When Stillman Rockefeller could no longer go into New York City on a regular basis, I sometimes went to his estate in Greenwich, Conn., for lunch. One day he was sitting on the back terrace and watched me walk to the front door and ring the bell. As he greeted me, Stillman didn’t say “Welcome” or “Good to see you” but “You’ve gained weight!”
Understand Stillman Rockefeller was always very weight-conscious and exercised every day. I snapped back: “Yes, and I suppose you are going to tell me that you weigh the same as you did in college.”
“Nope,” was his curt answer. Then there was a long pause. (Stillman had an intimidating way with his silence.) Then came, “I weigh five pounds more” and a sly smile.
Such was the way of James Stillman Rockefeller, former president and chairman of Citibank. We met when I interviewed him on his retirement in 1967 for Citibank Magazine, which I edited.
While I was still at Citibank and even after moving to Bernardsville, NJ, Stillman would invite me to lunch about four times a year. I would meet him at 399 Park Avenue where he maintained an office and we would walk, no matter the weather, over to the University Club off of Fifth Avenue. He always ordered the same thing: #7, filet of sole.
Once when lunching at the University Club, I noticed he wasn’t listening to me. Stillman admitted to eavesdropping. “You learn much more by listening than talking,” he noted. That certainly put me in place and I have tried to remember that advice over the years.
(Historical Note: Stillman’s paternal grandfather was William Rockefeller, brother of John D. Rockefeller and co-founder of Standard Oil. He was also the grandson of James Stillman, a founder of National City Bank who, around the turn of the 20th century, was known as one of Wall Street’s “Big Three” along with J. P. Morgan Sr. and George F. Baker. Married to a Carnegie, Stillman claimed he liked the maternal side of the family (Stillmans) better than the Rockefellers.)
When his aunt Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge died, I asked Stillman if he ever visited her on her Madison, NJ, estate. He claimed his aunt never invited him but her husband did. In telling me about another relative passing away on Long Island, he huffed, “And she didn’t leave me anything.”
Stillman didn’t hesitate giving his opinion on people. As captain of the Yale crew in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, he led the young men, including Benjamin Spock (later known as the famous pediatrician Dr. Spock) to a gold medal. When asked about the association, Stillman, a conservative Republican, claimed Spock was too liberal.
One of the first covers of Time magazine featured Stillman after he had won his Olympic gold medal. At the time his mother had a house in Paris but she wasn’t there to watch her son participate in the Olympics. “She had already spent her time in Paris and had gone back to the States,” Stillman said. The 2004 USA Olympic crewmembers dedicated their gold-medal win to Stillman.
When his cousin, Nelson Rockefeller, former governor of New York and vice president under Gerald Ford, died at the age of 94 allegedly in the arms of a young woman, I asked Stillman what he thought. “More power to him,” was Stillman’s concise answer.
One of the favorite stories people loved to tell about Stillman had to do with his clipped wit. When asked how many people worked at the then new building (399 Park Avenue), Stillman quickly replied: ‘About half.’” A tall man, often with a stern face and hands behind his back, Stillman Rockefeller would walk through the floors of Citibank just checking on employees and probably putting fear in their hearts.
I described him in Citibank Magazine as “terse and to-the-point, but with a puckish sense of humor behind the awesome, straight-faced exterior.” However, he could sometimes show his delightful winning smile.
In testifying in Canada regarding the nationalization of banks, Citibank Chairman Stillman Rockefeller described himself as a “bank clerk.” In his time he held almost every position except that of bank clerk.
For years Stillman sent me gift packages at Christmas from 3-M and Kimberly-Clark on whose boards he had served. However, those stopped in 2004 when he passed away just past his 102nd birthday.
His favorite meal at home, prepared by his cook, included sorrel soup, a crabmeat casserole, green salad, garlic bread, melon and homemade lace cookies.
Sorrel soup is also one of my favorites and in the days when I had a formal herb garden, I often made it. However, when I searched for the recipe, I couldn’t find the one that I was sure I had written up in my cooking column. I did find the one for radish top soup which is very similar.
Radish Top Soup
1 bunch radish leaves
1/4 stick butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg yolk
salt and pepper to taste
–Wash leaves thoroughly.
–Melt butter in a saucepan, add radish leaves and stir for about three minutes or until all leaves are coated with butter.
–Sprinkle flour on the leaves and slowly add chicken broth.
–Simmer for about 10 minutes.
–Cool, then puree in a blender.
–Mix cream and egg yolk; add to soup.
–Salt and pepper to taste.
–Heat and serve.
Reach Sidna Brower Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org.