The Money Man

Reviewed by Meryle Secrest
Sunday, October 15, 2006

MELLON

An American Life

By David Cannadine

Knopf. 779 pp. $35

In the pantheon of robber barons -- Morgan, Frick, Hearst, Carnegie, Ford and the like -- Andrew Mellon has always seemed a peculiarly colorless figure. Patrician in his looks, aloof in his bearing, oracular in his speech, his appearance has always been at odds with his reputation, as if no figure so retiring, so discreetly gentlemanly, could possibly have been such a consummate banker, industrialist, secretary of the treasury and, at the end of his life, philanthropist on a staggering scale. Even his son Paul's wry comment that his father reminded him of Soames Forsyte, the driven, money-obsessed hero of John Galsworthy's immortal The Forsyte Saga , does not reveal as much as it might. This may be why, for all of Mellon's fascinating ability to make a very great deal of money, his life has attracted little attention from biographers.

David Cannadine, a British academic, editor and author of many highly admired historical works, has attempted to redress the balance. Hand-picked by Paul Mellon to write a new life of his father, Cannadine, with the help of grants and research assistants -- including support, not otherwise described, from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York -- has spent the past 12 years on this brilliant and reclusive figure who must, at least superficially, have reminded the author of some of the characters he described in The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy . He has accomplished the rare feat of describing in meticulous detail the personality of someone one can admire and even feel sympathy for, who is nevertheless not very likable. Few families commissioning biographies of a famous man would be as forbearing.

Andrew Mellon's achievements were at least partly based on those of his father. The Mellons, of Scots-Irish descent, settling in western Pennsylvania early in the 19th century, believed in godliness and hard work. Thomas Mellon, Andrew's father, scraped every penny together to escape the role of farmer that was ordained for him, in order to become a Pittsburgh attorney. Some time afterward, he became a judge, then a banker as well as a dabbler in mortgages, coal and steel.

Andrew, the sixth of eight children, was born in 1855 and, in a family of boys, slowly became the preeminent Mellon -- it is perhaps only a coincidence that he most resembled his handsome, square-faced father. Like his father, Andrew was cautious and conforming, with an ability to hide his feelings that his stunted upbringing ruthlessly furthered. Whatever Andrew could think of as a way to make money received his father's approval, or as much of it as he was ever likely to get. As a child, he cut grass from the meadow around their Pittsburgh mansion and sold it to farmers for 5 cents a bundle. Later, he sold so much produce from the family garden that his mother was obliged to visit the local grocer to buy her own fruits and vegetables back.

Habits of thrift, of decorum, of concealment and deceit, of subordination of all other values to those of accumulation, left their mark. "There may have been color and warmth in his life, sometime and somewhere," Cannadine writes, "but if so, he suppressed them so much that no one later knew where to find them or how to draw them out." In more ways than one, he was growing into a sad man.

One of the attributes concealed behind the mask was the very rare ability to see a business possibility that his role, as a banker for T. Mellon & Sons, naturally sustained. One would never have thought so retiring a man could seize the moment, but seize it he did, over and over again. The Mellon fortune derives as much from this priceless asset -- this willingness to take calculated risks -- as it does from the rise of the bank and an insurance company, to be followed by a trust company as well.

But banking, as a field of opportunity, was too constricting. Pretty soon, Andrew was looking at railways and making substantial investments in coal and steel. The methods of the Mellon brothers became so well known that they came to be called the "Mellon system" because of their practice of nurturing every aspect of a business from, for instance, the mining of raw materials to production, sales and marketing. Thomas Mellon had invested in coal and iron, but his sons preferred hydroelectric power and aluminum. He had financed oil wells; they moved into pipelines and large-scale refining. In good years, Andrew and his siblings prospered; in bad years, they hung on. They were naturals.

Mellon was in his forties when, to everyone's astonishment, he fell madly in love with Nora McMullen, a 19-year-old English girl whom he met on a boat. Anglo-American unions, if one can believe Henry James, were de rigueur for Americans of a certain generation, but the pattern was rather different; he was supposed to be a European aristocrat with no money and she, a New York girl with looks and millions. Nora, while comfortably off -- her family rented, but did not own, a castle -- was by no means wealthy, and her parents did not approve of the marriage. Neither did she. She turned him down gently but forthrightly with the explanation that she did not love him. He pressed his suit. Two years later, she changed her mind; they were married in 1900.

She should have followed her original instincts. She was too young and naive to take the proper measure of her husband's emotionally impoverished state, and he was absolutely incapable of understanding her or her inevitable resentment of the fact that his world revolved around work. The marriage was off to a bad start the moment she saw the house in Pittsburgh he had bought without consulting her, its gloomy decor and the streetcars clanging by it day and night, along with the filth and squalor of a blighted city.

A few years later, the couple had two children, Ailsa and Paul, Nora was launched on a determined love affair with a worthless social climber, and Andrew and Nora were locked in a brutal divorce in which both parents spied on and lied to the other, with their children as the pawns. It makes for painful reading. One can understand why Ailsa and Paul grew up "uncertain and distrustful of their father and their mother and, indeed, of all close human relationships."

In the sad spectacle of Andrew Mellon's private life, one of the few bright spots seems to have been his lifelong friendship with Henry Clay Frick, who was a millionaire at 30 and in many ways Mellon's temperamental opposite. Sunny and outgoing, Frick was not only far better read than Mellon but in love with art. The story of Mellon's gradual evolution as a connoisseur is well chronicled in this fascinating biography. Clearly, all of Mellon's starved need for beauty and a kind of ecstatic identification with art found their outlet in a superb collection of Old Master paintings. Fortunately for him, there was always Frick to emulate, as well as the sensitive tutelage of Charles Stewart Carstairs of the British art dealership Knoedler and, later, the English art dealer Joseph Duveen.

Whether Mellon thought of it first or whether Duveen nudged him into it will never be known, but some time before his death Mellon decided he would build a national gallery to rival that of Britain's and lavished his fortune to that end. Typically, he refused to have the National Gallery of Art in Washington named for him, and he died before it opened.

There is no easy way to sum up a figure so complex, influential, ruthless and benevolent, whose faults and virtues loom equally large. Cannadine writes, "For good or ill, though more likely for good and ill, it could only have happened as it did and when it did in America." ยท

Meryle Secrest's book "Shoot the Widow: Adventures in Biography" will be published next May. She is author of "Duveen: A Life in Art."


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