From Gates to Rockefeller, Wealthy Families Hire Personal Historians to Preserve Their Legacy
In December 1975, when Peter Johnson was at Syracuse University working on a Ph.D. in American and British history, he was invited by someone who worked with John D. Rockefeller III to the Rockefeller Family Office. Founded in 1882, and probably the oldest office of its kind in the United States, it was known by insiders as 5600, because since 1934 it had been housed on the 56th floor at Rockefeller Center.
Johnson was offered a job working on historical research for J.D. Rockefeller III. But he was set on the idea of going to Washington, DC, so he thanked the Rockefeller people and said he would let them know. Today Johnson recalls, “About a week later I said to myself, ‘Did I just tell the Rockefellers that I wasn’t sure I wanted to work for them?’ ”
Johnson left school and, on May 10, 1976, began working at 5600; he retired this June, more than four decades later. Over the years he worked for John D. Rockefeller III, Laurence Rockefeller, Nelson Rockefeller, and, from 1984 until 2017, David Rockefeller. In the flurry of press around this spring’s record-breaking Christie’s auction of David and Peggy Rockefeller’s collections, Johnson was often referred to as the family historian. He bristles a little at the title, suggesting that it would be more precise to say that he was a historian who worked for the Rockefeller family.
John D. Rockefeller III (middle row, far left) in a 1915 family photo, hired a full-time historian in 1976 to research the Rockefeller family's papers.
Semantics aside, many families today are thinking along the same lines and hiring genealogists, archivists, and historians. They are conscious of having—or wanting to have—a certain place in history. The possession of archival materials is important: old letters, scrapbooks, photo albums. (Historians will eventually have to figure out what to do with tweets.) But how do you decide on the right candidate for this kind of work?
“Trust is a major issue,” Johnson says. “And an affinity for one another is very important. When I have run into people who have tried unsuccessfully to work together, it is usually because the personal relationship isn’t there.”
Bill and Melinda Gates recently began the process of organizing their personal archives; a separate, paperless archive is already in place for their foundation. Gates’s partner at Microsoft, Paul Allen, who passed away this month, had also started a family archive and a complete documentation of his vast collection of artworks and objets.
Henry Frick and his wife
At the Frick Collection, an archivist has been working for 16 years to process the Frick Family Papers, some of which have been digitized thanks to a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. The family archives of art patrons Dominique and John de Menil, which include thousands of documents and photographs assembled by the couple over six decades, have been meticulously organized by the archivist of the museum they founded; the inventory alone is more than 700 pages long.
Since 1949 the du Pont family has produced (and updated every four years) a complete genealogy that goes back to 1538, in bound volumes that the family office sends out to all the descendants. “With roughly 2,500 blood relatives and spouses,” one du Pont family member says, “it’s a massive undertaking.”
But the Rockefellers were focusing on history before anyone else. Since 1974 the immense collection of documents accumulated over the years—200,000 letters from John D. Rockefeller, the complete records of Nelson Rockefeller’s time as governor of New York, Blanchette Rockefeller’s correspondence during her decades-long involvement with the Museum of Modern Art, the photographs taken by Ezra Stoller of Rockefeller properties around the U.S.—has been held at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York.
It contains thousands of cubic feet of material from three generations of the family, starting in 1857, and is undoubtedly the largest family archive in the United States.
The facility accommodates some 400 visiting researchers per year and another 2,000 off-site; the archivists have also worked with several other prominent families to help organize their papers. “They come to visit because they’re looking for models,” says Jack Meyers, president of the Rockefeller Archive Center. “We work with many people to help them understand what to save and what is less important.”
New York governor Nelson A. Rockefeller with his first wife, Mary Todhunter Clark, and children, Mary, Anne, Steven, Rodman, and Michael.
Peter Johnson started his collaboration with David Rockefeller in 1984, when Rockefeller began working on his memoirs. “He said, ‘You’re a historian by training, so let’s put together all of the historical material, the background,’” Johnson says. “So the research I ended up doing helped with the reconstruction of his life. He did not want it to be just a litany of achievement—he had a desire to understand the facts, the context, of what he was doing.”
Wanting to position one’s family within social history, then, is another reason to embark on this kind of research. Considering how modern titans like Elon Musk have pushed back against even authorized biographers, it’s easy to see why having a rigorous, fact-checking historian on staff would be appealing.
In 2002, in the basement of the library at the Frick Collection, Julie Ludwig, a trained archivist, began going through material from the estate of Helen Clay Frick, the daughter of Henry Clay Frick. Running from the 1860s up to the 1980s, it includes correspondence, photographs, and financial records of four members of the family.
Today the Frick Family Papers are beautifully organized in floor-to-ceiling rows of gray boxes, some 1,200 linear feet of material. “You have to have a lot of patience,” Ludwig says. “And a lot of attention to detail. You also have to be something of a detective—the papers don’t come with a guide to how they work. I had to study things, put like with like, and think of an organizational scheme that made sense.”
The garden court inside the Frick Collection, a museum that houses the collections of Henry Clay Frick, as well as his family’s archive.
Philip Warner was for more than a decade the U.S. president of Asprey, the British luxury goods house. In 2005 he launched his own firm to produce custom-made goods for private clients. Soon one asked if he could make a bound volume out of all of her family photos. It was the start of a new specialty: Philip Warner Family Archive Services.
He now takes old family photos, embarks on an ambitious digitization process, and restores and organizes all of the images. And he has started working with researchers, writers, and genealogists to produce extensive family histories to accompany the photos, presented in leatherbound volumes with marbled British endpapers. The cost can range from $20,000 for a photo album to $150,000 or more for a complete biographical study. Clients have ranged from Fred Mossler, one of the original founders of Zappos, to Bill Ruprecht, a former CEO of Sotheby’s.
Warner’s initiative underscores one of the most important elements of curating a family history: preserving the material. “To anyone who is thinking about it, I would recommend not hiring a family historian,” Jack Meyers says. “Historians need to work from documents, so assembling the archives is the first step. It’s important to find someone with archival training to decide what kinds of records will be valuable and what kind of order—that is what archivists are trained to do. When that’s finished, then you can hire a family historian.”
This story appears in the November 2018 issue of Town & Country.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors