Everyone who has ever visited Rockefeller Center in the heart of
Manhattan --- that probably includes a majority of the American
people --- has perhaps wondered: How did all this happen? Who
dreamed up this incredible place? Why here?
Daniel Okrent, who has spent much of his working life at
Rockefeller Center (with Time and Life magazines) has
set out to answer these questions in GREAT FORTUNE, starting with
the days when Manhattan Island was owned by the Dutch and bringing
things pretty much up to the present. It is a fascinating tale,
told here with literary flair, thorough research and broad
The best-known component of Rockefeller Center, of course, is the
famous Music Hall with its enormous stage, elevator-equipped
orchestra pit and Rockettes chorus line. That theater is duly
celebrated in the book, but Okrent's focus is much wider,
encompassing the complex land deals that brought the site under the
wing of the Rockefeller family, the cast of wildly disparate
characters and clashing temperaments who built and guided it, and
the tangled web of Big Business and High Society interests that
made the place what it is today --- a world center for
communications, business, trade and political wheeling-dealing as
well as for mass-market entertainment and tourism.
The cast of characters is large. The expected famous names are all
present --- John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the whole Rockefeller
clan; S. L. "Roxy" Rothapfel, showman extraordinaire; Nicholas
Murray Butler, dour president of Columbia University; and Otto
Kahn, early patron and financier of the Metropolitan Opera.
But what gives Okrent's book a special flavor are the many other
major players in this drama that most of us have never heard of.
Two names stand out: John R. Todd, the crusty boss of the entire
construction operation and the finished Center itself, and Raymond
Hood, a hard-drinking architectural genius whom Okrent credits as
the Center's principal designer. There are cameo appearances by all
sorts of celebrities --- Arturo Toscanini, Diego Rivera, and even
Benito Mussolini, who gave his blessing to a building on the site
that housed Italian business interests.
Okrent is both a clever phrasemaker and a shrewd judge of
character. In his narrative John D. Rockefeller Jr. begins as a
timid and diffident patron, almost afraid to take control of the
huge enterprise that had been unexpectedly dumped into his lap,
only rising late in the game to a level of confidence that made his
hand on the helm a sure one. His son Nelson comes off as a
hard-driving schemer whose zeal to get things done left twisted
bodies in his wake, some of them his own brothers.
The idea that became Rockefeller Center began in the 1920s as a
scheme to find a new home for the Metropolitan Opera. There was,
alas, factional feuding between the opera-minded people around Otto
Kahn and the board that controlled the company's real estate. After
the opera group backed out, famed publicist Ivy Lee was the man who
brought Rockefeller into the picture. Okrent reports that
Rockefeller spent about $60 million of his own money plus another
$44.6 million obtained through the Metropolitan Life Insurance
Company via a mortgage loan. In 2003 terms, those figures amount to
$805 million and $599 million. "Boggles the mind," as Center tenant
Time magazine used to put it.
In addition to such nuts-and-bolts reporting, Okrent's book is
crammed with illuminating anecdotal detail that gives it a
wonderfully rich texture. He unearths, for instance, this quote
from a Depression-weary society dowager about the Metropolitan
Opera: "Now that we don't dare to display our jewelry in public,
why should we continue to support these wops?"
Rockefeller Center today is a totally different entity from the one
envisioned by its founders. It had from the start --- and continues
to have --- plenty of detractors (social critic Lewis Mumford led a
chorus of catcalls for years). Okrent was not auditioning for
cheerleader when he wrote this book; he has, however, made himself
Rockefeller Center's premiere historian.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 22, 2011