He was the last surviving grandson of John D. Rockefeller, the tycoon who founded the Standard Oil Company in the 19th century and built a fortune that made him America’s first billionaire and his family one of the richest and most powerful in the nation’s history.
As an heir to that legacy, David Rockefeller lived all his life in baronial splendor and privilege, whether in Manhattan (when he was a boy, he and his brothers would roller skate along Fifth Avenue trailed by a limousine in case they grew tired) or at his magnificent country estates.
Imbued with the understated manners of the East Coast elite, he loomed large in the upper reaches of a New York social world of glittering black-tie galas. His philanthropy was monumental, and so was his art collection, a museumlike repository of some 15,000 pieces, many of them masterpieces, some lining the walls of his offices 56 floors above the streets at Rockefeller Center, to which he repaired, robust and active, well into his 90s.
In silent testimony to his power and reach was his Rolodex, a catalog of some 150,000 names of people he had met as a banker-statesman. It required a room of its own beside his office.
Spread out below that corporate aerie was a city he loved and influenced mightily. He was instrumental in rallying the private sector to help resolve New York City’s fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s. As chairman of the Museum of Modern Art for many years — his mother had helped found it in 1929 — he led an effort to encourage corporations to buy and display art in their office buildings and to subsidize local museums. And as chairman of the New York City Partnership, a coalition of business executives, he fostered innovation in public schools and the development of…