Sunday, July 16, 2006

Five biographies of business titans

David Nasaw, author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst and the forthcoming Andrew Carnegie, suggested five top biographies of business moguls to Opinion Journal.

Number one:

Titan by Ron Chernow (Random House, 1998)

Piety and ruthlessness are often conjoined as defining character traits in saints, sinners and moguls. John D. Rockefeller's life, as Ron Chernow shows us, was saturated by religiosity and rapacity in almost equal quantities. Chernow is a master at peeling back the layers of obfuscation and denial to get to the man himself. As the story unfolds, we see how this most unsociable of moguls was deeply embedded in an extended family. Part of the strength of the interpretation is Chernow's ability to use insights into Rockefeller's family life--as son, brother, husband and father--in tracking his evolution from clerk to titan. The trick in writing a mogul biography is to concentrate on telling the story, not judging the life or moralizing about it, and at this Chernow succeeds.

Click here to read about the other four titles.

Click here to read an excerpt from Chernow's Titan. John D. Rockefeller died in 1937: click here to read his New York Times obituary.

Earlier this month, in the wake of Warren Buffet's announcement pledging $31 billion (or 85% of his fortune) to charity, Nasaw published an op-ed in the New York Times. He posed some questions--and offered no answers--about society and philanthropy like Buffett's, Bill Gates', and Andrew Carnegie's, who pledged to give away his entire fortune when he died:
While we can only applaud the decision by Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates to give away so much of their fortunes, their gifts raise questions not unlike those that confronted Andrew Carnegie a century ago. Is society served by permitting so much capital to be accumulated by so few? Should we have to rely on the usually unfulfilled hope that fortunes of this magnitude will be put to a good cause? What becomes of a society that must rely on ''gifts'' from a handful of socially conscious billionaires to save its schools, cure disease and alleviate poverty?
David Nasaw teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

--Marshal Zeringue