World's oldest billionaire David Rockefeller dies at 101

David Rockefeller died on Monday at his home in Pocantico Hills, New York. He was 101.
David Rockefeller died on Monday at his home in Pocantico Hills, New York. He was 101.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - David Rockefeller, the banker and philanthropist with the fabled family name who controlled Chase Manhattan bank for more than a decade and wielded vast influence around the world for even longer as he spread the gospel of American capitalism, died on Monday morning at his home in Pocantico Hills, New York. He was 101.

A family spokesman, Fraser P. Seitel, confirmed the death.

Chase Manhattan had long been known as the Rockefeller bank, although the family never owned more than 5 percent of its shares. But David Rockefeller was more than a steward. As chairman and chief executive throughout the 1970s, he made it "David's bank", as many called it, expanding its operations internationally. He was received in foreign capitals with the honours accorded a chief of state.

He was the last surviving grandson of John D. Rockefeller, the tycoon who founded the Standard Oil Co. in the 19th century and built a fortune that made him America's first billionaire and his family one of the richest and most powerful in the nation's history.

As an heir to that legacy, David Rockefeller lived all his life in baronial splendour and privilege, whether in Manhattan (when he was a boy he and his brothers would roller-skate along Fifth Avenue trailed by a limousine in case they grew tired) or at his magnificent country estates.

Imbued with the understated manners of the East Coast elite, he loomed large in the upper reaches of a New York social world of glittering black-tie galas. His philanthropy was monumental, and so was his art collection, a museum-like repository of some 15,000 pieces, many of them masterpieces, some lining the walls of his offices 56 floors above the streets at Rockefeller Center, to which he repaired, robust and active, well into his 90s. His fortune was estimated in 2012 at US$2.7 billion (S$3.8 billion).

With his powerful name and his zeal for foreign travel - he was still going to Europe into his late 90s - Rockefeller was a formidable marketing force. In the 1970s his meetings with Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union and Zhou Enlai of China helped Chase Manhattan become the first American bank with operations in those countries.

"Few people in this country have met as many leaders as I have," he said.

Some faulted him for spending so much time abroad. He was accused of neglecting his responsibilities at Chase and failing to promote aggressive, visionary managers. Under his leadership Chase fell far behind its rival Citibank, then the nation's largest bank, in assets and earnings. There were years when Chase had the most troubled loan portfolio among major American banks.

"In my judgment, he will not go down in history as a great banker," John J. McCloy, a Rockefeller friend and himself a former Chase chairman, told The Associated Press in 1981. "He will go down as a real personality, as a distinguished and loyal member of the community." Rockefeller's forays into international politics also drew criticism, notably in 1979, when he and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger persuaded President Jimmy Carter to admit the recently deposed shah of Iran into the United States for cancer treatment. The shah's arrival in New York enraged revolutionary followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, provoking them to seize the U.S. Embassy in Iran and hold American diplomats hostage for more than a year.

The youngest of six siblings, David Rockefeller was born in Manhattan on June 12, 1915. His father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., the only son of the oil titan, devoted his life to philanthropy. His mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, was the daughter of Nelson Aldrich, a wealthy senator from Rhode Island.

The other children were Abby, who was born in 1903 and died in 1976 after leading a private life; John D. Rockefeller III, who was born in 1906 and immersed himself in philanthropy until his death in an automobile accident in 1978; Nelson A., the former vice president and four-time governor of New York who was born in 1908 and died in 1979; Laurance, born in 1910, who was an environmentalist and died in 2004; and Winthrop, born in 1912, who was governor of Arkansas and died in 1973.

In 1940, he married Margaret McGrath, known as Peggy. His wife, a dedicated conservationist, died at 80 in 1996. They had six children: David Jr., Abby, Neva, Margaret, Richard and Eileen. A complete list of his survivors was not immediately available.

David was 21 when John D. Rockefeller died. "He told amusing stories and sang little ditties," David Rockefeller recalled in 2002. "He gave us dimes." With the book "Memoirs" in 2002, he became, at age 87, the first in three generations of Rockefellers to publish an autobiography. Asked why he wrote it, he replied in his characteristic reserved tone, "Well, it just occurred to me that I had led a rather interesting life."