Summary

Birth:
26 Oct 1874 1
Providence, Rhode Island 1
Death:
05 Apr 1948 1
740 Park Avenue in New York City NY 1
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Full Name:
Abigail Greene Aldrich Rockefeller 1
Also known as:
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller 1
Birth:
26 Oct 1874 1
Providence, Rhode Island 1
Female 1
Death:
05 Apr 1948 1
740 Park Avenue in New York City NY 1
Cause: heart attack 1
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Birth:
Mother: Abby Pearce Truman Chapman 1
Father: Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich 1
Marriage:
John D. Rockefeller, Jr 1
09 Oct 1901 1
Warwick Neck, Kent County 1
Spouse Death Date: 11 May 1960 1
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Occupation:
socialite and philanthropist 1

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Abigail "Abby" Greene Aldrich Rockefeller

 

 

 

Rockefeller Archive Center Abby Rockefeller It all seemed so predictable. The news that the heir of the Rockefeller fortune was marrying the daughter of a prominent Rhode Island senator made headlines in the fall of 1901. But Abby Aldrich, the bride, had more than a fairytale marriage in mind. "She was so gay and young and so in love with everything," said her smitten husband, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. -- inadvertently emphasizing the features that made her decidedly un-Rockefeller. Armed with boundless enthusiasm, Abby took on the challenge of changing her new family from within. She would do that in profound and subtle ways, softening the Rockefellers' rigidity and helping them to embrace the modern world.

 

Born in 1874 in Providence, Rhode Island, Abby Aldrich grew up in a well-to-do milieu, but one quite different from that of her future husband. Her father, Nelson Aldrich, was a senior Republican senator and a leading power broker in Congress. In contrast to the reclusive Rockefellers, the Aldriches were gregarious and well traveled. From an early age, Abby was exposed to a stimulating life rich in politics, art, literature, and society. She emerged from it a self-confident woman, outgoing and curious, with a strong personality.

It was these qualities that drew the attention of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. when he met Abby in Providence in 1894 when he was a sophomore at Brown University. After a courtship that lasted five years, the couple was finally married at a lavish wedding ceremony on Warwick Neck, Rhode Island on October 9, 1901.

 

Rockefeller Archive Center Abby and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. John's devotion to Abby and her ability to appreciate his strengths in turn would nurture an intense relationship that was able to withstand their differences. She found creative ways to stretch the rigid boundaries imposed by her husband -- and deal with his almost obsessive jealousy, which extended to their offspring. She would telephone the children from the bathroom, and use her diplomatic skills to make up for his aversion to socializing.

 

Abby would have the strongest influence on the couple's five sons. A playful and attentive parent, she encouraged them to have an interest in the larger world and instilled in them her open-mindedness. "I want to make an appeal to your sense of fair play … to begin your lives by giving the other fellow a fair chance and a square deal," she wrote in a 1923 letter to John III, Nelson, and Laurance about the rise of racism, an issue most white Americans chose to deny or ignore at the time. "It is to the everlasting disgrace of the United States that horrible lynchings and brutal race riots frequently occur in our midst. The social ostracism of the Jews is less barbaric, but … causes cruel injustice … I long to have our family stand firmly for what is best and highest in life … If you older boys will do it the younger will follow."

Abby's progressive ideas led her to a variety of philanthropic causes, from the YWCA to Planned Parenthood. She was a dedicated and knowledgeable donor in her own right, finding her distinctive path in the field chosen by her husband.

She also developed an interest in modern art, an avocation she would pass on to her son Nelson. "She was attracted by the unusual, adventurous, inner directed art," says biographer Bernice Kert. "She liked experimentation, she was open to new ideas, and also she wanted to understand the art that her children would grow up to understand. In other words, she wanted to be a modern."

