“In the annals of CEO history, the breadth and depth of this record of contacts stand out,’’ said Nancy Koehn, a Harvard business professor and historian. “This is a man with a large, long reach.’’
Mr. Rockefeller’s legendary Rolodex was a closely guarded trove of information. Now, nearly nine months after his death at 101—and long after many of his contacts have also died—The Wall Street Journal got a private peek.
Overall impression: The Rockefeller Rolodex collection embodies the ultimate expression of communication in the analog age. It provides a unique time capsule of modern history, both idiosyncratic and revelatory.
A Tour of David Rockefeller’s Rolodex: Contacts for the World’s Rich and Powerful
Mr. Rockefeller kept a 5-foot high custom-built Rolodex with the names, phone numbers and addresses of about 100,000 people he met over a half-century. It was top secret until now.
David Rockefeller, who died in March, kept a custom-built Rolodex machine that stored about 200,000 3-by-5-inch cards with contact information and a record of every meeting he had with about 100,000 people from around the world, including this one on Donald Trump.
Benjamin Hoste for The Wall Street Journal
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As a grandson of oil baron John D. Rockefeller Sr. and a prominent philanthropist, David Rockefeller enjoyed access to virtually everyone in the ruling and financial elite. He kept track of countless connections with the rich and famous across borders, disciplines and interests, from fellow business titan Bill Gates to the shah of Iran, President John F. Kennedy, Pope John Paul II and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.
During the 1970s, Mr. Rockefeller forged bonds with Egypt’s leader Anwar Sadat, the Soviet Union’s Leonid Brezhnev and China’s Zhou Enlai. His efforts helped Chase become the first U.S. bank to operate in those countries. Of course, the trio were in his Rolodex alongside other heads of state, including President Donald Trump, whose prior wives’ names were lined out or added.
“I can quickly review the nature of my past associations before seeing someone again,’’ Mr. Rockefeller wrote in his 2002 memoir.
Even if Mr. Rockefeller hadn’t seen someone for years, “he was able to pick up as though he had seen you the week before,’’ said James Wolfensohn, a friend and former World Bank president who was introduced while a Harvard M.B.A. student in 1959. “It was because of this extraordinary record system.”
Henry Kissinger, a former secretary of state, garnered the most cards because he was among Mr. Rockefeller’s best friends, said Peter Johnson, the Rockefeller family historian. Close behind was Gianni Agnelli, the Italian industrialist who ran Fiat.
David Rockefeller in 1981, when he was chairman of Chase Manhattan Corp.
One Kissinger card mentions the time when Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in June 1995. “He is not to be referenced as Sir Henry as he is an American,’’ the card said, with the word “not” underlined for emphasis.
During a lunch at his estate in 2015, Mr. Rockefeller gave Mr. Kissinger a copy of his 35 Rolodex cards. They contained descriptions of their hundreds of encounters since they first met in 1955.
“I am astonished that we have seen each other so much,’’ Mr. Kissinger recalled telling his friend. Having a record of their frequent times together over the years “meant a lot to me,” he said in an interview.
Several cards reveal some of the billionaire banker’s more personal interactions. Mr. Rockefeller was studying at the London School of Economics in 1938 when he met Mr. Kennedy, the future president, and his sister Kathleen at a party held by their father, then the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.
Ms. Kennedy got top billing. JFK, the first card said, “is a brother.”
“She was more important than JFK’’ because Mr. Rockefeller had dated her, Mr. Johnson said. Ms. Kennedy, who married a marquess, was killed in a plane crash at age 28.
Mr. Rockefeller learned the importance of contacts while an Army intelligence officer overseas during World War II, according to his memoir. “My effectiveness depended on my ability to develop a network of people with reliable information,’’ he wrote.
Joining Chase after the war, Mr. Rockefeller visited 103 countries and met more than 200 heads of state during his 35-year career. He stepped down as CEO in 1980 and chairman in 1981. He traveled for Chase, now part of JPMorgan Chase & Co., into the 21st century, Mr. Johnson said, working several days a week until his late 90s.
In August 2015, Rockefeller staffers tossed the oversize Rolodex machine and stored its cards in the mildewed basement of a building on the banker’s estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. They now nearly fill a wall of filing cabinets at Kykuit, the nearby estate built by his grandfather.
David Rockefeller’s Rolodex cards have been transferred to file drawers.
Mr. Rockefeller’s will requires that the cards and the rest of his papers remain hidden from public view for a decade after his death.
“The building blocks of history end up being constructed from material like the Rolodex cards,” Mr. Johnson said.
Take Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, whom Mr. Rockefeller met in 1965. Mr. Rockefeller came under criticism for Chase’s deep involvement with Iran after he helped persuade the Carter administration to admit the exiled shah to the U.S. for cancer treatment in the fall of 1979.
The banker likely visited him during his treatment: One of the shah’s Rolodex cards lists the private phone number for his New York City hospital room.
Student revolutionaries and militants in November that year took 52 U.S. citizens hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran, sparking an extended crisis that doomed President Jimmy Carter’s re-election.
Mr. Rockefeller even saved acquaintances’ cards postmortem. Former President Gerald Ford died in late 2006, but his Rolodex card stated that Mr. Ford’s widow, Betty, continued to receive Christmas greetings from the billionaire until 2008.
“He didn’t like to throw things away,” Mr. Johnson said.