The three generations of Rockefeller families who lived at Kykuit staffed the house with 10 servants and minions of grounds keepers. Everywhere you look in this magnificent estate you experience the product of loving care, artistry and comfort. The service staff brought the human touch to the daily activities that the family engaged in. Family members used their money to pay creative people. A highlight is the below ground art galleries of Nelson Rockefeller with their extraordinary Picasso tapestries. But the Rockefellers also paid their staff a living wage--Pocantico Village is where you'll find the modest but comfortable homes built for their employees. The wife of one of their gardeners worked for my parents for years as a housekeeper and later as a caregiver. She had nothing but good things to say about her husband's employer. She was an Irish immigrant who believed that there was dignity in service to others. We called her Mrs. Furphy.
Near the end of our tour, as we walked through the carriage house featuring their collection of horse-drawn and motor vehicles of the early 20th century, I couldn't resist from asking our guide a politically incorrect question: "It has been said that behind every great fortune there is a crime. What is your response to that?" Our guide was quick to answer: "John D. Rockefeller Senior committed no crimes because there were no laws restricting the ways he amassed his fortune basically by refining oil into kerosene for lighting homes. He called his company Standard Oil [ESSO became the company's brand by spelling out the initials] because of the reliably high quality of his product. However, many have said that his behavior could be considered unethical at times." Then he segued back to talking about the truly formidable force for good that the Rockefeller philanthropies have been for generations.
A brilliant economist and venture-capital friend of mine once told me, "If you create something of value, you should be able to make money from it." That is the capitalist system. J.D. Rockefeller refined oil to make the best kerosene on the market and bought out all his competitors offering cash or stocks in his company. And if that didn't work, he just lowered his prices and ran them out of business. (Those who took the stock all became multimillionaires.) Laws that stopped the practice of building a monopoly for a commodity were enacted after J.D. Rockefeller and his "robber baron" contemporaries, who shaped the beginning of the industrial revolution, had had their way.
But lately I've been thinking, no! Not everything of value should feed the profit motive. Certainly not education. There should be funding available to pay for high quality public education for the public good but its financial health should not include ways to amass fortunes for the "owners." Who are the money-makers in charter schools and vouchers? The realtors who provide the buildings and the top executives who siphon off exorbitant salaries while paying young, inexperience teachers the least they can get away with while pressing them into services (sometimes custodial) that are not part of their high intensity, exhausting, and sometime profoundly rewarding profession. For-profit charter schools fight against teachers' unions that collectively bargain for a decent wages and working conditions for their members. Excellent teachers work for the love of teaching. That's why merit pay for teachers doesn't make them better teachers. The budget items for a rich educational experience for the students are what usually get cut by for-profit schools in exchange for computers that could bring a virtual tour of, say, Kykuit. Why do private schools command exorbitant tuition? Because they are, for the most part, prepared to create meaningful, non-virtual educational experiences for every student. This means that teachers have the support, both financially and professionally that they need to do their jobs successfully. And that's why excellent teachers will take jobs in private schools although they usually pay lower salaries than public schools.
Most people, who love their work, do not aspire to live like the Rockefellers. We need a middle class who has sufficient income for decent homes and food, health care, education for their children and yes, enough for vacations and recreation. I looked around Kykuit and imagined how much time must have been spent purchasing stuff with status, constantly adding to the collections in their home, changing clothes for every meal, calling a servant to serve tea or to perform some other menial task. Even the recreational facilities were on site. A private "Playhouse" housed a bowling alley and indoor swimming pool. And, of course, there were several outdoor swimming pools, a golf course and tennis courts on the property amidst the formal gardens.
Kykuit is a museum now. I am grateful that I have the education to appreciate its beauty and its history. As a National Trust, it is now a nonprofit for the public good. What do you think might be the take-away of public school students who took a field trip to this family home of obsolete grandeur, art, and splendid self-contained isolation?
I'll bet that they wouldn't trade it for their phones!