Being a Rockefeller, Becoming Myself: A Memoir
“Not everyone can say her grandfather was an early financial supporter of biomedicine, fostered the emerging field of public health, or restored Versailles.” Eileen Rockefeller knew from her earliest childhood that she had been born into an exceptional --- and very, very rich --- family. Grappling with that reality --- the sour and the sweet --- has been her challenge, as she reveals in this gentle, literate memoir.
Eileen remembers that, as a schoolchild, people who knew her family name would ask baldly, “How much money do you have?” which she equates to asking an obese person how much he weighs. There is a pain and embarrassment for being considered interesting for the single reason of how much wealth your forebears amassed. For that reason, and others more complex, the author changed her surname to McGrath for a span of years, living quietly as a professional weaver and teacher, proud that she earned her own living and went unrecognized as a “famous” Rockefeller.
"Eileen Rockefeller knew from her earliest childhood that she had been born into an exceptional -- and very, very rich --- family. Grappling with that reality --- the sour and the sweet --- has been her challenge, as she reveals in this gentle, literate memoir."
When she crept back into the family spotlight, she was rewarded with a relationship with Norman Cousins, noted liberal journalist and author who advocated for peace and lauded her poetry. As a Rockefeller once more, Eileen has devoted much of her adult life to philanthropy, seeking out small-scale projects as well as large ones, perpetuating the family dedication to using its fortune to do good works well.
The book will surprise and engage anyone who has ever wondered how the so-called “1%” live. The family, though wealthy beyond belief, often acted out a sort of American dream of homesteading, camping and self-sufficiency, as in the summers they spent together on Buckle Island in a simple cabin, gardening and enjoying outdoor life. Sadly, the children in Eileen’s family suffered acutely from the mental illness of their mother and the dictates of their powerful yet largely absent father, tormenting them with the paradoxical mandate not to assume they were better than others just because they were Rockefellers, yet always to achieve the highest that they could. Cousins characterized this succinctly to Eileen when he passed this note to her during a conference: “Your dad’s ‘be the best’ and your mother’s ‘don’t push’ are not really opposed to what you believe about yourself.” Eileen was often stymied by the emotional scars she and her siblings retained, wounded by their upbringing and seeking different ways to cope.
Over the years, Eileen has found inroads into forgiveness of some of the more hurtful aspects of her childhood, and has sought to bring peace to her family on a personal level, just as she seeks to bring peace and progress to the big wide world through the organization she founded, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Perhaps she is inspired by such small examples as her father gifting a full college scholarship to a black school friend, who visited with them once on Buckle Island, or her grandmother, who in the 1920s and '30s made it a point to visit the homes of poor, newly arrived immigrants and celebrate their cultural artifacts. “Grandmother’s spirit gave me the first ray of hope.”
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on October 4, 2013