Friday, October 26, 2007

October 26, 1874:

Abby Rockefeller's Birthday

Abby Rockefeller did numerous things with her own money and access to her husband's vast fortune -- such as being instrumental in the founding of the Museum of Modern Art in New York -- but she also was the mother of a vice president, though she never knew, dying decades before Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller held that office in the mid-1970s.

"On October 9, 1901, several hundred statesmen, bankers, and robber barons journeyed by yacht, chartered steamer, and private train to Warwick, Rhode Island, to attend the elaborately choreographed wedding of Abby Aldrich, the daughter of Senator Nelson W. Aldrich (1841-1915) to John D. Rockefeller Jr. ("Junior"; 1874-1960), son of the wealthiest man in the world," wrote Wendy Jeffers in the November 2004 issue of The Magazine Antiques. "Armed guards secured the perimeters of the 250-acre waterfront estate--President William McKinley had just been assassinated--and champagne flowed. Junior's mother, who disapproved of ostentatious displays of wealth, not to mention alcohol, declined to attend at the last minute, complaining of illness.

"Nelson Aldrich, although not as well known as John D. Rockefeller Sr. (1839-1937), was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. In a career that spanned three decades in the Senate (1881-1911), Aldrich helped to create an extensive system of tariffs that protected American industries from foreign competition, at the same time amassing a small fortune in sugar, rubber, banking, and public utility investments. As co-author of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909, Aldrich removed restrictive import duties on fine art, which enabled friends, such as John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), to bring vast private art collections into the country: and ultimately this enriched or led to the establishment of a number of American museums.

"Abby Aldrich and John D. Rockefeller Jr. met in 1894 when he was an undergraduate at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Growing up at her father's side in Providence and Washington, D.C., Abby was a gracious hostess, comfortable in diverse social gatherings. Marrying into the Rockefeller family, however, must have been a formidable challenge. Leaving aside the obvious differences in wealth, her husband was a pragmatic and pious young man with a tendency to be withdrawn.

"She was compassionate and spontaneous--a handsome if not conventionally beautiful woman with hazel eyes and a distinctive aquiline nose. They had six children: Abby Aldrich ("Babs"; 1903-1976), John D. III (1906-1978), Nelson A. (1908-1979), Laurance Spelman (1910-2004), Winthrop (1912-1973), and David (1915-). Although Abby was a pioneering collector of American modern and folk art, her greatest cultural legacy was her role as a founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Her experiences as an intrepid collector combined with her close observation of the vast array of Rockefeller philanthropies were undoubtedly the foundation for this undertaking."

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