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Can Philanthropy Save This Marriage?

Updated: May 18, 2020

Salute to Women Philanthropists-Abby Aldrich Rockefeller

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948) was not just the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (Junior), one of the richest men in America, but also one of the most forward-thinking philanthropists of all time.

Much to her husband’s dismay, Abby’s collection of revolutionary European and American art, including works by Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, among others, was the foundation of what would become New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller was a determined and influential patron of modern art who — independently of her husband — went on to co-found MoMA.

Junior was not an easy husband to get along with. Despite his wealth he was very controlling regarding Abby’s spending. When he married her, Junior gave Abby a large cheque. He also gave her an account book with instructions that she should record her expenditures in it. She refused. When John later asked what she had done with her wedding present, she replied airily, ‘I gave it away’. She must have known he would have approved of her donation to the Young Women’s Christian Association: John had already begun the great sequence of gifts that would make him one of the most munificent philanthropists in America’s history. Although he was a devoted husband Junior’s neediness was over the top. He was known to be jealous of Abby’s affection for her children and her grandchildren. He loved her for her ‘gaiety’, but throughout their long marriage it made him anxious. He was prey to migraines. He slept badly, and was crotchety about it. She was quick and decisive: he laboriously pondered every move. ‘I kept wondering why she ever consented to marry a man like me,’ he mused.

Unable to contribute as much money as she wanted to due to a strict allowance from her husband, Abby stepped beyond the limited definition of the duties of a society wife to fund the creation of the museum, as she made direct solicitations to wealthy individuals and major corporations. She understood and used the foundational tenet of major gift fundraising—relationships--and balanced her marriage in the process. Abby was smart, generous and wise.

M. Gasby Brown,

CEO & Executive Consultant

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