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It is easy enough to remember that there are five Rockefeller brothers, all grandsons of John D. the First, but beyond that the average nonbanker has trouble keeping them straight, for the Rockies have a way of blending together in the mind like the peaks that make up a mountain range. Two, perhaps, possess distinctive public identities. There is the brother who was once married to Bobo. Winthrop. He is also a rancher in Arkansas and last fall he ran unsuccessfully for governor. Then there is the brother who is now married to Happy. Nelson. He is also governor of New York and last summer ran unsuccessfully for...well, everyone does know about that. Then come John and David. Are they just in there pitching for the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Rockefeller Center? Not exactly, but if this is the general conception of them it is not surprising, for these two court publicity as vigorously as does Greta Garbo. Finally, there is Laurance, and if the world of politics and business knows a host of Rockefellers, the world of resort building knows only this far-seeing and nervy one.
Like a perfectly normal Rockefeller, Laurance is a good philanthropist, serving as president of and contributing his share to Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Inc., the family give-away program. Like a perfectly normal Rockefeller, he is a bold businessman, having earned a reputation as a remarkably effective venture capitalist in the jet-age sciences of space travel and propulsion. The family makes a fetish of keeping its principal interests from overlapping and, like a perfectly normal Rockefeller, Laurance has a special interest—conservation. A popular if not quite final measure of Laurance's accomplishments is that his Who's Who entry is 39 lines long, which makes him leader of the clan, five lines ahead of runner-up Nelson.
All these are worthy, down-to-earth endeavors, but down-to-earth does not reflect the real Laurance Rockefeller, not by a moon shot. What gives him away as a restless, creative, swinging, far-out, wild and yet, amazingly, very practical dreamer are his vacation resorts. In the past 10 years he has produced six of them. They have cost $60 million. They have been built in faraway places with strange-sounding names where no right-thinking man would invest in so much as a grass-skirt concession, and they have followed a unique—and financially terrifying—Rockefeller concept of what a resort must be. In a travel age that considers door locks, telephones and air conditioning to be as vital to a hotel as indoor plumbing, Rockefeller hates door locks, telephones and air conditioning. Consequently, in some of his resorts, he has simply left them out. Getting to most vacation spots is, as Madison Avenue says, half the fun, but getting to one of Rockefeller's remote resorts can be half the excitement. Yet what he has done is so imaginative and so comfortable that two of his creations are already operating in the black and there is ample reason to think that the others will be, too, including his latest and most lavish of all, the $15 million Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the island of Hawaii. It is decorated with a bewildering assortment of artifacts collected from throughout Asia and the Pacific by Davis Allen of Skid-more, Owings & Merrill, architects for the hotel. It is landscaped with native trees and shrubs and highlighted by a stretch of soft, white beach and a $2 million golf course. And it is, above all, a culmination of the things Laurance Rockefeller has learned in his decade of resort building. It is Rockefeller's wildest gamble to date. It could be extravagantly successful, and it could also be the most spectacular resort failure since the Romans built summer villas in Pompeii.
"This is a highly speculative field," admits Rockefeller. "We are, especially in Hawaii, pioneers in every sense of the word. I used to kid Bill Zeckendorf that the only real-estate investment too speculative for him is the one I have gone into. It is a little frightening."
It should be frightening, even for a man with a Rockefeller's resources, partly because Laurance's costly projects have several distinctions seldom found in more conventional resort palaces. First, there is that matter of location. Rockefeller's initial hotel venture, Jackson Lake Lodge, is located in the deepest wilderness of Wyoming. It is in, not accidentally. Grand Teton National Park, 33,562 acres of which were donated to the U.S. Government in 1949 by John D. Rockefeller Jr. through Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc. Caneel Bay Plantation, which serves as the gateway to another Rockefeller-aided national park, is on the distant island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. From the nearest airport it is a long taxi and motorboat trip, six miles by land and four miles by sea. Dorado Beach, in Puerto Rico, is 20 miles along the coast from San Juan, and the connecting route is more byway than freeway. Little Dix Bay is on the mountainous island of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, which means it is merely a plane, boat and jeep trip from San Juan airport. Yet Mauna Kea is the most inaccessible of all. It is 2,400 miles from California and 150 miles southeast of Honolulu by island-hopping Super Convair. Of the six Rockefeller resorts, the only easy-to-get-to spot is the hotel Laurance bought, as an act of charity, and expanded: Estate Good Hope on St. Croix.
"Remoteness is our chief problem," says Rockefeller. "It means we have to invest heavily in nonincome-producing items. At Jackson Hole, Caneel Bay, Little Dix and to a lesser extent the others, we have to provide housing for all our staff. In the Caribbean two-thirds of our investment is in bringing into the area the elements of civilization that we need just to run the places: water, housing, electricity, airstrips, roads, etc. We build a little town just to provide for the hotel. This commits us to large, income-producing facilities to make the original investment worthwhile. It also presupposes sustained growth."
To most builders this kind of setup represents a snowballing nightmare of investment commitments devoutly to be avoided, but Rockefeller will have things no other way, for he has a complete set of principles and philosophies concerning resort building. His resorts are where they are partly because he has long felt there is a need to open up scenic and stimulating wilderness areas, making them available to people who, like Rockefeller, want to get back to nature now and then and, if not wrestle with it, at least enjoy it. They are also where they are partly because of Laurance's desire to spend money where it can do somebody else some good, in areas that can use some economic pump priming. Building high-rise hotels in Miami Beach, oceanfront San Juan or on Waikiki does not interest him in the least. Another distinction lies in Rockefeller's insistence that his hotels retire discreetly into their background, the way Rockefeller himself might prefer to retire into his. He will not permit his structures to be gigantic protrusions on the landscape, monuments to the builder or the architect that are visible for miles from all the ships at sea. Caneel Bay Plantation, a string of bungalows fronted by a narrow slice of beach in a tiny inlet, can hardly be seen from an offshore rowboat. It is equally difficult to pick out the Dorado Beach Hotel grounds, though they harbor a gaggle of cottages and beach houses, a swimming pool, a casino, four bars, a dining room and dining terraces, tennis courts, a clubhouse and two 18-hole golf courses. Little Dix Bay, with its pointed, shingled huts, some of which are on stilts, and its quadruple-peaked dining area, looks exactly like a tranquil native village. Mauna Kea is slightly different, since there are very few trees to camouflage it, but its long, low lines merge well with the Kohala Mountains that rise in the distant background.
Though he hardly has a monopoly on such ingredients, a Rockefeller resort will abound in good taste and strict privacy. This is made possible by Rockefeller's willingness to look upon a construction budget as a thing that thinking men exceed. He will make several visits to the construction scene to be sure that what looks good on paper looks good in steel and concrete. When it does not, he has it torn down.
Despite the attention to detail, Rockefeller's resorts are not philanthropic operations. He expects each of them to be able to stand on its own well-shod feet, although he is willing to wait 10, even 20 years for the original investment to start showing a return. Cancel Bay, with an annual operating budget of $1.5 million, has been self-sustaining for four years. Dorado Beach, until Mauna Kea the most extravagant Rockefeller resort, with an annual budget of $5.2 million, is making a profit.
"There are two criteria for success in the resort business," Rockefeller says. "One: Did you do a good job? Do people come to the resort and enjoy it? Two: Is it good business? Does it pay for itself? To me, the first criterion is the most important, but there is some interplay between them. One should reflect the success of the other. But if you fail in one criterion and succeed only in the other, then you have wasted your time. We are trying hard to succeed in both, because success is the ultimate test and we want very badly to encourage others to follow us in what we are trying to do."