A Rolodex to beat them all: How the late David Rockefeller built up an incredible catalog of 200,000 index cards detailing meetings with everyone from JFK to Nelson Mandela and Donald Trump
David Rockefeller, who died in March 2017 at age 101, had an extensive network of powerful s across the globe
The cards read like a who’s-who of historical figures from the twentieth century: Betty Ford, John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Neil Armstrong, Bill Gates … the list goes on and on. There are entries about cocktails and parties, meetings and conferences; at the center of it all is David Rockefeller, the banking CEO and oil heir, who documented all these interactions in an elaborate Rolodex he maintained until his death last March at the age of 101.
Rockefeller, who was famous not only for his wealth and influence but for his incredible philanthropy, refers to himself as ‘DR’ on the 3-by-5-inch index cards, which he stored for decades in a specially-made Rolodex machine at his family offices at Rockefeller Center in . The Rolodex got so unwieldy, in fact, that it required its own room. The collection of cards – which record dates and places of meetings in addition to personal details, such as the names of spouses – numbers approximately 200,000.
‘I can quickly review the nature of my past associations before seeing someone again,’ Rockefeller wrote in his 2002 memoir.
Over the course of his career, Rockefeller visited 103 countries and met more than 200 heads of state. He continued working – and traveling abroad – well into his late 90s; he was the oldest billionaire in the world at the time of his death.
Born in 1915, Rockefeller was a grandson of John D. Rockefeller, who built up a fortune as an oil magnate and industrialist which was passed down to his children and grandchildren. Growing up in the early 20th century, Rockefeller lived at 10 West 54th Street, the largest private residence in New York City at the time. He graduated from Harvard in 1936, then spent a year at the London School of Economics, and earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago in 1940.
He enlisted in the Army in 1942 and served in North Africa and France during World War II; he was discharged a captain in 1945. In his memoir, he said his service as an overseas intelligence officer helped drive home the importance of s – and he clearly applied that to civilian life.
‘My effectiveness depended on my ability to develop a network of people with reliable information,’ he wrote.
Rockefeller began working in banking a year after leaving the military and, by 1961, became president of Chase Manhattan, pushing an agenda of overseas expansion – frequently meeting with heads of state (including controversial figures) to ensure Chase business in their respective countries.
His Rolodex reflects these meetings and the power and influence Rockefeller wielded – bolstered by his diplomatic skills. Along with then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, he was instrumental in persuading the Carter administration to allow exiled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran into the US in 1979 for cancer treatment; one of the Rolodex cards lists the private phone number for the shah’s hospital room.
Rockefeller’s involvement opened him up to severe criticism, however, especially after 52 US citizens were taken hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran later that year – by captors loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini who objected to the US welcome for the deposed shah.
Peter Johnson, the Rockefeller family historian, told The Wall Street Journal that Kissinger had the most cards – 35 – because he was such a close friend of Mr Rockefeller. One card mentions the knighting of Kissinger by Queen Elizabeth II in June 1995, reading: ‘He is not to be referenced as Sir Henry as he is an American’ – with the word ‘not’ underlined. Rockefeller gave Kissinger a copy of the cards, detailing hundreds of encounters since they first met in 1955, at a lunch at his estate in 2015, WSJ reported.
‘I am astonished that we have seen each other so much,’ Kissinger later said, adding that the cards ‘meant a lot to me.’
Rockefeller‘s cards include the details of numerous US presidents, including Eisenhower, Nixon (‘Dick’), Reagan, Ford and Kennedy (Jack) – whom he first met in 1938 while a student in London with Kennedy’s sister, Kathleen. The first card mentioning the future president noted him as ‘a brother’ of Kathleen.
‘She was more important than JFK,’ Johnson told WSJ, because Rockefeller had dated Kathleen, who was killed in plane crash at just 28 years old.
‘He is Congressman from Mass.,’ Rockefeller wrote of JFK. ‘Harvard class ’38. He wrote a book on Europe after he got out of college – it was a best seller. He was in the Navy during the war and elected on the Democratic ticket to Congress from Mass. in 1946.’
It’s clear from the index cards that Rockefeller placed great emphasis on keeping his records up to date; addresses were frequently crossed out and replaced, as was spousal information or titles. On one card documenting Nelson Mandela, he crossed out ‘Mr. President” and ‘The Honorable’ and changed it to ‘his Excellency.’ Exemplifying Rockefeller’s attention to detail, the card describes a 1993 dinner hosted by Rockefeller to honor Mandela, during which the South African leader gave Rockefeller a beaded belt – which, Rockefeller wrote, he would be preserving in a glass frame.
The cards show the remarkable access and influence Rockefeller enjoyed, with one-liners painting a broad picture: ‘4/28/64 – DR saw Pres. & Mrs. Johnson at dinner at White House;’ ‘12/5/56 – DR saw Mr. Nixon at dinner given by Mike Cowles;’ 9/22/73 – DR visited with [Anwar Sadat] at seaside villa at Borg-el-Arab; ‘1/99 – [Lady Bird Johson] wrote to DR inviting him for cocktails at the University Club on March 2, 1999 – DR in Mexico.’
Rockefeller staff got rid of the oversized Rolodex in August 2015 and stored the cards instead in a basement on the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, NY. The cards are now kept in filing cabinets at Kykuit, another family estate.
‘The building blocks of history end up being constructed from material like the Rolodex cards,’ Johnson told the WSJ.
But Rockefeller’s meticulous records is especially unusual, Harvard professor and historian Nancy Koehn told the newspaper.
‘In the annals of CEO history, the breadth and depth of this record of s stand out,’ she said. ‘This is a man with a large, long reach.’