Abby Greene Aldrich Rockefeller was born in Providence, Rhode Island on October 26, 1874, the fourth child of Abby Pearce Chapman (1845-1917) and Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich (1841-1915). Nelson Aldrich rose from the position of bookkeeper in a wholesale grocery firm to become a member of the State House of Representatives; he was Speaker of the House from 1876 to 1877. From 1881 to 1911, he served as United States Senator from Rhode Island. In 1899, he was elevated to the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, an appointment he held until his retirement in 1911. The family maintained homes in Providence, Warwick Neck, and Washington.
Abby Aldrich received her early education from Quaker governesses. At seventeen, she began attending Miss Abbott's School for Young Ladies in Providence, where her courses included English composition and literature, French, German, art history and ancient history, gymnastics, and dancing. She graduated in 1893 and made her debut the following November. On June 30, 1894, she sailed for Liverpool, inaugurating a lifetime of European travel. The aesthetic education she received abroad, fostered initially by her father, helped to form her judgment as an art collector. Her first four-month sojourn included stays in England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and France.
In the fall of 1894 at the Providence home of a classmate, Abby met John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960), son of the founder of Standard Oil Company, who was then a sophomore at Brown University. After a lengthy courtship, they married on October 9, 1901. They had six children:
When the United States entered World War I, Mrs. Rockefeller's charitable and philanthropic activities began in earnest. From 1917 to 1919, Mrs. Rockefeller served as Chairman of Auxiliary 336 of the American Red Cross, completely financing its work. Quarters at No. 4 W. 54th Street were dedicated to preparing thousands of "comfort bags" for shipment through the YWCA-YMCA Navy League and Army and Navy Debarkation hospitals to the fighting fronts in Russia, Italy, and France.
In 1917, Mrs. Rockefeller became chairman of the newly-created Housing Committee of the War Work Council of the National Board of the Young Woman's Christian Association (YWCA). Her report, "Suggestions for Housing Women War Workers" (1918), prompted the federal government to enact building standards for the housing of women at industrial sites, based on the experience of 200 YWCA boarding houses. Mrs. Rockefeller's interest in securing quality housing for working people led her in 1917 to chair the Grace Dodge Hotel Committee of the YWCA. Overcrowded housing conditions in Washington, D.C., resulting from the influx of women war workers, had necessitated immediate relief. The Grace Dodge Hotel for women opened in 1921. Mrs. Rockefeller closely monitored the hotel's design and operation until 1937. She was one of the earliest champions of hotels for women.
In 1919, Mrs. Rockefeller became interested in the living conditions of the employees of the Bayway Refinery of Standard Oil, located in the Bayway section of Elizabeth, New Jersey. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased six lots of land and deeded them to Mrs. Rockefeller for the construction of Bayway Cottage, a model workers' home. In 1928, the cottage was expanded and renamed the Bayway Community House; the House was incorporated in 1937 as the Bayway Community Center. By 1943, some 4,000 families were using the Center and its clinics, gyms, nursery schools, bowling alleys, and meeting rooms. Over a twenty-year period, Mrs. Rockefeller's contributions amounted to $200,000.
With the founding of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in May 1929, the scope of Abby Rockefeller's philanthropy widened dramatically. Her aesthetic insight and administrative and personal skills now found their fullest application, and she gained a permanent home for her personal collection of modern art.
Although the idea of establishing a museum dedicated to fostering modern art had been floating about since the celebrated Armory Show of 1913, it was not until Abby Rockefeller began to solicit the advice of her own friends during the winter of 1928-1929 that the idea moved toward realization.
Conversations with Lillie P. Bliss, patroness of the painter Arthur B. Davies, and Mary Quinn Sullivan, a collector, led to a meeting in May 1929 at which the three women invited A. Conger Goodyear to chair a museum organizing committee. In July, the young Alfred H. Barr, Jr. was appointed director. A seven-member Board of Trustees was elected in October 1929 and included Abby Rockefeller, Lillie Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan, A. Conger Goodyear, Frank Crowninshield (editor of Vanity Fair magazine), Mrs. W. Murray Crane (a supporter of the experimental Dalton School), and Paul J. Sachs (Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard).
Mrs. Rockefeller held several positions at the museum from 1929 to 1945. From 1929 to 1934, she served as museum treasurer. From 1934 to 1936, and again from January to May 1939, she held the post of First Vice President. During the war years, from December 1941 until November 1945, she served as First Vice Chairman. Mrs. Rockefeller was a member of several committees of the Board of Trustees. She served on the Executive Committee (1930-1945), chairing that committee in 1936. She was a member of the Fine Art Committee from 1930 to 1934 and of the Exhibitions Committee from 1930 to 1939. She promoted the establishment in 1935 of a Film Library. With Stephen C. Clark and Kenneth Chorley, she organized the War Veterans' Art Center in 1944, which offered art classes to disabled veterans until 1948.
Mrs. Rockefeller's first gift to the new museum was an oil by Bernard Karfiol. Her largest gift, and the largest since the 1934 Bliss bequest, came in 1935 with her presentation of 181 paintings and drawings. This represented practically her entire collection of modern art, gathered over the preceding ten years, and comprised the work of seventy-one American and foreign artists. In 1936, Mrs. Rockefeller gave the museum its first formal purchase funds; these were augmented in 1938 by another gift and increased by half by Nelson A. Rockefeller in his mother's name. The 1938 fund, named the Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. Purchase Fund, was unrestricted. In 1949, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Print Room opened at MoMA, housing Abby's gift of 1600 prints, which had been given nine years earlier. In addition to her gifts to the Museum of Modern Art, Abby Rockefeller gave substantially to other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cloisters, which received much of her collection of sculpture and decorative arts; the Rhode Island School of Design, which received her collection of Japanese prints; and the Ludwell-Paradise House at Colonial Williamsburg, which in 1939 received her entire collection of American folk art, collected since 1931.
Mrs. Rockefeller's numerous church activities included service as Vice President of the Women's Bible Class at the 5th Avenue Baptist Church and Honorary Vice President of the Women's Society of Riverside Church. She was a member of the Building Committee of International House, Chairman of the Decorating Committee and one of its trustees. She was a charter member of the Cosmopolitan Club and a member of the Colony Club, the Women's City Club, the National Society of Colonial Dames, the Women's National Republican Club, the Faculty Club of Harvard University, the Mayflower Descendants, and the Garden Club of America, among others.
Abby Rockefeller died April 5, 1948 at her New York apartment.