The rest is silence

The world has lost a truly great entomologist, perhaps its greatest collector of beetles, with the death of David A. Rockefeller, on Monday at the age of one hundred and one, among the cabinets of his specimens at Pocantico Hills: each impeccably labelled and mounted. Rockefeller’s dwarfed the collections of Darwin and Wallace, the accumulated stores in Oxford University, the holdings of natural history museums in many sizeable European countries.

At the age of seven, this young David discovered his calling — or was called, by an elegant, an elongate Parandra, glittering dark caramel, the full inch long, with its formidable pinching mandibles. It was trespassing in the foliage on his father’s estate. Veritably, a Parandra brunneus. Bravely lifting it by its sides, the lad dropped it into a bottle, the first of his hundred thousand catches, by one means or another. For in addition to his personal pouncings, Mr Rockefeller was able to obtain many finely specialized collections, from the world’s great auction houses, to extend his own estimable hoard.

On his sixteenth birthday, while other boys might party, David found eight species of leaf beetle alone, on the same estate. In family visits to their rubber plantations in Liberia (where the prize was a three-inch Augosoma centaurus), their wine properties in Margaux (a memorable Caloclytus varius at Chateau Lacombes), he was able to find many beetles more. At Harvard, entomology was the only subject in which he scored an “A.” As an American soldier in Algeria during the last World War, he was able to amass more than a hundred of some forty-one species. Many hundreds, previously unknown, were catalogued on the expeditions he sponsored, and often accompanied, to the uttermost ends of the Earth. We can hardly look at a high-altitude scarab from Mexico today, without recalling that among the rarest is the Diplotaxis rockefelleri, discovered by, and named for, our hero. Indeed, more than a dozen splendid beetles now share his name.

This scion of the Rockefellers, youngest of the second generation to succeed the principal co-founder of Standard Oil — among the classiest of American robber barons and philanthropists — had advantages of birth over any of his rivals, but used them to laudable effect. And his collections will now migrate to the appropriate facility at Harvard, from whose Curator in Entomology (via the Internet) I have gleaned most of these facts.

David Rockefeller was in at the conception of many other things — Manhattan property deals including the sites for the United Nations, and the former Twin Towers; the foundation of the Trilateral Commission, and so forth. It’s all in the obituaries somewhere. But these were mere flexings of money and power. The discovery and entrapment of a new beetle throws all such accomplishments into the shade, and makes the life of a plutocrat worth living.

May he rest in peace, among his beloved bugs.