 

The Museum of the City of New York Abby worked to co-found the Museum of Modern Art in New York CIty. But modernity -- at least in art -- was not John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s forte. Abby's enthusiastic support of the work of artists like Matisse, Rivera, Van Gogh, and Chagall was a source of friction between her and her husband. He strongly objected to her involvement in a new museum that would make such "unintelligible" art available to the public. Abby went ahead anyway and, in 1929, co-founded the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) with friends Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan. "Mother's museum," as it would be known within the family, was the first in the country to devote its collection entirely to the modern movement, and now houses more than 100,000 works.

 

Abby's commitment to the new would be felt even after her death in 1948. Based on her will, some of the valuable impressionistic works she had originally donated to MoMA were transferred to other museums in 1998. The foresighted arts patron believed that, after half a century, they would no longer be "modern."

For generations of Rockefellers, Abby has always been a lot more than just the family's matriarch. "For her to have accomplished what she did must have seemed really amazing at the time," reflects grandson Rodman Rockefeller. "She lifted us from a fairly narrow definition of life to a lot more fun in life, at the same time keeping this very constructive sense of obligation … this sense that there are things to be done and worlds to conquer and places to make improvements."

Abby Rockefeller



Abby Greene Aldrich Rockefeller was born in Providence, Rhode Island on October 26, 1874, the fourth child of Abby Pearce Chapman (1845-1917) and Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich (1841-1915). Nelson Aldrich rose from the position of bookkeeper in a wholesale grocery firm to become a member of the State House of Representatives; he was Speaker of the House from 1876 to 1877. From 1881 to 1911, he served as United States Senator from Rhode Island. In 1899, he was elevated to the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, an appointment he held until his retirement in 1911. The family maintained homes in Providence, Warwick Neck, and Washington. 

Abby Aldrich received her early education from Quaker governesses. At seventeen, she began attending Miss Abbott's School for Young Ladies in Providence, where her courses included English composition and literature, French, German, art history and ancient history, gymnastics, and dancing. She graduated in 1893 and made her debut the following November. On June 30, 1894, she sailed for Liverpool, inaugurating a lifetime of European travel. The aesthetic education she received abroad, fostered initially by her father, helped to form her judgment as an art collector. Her first four-month sojourn included stays in England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and France. 

In the fall of 1894 at the Providence home of a classmate, Abby met John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960), son of the founder of Standard Oil Company, who was then a sophomore at Brown University. After a lengthy courtship, they married on October 9, 1901. They had six children:

  • Abby (1903-1976)
  • John Davison, 3rd (1906-1978)
  • Nelson Aldrich (1908-1979)
  • Laurance Spelman (1910-2004)
  • Winthrop (1912-1973)
  • David (1915- )

The Rockefellers lived at No. 13 W. 54th Street from 1901 until 1913, when the construction of No. 10 W. 54th Street was completed. They moved into No. 10, residing there until 1938, when they moved to an apartment at 740 Park Avenue. They had homes at Pocantico Hills, New York; Seal Harbor, Maine, and Williamsburg, Virginia and were active members of these communities. 

When the United States entered World War I, Mrs. Rockefeller's charitable and philanthropic activities began in earnest. From 1917 to 1919, Mrs. Rockefeller served as Chairman of Auxiliary 336 of the American Red Cross, completely financing its work. Quarters at No. 4 W. 54th Street were dedicated to preparing thousands of "comfort bags" for shipment through the YWCA-YMCA Navy League and Army and Navy Debarkation hospitals to the fighting fronts in Russia, Italy, and France. 

In 1917, Mrs. Rockefeller became chairman of the newly-created Housing Committee of the War Work Council of the National Board of the Young Woman's Christian Association (YWCA). Her report, "Suggestions for Housing Women War Workers" (1918), prompted the federal government to enact building standards for the housing of women at industrial sites, based on the experience of 200 YWCA boarding houses. Mrs. Rockefeller's interest in securing quality housing for working people led her in 1917 to chair the Grace Dodge Hotel Committee of the YWCA. Overcrowded housing conditions in Washington, D.C., resulting from the influx of women war workers, had necessitated immediate relief. The Grace Dodge Hotel for women opened in 1921. Mrs. Rockefeller closely monitored the hotel's design and operation until 1937. She was one of the earliest champions of hotels for women. 

