sometimes been stated, Rockefeller was certainly the spark which set things in motion and the persistent force behind the museum's survival. Lillie Bliss and Mary Sullivan joined with Abby in founding the museum in 1929, convincing A. Conger Goodyear, then president of the Albright Gallery of Buffalo and a modern-art enthusiast, to serve as its first president. The museum was initially housed in rented quarters at 730 Fifth Avenue and opened its doors on November 7, 1929, with an exhibition of 19th-century French painters. Abby's involvement in the early years of the museum included gifts of paintings, drawings, and sculptures from her own collection, as well as contributions of money and land from her and her husband, who eventually succumbed to his wife's enthusiasm if not her aesthetics. In 1932, the museum moved into a private Rockefeller-owned house on West 53rd Street, and in 1939, into its own newly erected glass, marble, and steel edifice, also on Rockefeller land.

Bliss, Lillie (1864–1931)

American philanthropist and co-founder of the New York Museum of Modern Art. Born Lillie Plummer Bliss in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 11, 1864; died in New York City on March 13, 1931; younger of two daughters and second of four children of Cornelius Newton Bliss (a textile commission merchant and secretary of the interior under President McKinley) and Elizabeth Mary (Plummer) Bliss; privately educated; never married; no children.

Born in 1864 in Boston, Massachusetts, Lillie Bliss moved to New York City with her family in 1866, when her father, a textile merchant, became president of Bliss, Fabyan & Company. He also served variously as head of the Protective Tariff League and treasurer of the Republican National Committee, and from 1897 to 1899 was secretary of the interior under President William McKinley. Lillie frequently served as her father's hostess on official occasions, filling in for her mother who suffered from ill health.

Bliss began to support New York's cultural activities as early as 1907, backing the Kneisel Quartet and serving on the advisory committee of the Juilliard Foundation. That same year, she purchased a painting by Arthur B. Davies, an American artist who shared her enthusiasm for contemporary European art and from whom she learned a great deal about Post-Impressionism. She may have provided financial backing for the epochal Armory Show of 1913, of which Davies was a major organizer, although her preference for anonymity makes it difficult to know for certain. At the Armory Show, Bliss purchased two Renoirs, a Degas, and two Redons, initiating a collection of modern French art that would become one of the finest in the United States. In subsequent years, she acquired paintings by Gauguin, Cézanne, Seurat, Matisse, Modigliani, and Picasso, as well as by Davies, whose work she continued to collect until her death. At her family's insistence, Bliss kept her collection hidden away in the attic, although her mother did allow a few Cézannes to be hung in the house proper. Bliss, however, did find a coterie with whom she could openly share her aesthetic judgments, among them stage performers Walter Hampden, Ruth Draper , and Ethel Barrymore , and musical personalities Richard Aldrich and Charles M. Loeffler.

Like Abby Aldrich Rockefeller , Bliss had hopes of establishing a permanent collection of modern art within the city, and in 1929 the two women, along with Mary Sullivan , another friend sympathetic to their cause, had lunch with A. Conger Goodyear, the president of the Albright Gallery of Buffalo and also a modern-art enthusiast. At the meeting, the Museum of Modern Art was launched, with Goodyear agreeing to chair the organizational committee.

Unfortunately, Lillie Bliss died of cancer in 1931, not long after the museum had sponsored its first major exhibition. Although in the final months of her life she had switched her patronage from art to charity, she did make provisions in her will to ensure that the Museum of Modern Art would have a permanent place in the city. Along with generous bequests to the New York Hospital, the Broadway Tabernacle, and other benevolent organizations, Bliss left the museum a collection of 150 artworks with the caveat that the enterprise be established on a "firm financial basis" within three years. Following her death, her brother Cornelius Bliss, executor of her estate, determined that an endowment of $1 million would be necessary to secure the bequest, but because of the Depression, he instead accepted $600,000, the final amount the museum managed to raise within the allotted time.

Bliss, like Rockefeller, both encouraged and supported freedom of expression in the art world, and through her efforts established the modern-art movement in the United States and guaranteed it continuance. In her "From a Letter to a National Academician," which was published after her death as part of a catalogue of her collection, Bliss admonished older artists for their intolerance of innovation, which she called "a state of mind incomprehensible" to someone who enjoyed finding the new practitioners of music, painting, and literature.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Throughout the rest of her life, Abby took a profound interest in the museum's collection and in the works of living American artists, whom she supported by purchasing their work and by offering them personal encouragement. Her interest in art, however, went beyond her individual preferences, as Bernice Kert points out. She believed that art belonged to the people, and that all art, even the most extreme, deserved to be seen. "To me art is one of the great resources of my life," she wrote to her son Nelson Rockefeller. "I feel that it enriches the spiritual life and makes one more sane and sympathetic, more observant and understanding." True to her convictions, by 1940 Abby had given most of her private collection to the museum, including works by Americans Walt Kuhn, Peter Blume, Charles Sheeler, and Preston Dickinson, and Europeans Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Henri Matisse, among others. The 1,600 etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts that comprised her print collection made the museum the greatest repository of 20th-century prints in the world.

In her last years, Rockefeller was slowed somewhat by a pesky heart, which began to drain some of her extraordinary energy. She reluctantly gave in to periods of rest, spending the winters of 1947 and 1948 in Arizona, where she fell in love with the deserts and mountains, as well as the constant sunshine. "Now I can understand better why there were ancient sunworshippers," she wrote. "I'm almost one myself." In early April, back in New York, she spent two days at a family reunion she had planned at Pocantico, the large house and grounds of which were overrun with spring flowers and with her beloved grandchildren. Returning to New York City on April 4, Rockefeller called her sister Lucy in New York before retiring, telling her that she had just had the most beautiful time of all her 74 years. She died early the next morning, on April 5, 1948.

Following her death, Abby Rockefeller was remembered for her spirit and generosity, particularly by the art community, which had benefited so greatly from her largesse. Henri Matisse designed a stained-glass window for the Union Church of Pocantico as a memorial to her, and the Museum of Modern Art opened the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Print Room, in recognition of her interest in prints and serving as a remembrance of all she had contributed to the museum as a whole. Alfred Barr, who served as the museum's first director, wrote to Abby's son Nelson that her interest in modern art was a lesson in courage. "Not only is modern art artistically radical but it is often assumed to be radical morally and politically and sometimes indeed it is. But these factors which might have given pause to a more circumspect or conventional spirit did not deter your mother."


Chase, Mary Ellen. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. NY: Macmillan, 1950.

Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes. American National Biography. Vol. 18. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Saarinin, Aline B. The Proud Possessors. NY: Random House, 1958.

suggested reading:

Kert, Bernice. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family. NY: Random, 1993.

Stasz, Clarice. The Rockefeller Women: Dynasty of Piety, Privacy, and Service. St. Martin's, 1995.


Abby Rockefeller's correspondence, diaries, and other papers are held at the Rockefeller Archive Center, Pocantico Hills, North Tarrytown, New York.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Rockefeller, Abby Aldrich (1874–1948)

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