Tycoons have come and gone, but few are the titans that form dynasties. In America, much weighs against the family that seeks to preserve a financial power base for generations.
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Perhaps the most enigmatic of America's big money families is the one that is most familiar. The Rockefeller image is problematic, not for lack of information (family archives are openly available), but for the variety of its interpretation. Hagiographers describe the family as altruism incarnate. The most severe critics place them at the center of a plot to rule the world.
A persistent myth of the Rockefeller family (encouraged by photos of John D. Sr. handing out dimes on street corners) is that the family's penchant for philanthropy was the invention of PR man Ivy Lee. The story goes that Lee convinced the paterfamilias to ameliorate his Scrooge image through conspicuous giving. This tidy explanation ignores that Rockefeller had quietly given to charity even as a poor clerk. Moreover, he didn't much care for public relations, having told his son, "Do what you think is right and let the world wag."
He did, however, instill in his descendants a sense of duty that went with the riches he gave them. Even his chief detractor, muckraker Ida Tarbell, said she knew of no father "who had given better guidance to a son." It was John D. Jr., or "Junior," who hired Lee; and if it was a ploy, its fallout was a century of noblesse oblige.
To Junior fell the bulk of the fortune as well as presidency of the Rockefeller Foundation. While administering its charities, he also made private donations. Of particular interest to him were the National Park System and Colonial Williamsburg. His children, five boys and a girl, were taught the value of the dollar and an awareness of public duty. Only daughter Abby didn't take the bait.
The family's bent for charity followed a belief that direct monetary gifts wounded character. Much of it is filtered through grants for medical, scientific and social research, education and the arts, or favors pet interests such as U.S.-Asian relations. From this stem the charges that the foundation has been a tax-free tool for the family.
To be sure, the foundation and a family trust fund have circumvented inheritance taxes. Junior increased the fortune and diversified into banking (Chase) and real estate (Rockefeller Center).
"The Brothers" (Junior's sons) served in many ways. Nelson became an influential liberal Republican as governor of New York, presidential hopeful and vice president. Winthrop was governor of Arkansas. Studious David became chairman of Chase Manhattan and founded the Trilateral Commission, a magnet for conspiracy theorists. Laurance spearheaded environmental causes and developed the Rock Resorts. John III carried the banner of philanthropy and founded the Asia Society. His son, John IV, is a U.S. senator (West Virginia). Many of his cousins have worked for the public good.--JB
THE BUSCHS THE BEER BARONS
In 1911, 12-year-old August Busch Jr. shared a defining moment with his grandfather Adolphus. The creator of Budweiser beer had just shot a deer and offered his grandson whiskey and a cigar by way of celebration, conspiratorially warning him not to tell the boy's more serious father.
The fabulous success story of Anheuser-Busch brewing is defined by a succession of generational leadership that was by turns impulsive and circumspect. A common thread connects its 135 years, however: a knack for selling beer.
Adolphus Busch, the son of a German lord, came to St. Louis in 1857 and quickly put together a company that sold brewing supplies. Then he married well, wedding the daughter of Eberhard Anheuser, who had acquired a small brewery from debtors. In 1865, Busch became a partner and, with his flamboyant personality, turned the business around.
Traveling to Europe in search of a novel recipe, he found it in Bohemia, with pilsner, a light, refreshing brew that he correctly reasoned could be imbibed in great quantity and would go well with the cuisine of the New World. To market the beer, he used time-honored methods like price wars, giveaways, sexy promotions and appeals to patriotism. Busch charmed millionaires, presidents and celebrities with his love of the high life. He also brought pasteurization to brewing, allowing beer to be shipped long distances under refrigeration. With other emerging brew magnates, he carved up a market once served by hundreds of brewers.
Dying in 1913, he left the company--and a few problems--to son August Busch Sr. The family's relationship with Kaiser Wilhelm brought charges of collaborating with the enemy during the First World War. The public boycotted the beer, and the government impounded some family property. Weathering that squall, August ran into a more damaging storm--Prohibition. The company produced alcohol-free beverages, but probably fared best by selling supplies that home brewers could use. Constantly lobbying to end the 18th Amendment, August even suggested that a return to production would help ease the Great Depression.
Son August Jr., or Gussie, eventually took the reins and gave the company his own stamp. Budweiser was soon offered in cans and sold through huge ad campaigns that made Clydesdales famous and convinced the country that Budweiser was the "King of Beers."
He also bought yachts and the St. Louis Cardinals, all at the company's expense. His son August Busch III took over in a 1975 palace coup. Gussie's nose-to-the-grindstone successor has expanded into world markets. Waiting in the wings is August IV, who updated the brew's image with talking-frog commercials.
Today, the Budweiser line enjoys a 47 percent market share in the United States. Success has not come without heartbreak. Two suicides and numerous divorces have shrouded the name.--JB