In 1919, Mrs. Rockefeller became interested in the living conditions of the employees of the Bayway Refinery of Standard Oil, located in the Bayway section of Elizabeth, New Jersey. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased six lots of land and deeded them to Mrs. Rockefeller for the construction of Bayway Cottage, a model workers' home. In 1928, the cottage was expanded and renamed the Bayway Community House; the House was incorporated in 1937 as the Bayway Community Center. By 1943, some 4,000 families were using the Center and its clinics, gyms, nursery schools, bowling alleys, and meeting rooms. Over a twenty-year period, Mrs. Rockefeller's contributions amounted to $200,000. 

With the founding of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in May 1929, the scope of Abby Rockefeller's philanthropy widened dramatically. Her aesthetic insight and administrative and personal skills now found their fullest application, and she gained a permanent home for her personal collection of modern art. 

Although the idea of establishing a museum dedicated to fostering modern art had been floating about since the celebrated Armory Show of 1913, it was not until Abby Rockefeller began to solicit the advice of her own friends during the winter of 1928-1929 that the idea moved toward realization. 

Conversations with Lillie P. Bliss, patroness of the painter Arthur B. Davies, and Mary Quinn Sullivan, a collector, led to a meeting in May 1929 at which the three women invited A. Conger Goodyear to chair a museum organizing committee. In July, the young Alfred H. Barr, Jr. was appointed director. A seven-member Board of Trustees was elected in October 1929 and included Abby Rockefeller, Lillie Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan, A. Conger Goodyear, Frank Crowninshield (editor of Vanity Fair magazine), Mrs. W. Murray Crane (a supporter of the experimental Dalton School), and Paul J. Sachs (Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard). 

Mrs. Rockefeller held several positions at the museum from 1929 to 1945. From 1929 to 1934, she served as museum treasurer. From 1934 to 1936, and again from January to May 1939, she held the post of First Vice President. During the war years, from December 1941 until November 1945, she served as First Vice Chairman. Mrs. Rockefeller was a member of several committees of the Board of Trustees. She served on the Executive Committee (1930-1945), chairing that committee in 1936. She was a member of the Fine Art Committee from 1930 to 1934 and of the Exhibitions Committee from 1930 to 1939. She promoted the establishment in 1935 of a Film Library. With Stephen C. Clark and Kenneth Chorley, she organized the War Veterans' Art Center in 1944, which offered art classes to disabled veterans until 1948. 

Mrs. Rockefeller's first gift to the new museum was an oil by Bernard Karfiol. Her largest gift, and the largest since the 1934 Bliss bequest, came in 1935 with her presentation of 181 paintings and drawings. This represented practically her entire collection of modern art, gathered over the preceding ten years, and comprised the work of seventy-one American and foreign artists. In 1936, Mrs. Rockefeller gave the museum its first formal purchase funds; these were augmented in 1938 by another gift and increased by half by Nelson A. Rockefeller in his mother's name. The 1938 fund, named the Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. Purchase Fund, was unrestricted. In 1949, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Print Room opened at MoMA, housing Abby's gift of 1600 prints, which had been given nine years earlier. In addition to her gifts to the Museum of Modern Art, Abby Rockefeller gave substantially to other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cloisters, which received much of her collection of sculpture and decorative arts; the Rhode Island School of Design, which received her collection of Japanese prints; and the Ludwell-Paradise House at Colonial Williamsburg, which in 1939 received her entire collection of American folk art, collected since 1931. 

Mrs. Rockefeller's numerous church activities included service as Vice President of the Women's Bible Class at the 5th Avenue Baptist Church and Honorary Vice President of the Women's Society of Riverside Church. She was a member of the Building Committee of International House, Chairman of the Decorating Committee and one of its trustees. She was a charter member of the Cosmopolitan Club and a member of the Colony Club, the Women's City Club, the National Society of Colonial Dames, the Women's National Republican Club, the Faculty Club of Harvard University, the Mayflower Descendants, and the Garden Club of America, among others. 

Abby Rockefeller died April 5, 1948 at her New York apartment.

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