Cordelia Scaife May, 76, publicity-shy heiress to the Mellon banking fortune and one of the richest people in the United States, died Jan. 26 at her home in Ligonier, Pa., near Pittsburgh.
Her death was announced by the Laurel Foundation, which she founded in 1951. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which is owned by her brother, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Cordelia Scaife May, here at the National Aviary, had an abundant knowledge of flora and fauna.
Mrs. May was famously private, rarely speaking publicly. Through her foundation, she donated millions to cultural, environmental and population-control organizations and many Pittsburgh area causes.
The Laurel Foundation said in a statement that she "was blessed with a wonderful sense of humor and took great pleasure in entertaining her friends with her skills as an eloquent raconteur. She was a knowledgeable admirer of the flora and fauna of the world and was greatly concerned about the sustainability of the world's ecosystems due to the impact of the growth of population."
Routinely listed on the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans, Mrs. May was No. 363 last year with a net worth of $825 million. But money did not equal happiness; she named her estate Cold Comfort.
In one of the few interviews she granted, in 1999 she told Robert G. Kaiser of The Washington Post that she and her brother, billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, grew up in an alcoholic household, nurtured by nannies and nurses. "I don't remember any laughter in that house," she said. Her mother, Sarah Mellon Scaife, was "just a gutter drunk. So was Dick. So was I."
She attended the Ellis School and the Falk School, both in Pittsburgh, before enrolling in Foxcroft School in Middleburg, her brother told his newspaper. He said she also took classes at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. He called her a "voracious reader."
In 1949, she married Herbert May Jr., but the marriage lasted less than a year. She married an old friend, former Allegheny County (Pa.) district attorney Robert W. Duggan in 1973, just before she would have had to answer Internal Revenue Service questions about Duggan, who was under investigation by the IRS and the U.S. attorney for corruption. Less than a year later, on the day he was indicted for tax fraud, Duggan's body was discovered on their property, a shotgun wound in his chest. Police ruled the death either an accident or a suicide.
Mrs. May, who continued to use her first husband's name, believed for years that her estranged brother was involved with Duggan's death. In 1999, she told The Post that she had finally accepted that her husband committed suicide. The Post-Gazette said yesterday that she had recently reconciled with her brother, her only immediate survivor.