Rich, But No Slacker
Michael was raised amid extraordinary privilege — an army of servants, exclusive private schools, first-class European vacations and seasonal trips to any number of Rockefeller mansions around the world, from New England to South America.
Michael attended the Buckley School in Manhattan, then went on to Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Harvard University. Rockefeller, with sandy hair and a thin, medium build, grew up self-assured but a bit nerdy, due in part to the spectacles he wore for the nearsightedness that afflicted his family.
He certainly was not a spoiled brat. He worked hard and was determined to experience life from the bottom up.
He spent part of one summer working as a grocery bagger in Puerto Rico, and he also toiled briefly as a novice vaquero on his family's cattle ranch in Venezuela.
His uncle, David Rockefeller, would later say, "From his childhood, Michael demonstrated a love of beautiful things and people. Independent in spirit and enthusiastic in all that he did, he was a keen observer, intrigued by the unknown and unexplored."
At Harvard, Rockefeller was a "legacy," as the shoo-in children of alums who donate generously are known. But he was not the clichéd wealthy slacker. He earned a reputation as curious, adventurous and sensitive. A Harvard fellowship later established in his honor notes, "Michael had a zest for exploration — for new ideas, places, and people."
He graduated cum laude with a degree in English in 1960, two years after his father was elected governor of New York.
Being a Rockefeller, he felt no urgency to earn a living. He planned to return to Harvard at some point for a graduate degree, perhaps in the law, but more likely in a science such as anthropology or in the fine arts.
Art and adventure were the muses he chose to pursue after college.
Rockefeller grew up in homes graced with master artworks. His grandmother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, was an avid collector of modern art and founder and benefactor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His father drew Michael into the art world when he named him to the board of directors of his Museum of Primitive Art.
As his time at Harvard drew to a close, Rockefeller apparently was considering an art-collecting trip to the Andean cultures of South American, following his post-graduation completion of a six-month commitment in the U.S. Army Reserve.
As he later put it, "I have the desire to do something romantic and adventurous at a time when frontiers in the real sense of the word are disappearing."
But one day he learned from a college roommate, Sam Putnam, that Robert Gardner, a young Harvard professor, was planning a research trip to New Guinea on behalf of the university's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, according to an account by journalist and author Milt Machlin.
Rockefeller made a pitch to go along with Gardner, who specialized in filming primitive cultures. The professor agreed to sign on Michael as sound recorder and still photographer — after Rockefeller agreed to pay his own way.