Book Review: Great Fortune by Daniel Okrent


Great Fortune : The Epic of Rockefeller Center (2003) by Daniel Okrent is a lively and engaging popular history of the origins of the most famous urban development in the world.  It’s chock-full of facts that I never knew.

For example, the land Rockefeller Center is built upon was originally the “Upper Estate” of Columbia University, something of an albatross on the university’s neck especially after it moved further uptown. The university collected rent from the Rockefellers into the 1980’s.  The plan for Rockefeller Center was originally to construct a new opera house for the Metropolitan Opera, a plan that fell through as the greater plan for a commercial development stormed through into the Great Depression.  There were scandals of the Communist Diego Rivera painting a mural in the RCA building, and the Facist Benito Mussolini giving his blessing to a building for Italian commerce.  The most famous element of Rockefeller Center – the skating rink – was something of an afterthought to bail out a failed plan for a shopping plaza.  The opening of Radio City Music Hall was an overlong, over-the-top bomb that resulted in the venue being used as a movie theater for the next four decades.

Okrent also weaves in the biographies of the various characters involved in creating Rockefeller Center.  Most obvious of course are the Rockefeller family including the introspective John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who spent his life trying to atone for Senior’s greedy excess, and Nelson Rockefeller a steamroller of a personality who took charge of the Center in the later years of development.   Architects, designers, artists, corporate executives & businessmen all get their fair share as well.  Okrent writes of these people sympathetically without being adulatory, and shows their warts (not to mention having a few laughs at their expense) without it being a hatchet piece.

This is a very enjoyable historical work which I believe does a good job of capturing an era through the myriad people who worked on and at Rockefeller Center.

Great fortune : the epic of Rockefeller Center by Daniel Okrent. New York : Viking, 2003.

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