The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
 From The Post
  • Part One: The funding father of the right

  • Scaife Series: database and related stories

  •   Money, Family Name Shaped Scaife

    Richard Scaife greets President Bill Clinton
    Richard Scaife greets President Bill Clinton during a 1997 reception at the White House. (The White House)
    By Robert G. Kaiser
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, May 3, 1999; Page A1

    Second of two articles

    Richard Mellon Scaife, the most generous donor to conservative causes in American history, is astoundingly rich and has given away more than $600 million, yet is known to people who have worked for him as a cheapskate.

    He has given at least $340 million to fund a "war of ideas" against American liberalism, yet no one interviewed for these articles could remember him discussing a book he had read or recall an original idea that came from him.

    In his own small world in Pittsburgh, Scaife is known as a man who wants to be in control, who wants employees who say "yes," who is capable of bearing grudges for years. Once, it is said by knowledgeable sources, he compelled the Mellon Bank to fire a newly hired attorney in the bank's legal department because the lawyer was the son of a former employee Scaife had turned against.

    Scaife has broken off relations with numerous friends and associates, waged a bitter, prolonged divorce battle with his first wife, has strained relations with his son and no relations with his daughter. He and his sister haven't spoken for 25 years.

    Yet his friends describe the man they call Dick Scaife as charming, warm, easy to be with. He himself said once, "I'm genial and I'm jovial."

    Conservatives regularly honor him. He is vice chairman of the board of trustees of the Heritage Foundation and has turned down many suggestions that various buildings, schools and professorships be named for him. "The man is a hero," said a young activist in one of the organizations he supports.

    Despite his demons and his difficulties, Scaife and the Mellon fortune he inherited have prevailed. The money didn't buy a happy childhood or the personal confidence he has always lacked, but for all the distractions of his complicated life, he has, at 66, established an imposing legacy. With the help of a few longtime aides and of the conservatives who got his money people who made him feel useful and appreciated Richard Mellon Scaife became the leading financial supporter of the movement that reshaped American politics in the last quarter of the 20th century.

    How did Scaife do this? Why did he do it? And how does he feel about his accomplishment? Those are questions Scaife has never shown any desire to answer. He has never spoken revealingly about himself at any length, and he has rarely given interviews. Though he provided a brief written statement in response to questions from The Washington Post, he refused, over many months, to grant an interview.

    So the available evidence will have to do. That evidence begins with his money. Thanks to genealogical good luck, Scaife has a personal fortune of many hundreds of millions. He lives a life thickly insulated from the workaday tribulations of ordinary citizens, with houses in Pittsburgh, the resort of Ligonier, Pa., Nantucket and Pebble Beach. A private DC-9 flies him from one to the other.

    The Mellon family money he inherited, both in spendable cash and in trusts and foundations designated for philanthropy, shaped every aspect of his existence. Yet many around him can tell stories about how his anxieties over money disrupted his relations with other people.

    One is William J. Gill, who worked for Scaife's charitable foundations 30 years ago. Gill took a trip to Vietnam on foundation business and when he returned submitted an expense account that included charges for laundering his shirts during the trip. Scaife refused to pay for the laundering and wrote a memo that Gill could never throw out:

    "I have gone over the expense report that you submitted and I would ask that you remove the laundry and the valet charge. I have noted on previous expense reports as well as this one that a taxi costs $8.00 one way between your house and the [Pittsburgh] airport. I would suggest that in the future you either drive yourself or have your wife deposit you at the airport."

    Said James Shuman, who worked for Scaife nearly 20 years ago: "He just assumed that everyone is out to steal every little thing he has."

    From His Mother, a Legacy of Riches and Alcoholism

    The potential significance of inherited wealth was foreseen, ironically, by Thomas Mellon, founder of the family fortune. In 1885, reflecting on his success, he observed: "The normal condition of man is hard work, self-denial, acquisition and accumulation; as soon as his descendants are freed from the necessity of such exertion they begin to degenerate sooner or later in both body and mind."

    This was a pessimistic forecast for what might happen to Mellon's heirs, but many of them lived up to it. Like other American families overwhelmed by great riches, the Mellon line has produced numerous unhappy souls. One of them was Thomas Mellon's granddaughter Sarah, who would pass a fortune on to the son everyone called Dickie.

    Sarah Mellon Scaife was "just a gutter drunk," in the words of her daughter, Cordelia. "So was Dick," Cordelia Scaife May added of her brother in an interview. "So was I."

    If money was most important in shaping Richard Scaife's life, alcohol may come second. In a household dominated by his mother's drinking, Scaife's childhood was pampered but sad, according to his sister. "I don't remember any laughter in that house," she said. The children were raised by nannies and nurses.

    Friends describe Scaife as a hard drinker beginning when he was a high school student at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Yale expelled Scaife in March of his freshman year after a drunken evening in which Scaife rolled a keg of beer down a flight of stairs, breaking the legs of a classmate, according to Burton Hersh, biographer of the Mellon family.

    As an adult, close friends said, he almost drank himself to death more than once. These people credited both his wives and his longtime aide R. Daniel McMichael for saving him. His second wife, Margaret "Ritchie" Battle Scaife with help from the Betty Ford Clinic finally got him on the wagon in the early '90s.

    Some of his associates speculated that drinking contributed to a mean streak they saw in Scaife. Others weren't sure the drinking was a factor. From the time he was a teenager, Scaife earned the reputation of a bully. His sister recalled one occasion when, home in Ligonier on a vacation from Deerfield, he got caught by the police making prank phone calls. "The police gave him a polite talking-to, but Dick was totally unconcerned," Cordelia May said. "The police didn't frighten him at all."

    Another friend remembered the young Scaife using the telephone to order anything he could find that could be delivered to the home of a merchant in Ligonier who had infuriated him. The merchant received numerous deliveries, from pizza to a load of gravel.

    Most of the people who agreed to talk about Scaife for these articles insisted on anonymity. Just the mention of Scaife's name seems to put people on their guard.

    "There's a bit of fear out there because his reach is extensive," observed Allen G. Kukovich, a Democratic state senator from Westmoreland County, Pa., who has been the target of hostile editorials in Scaife's newspaper.

    Scaife is known to many acquaintances as a man who bears grudges. He has cut off old friends who angered him and never acknowledged them again. He has tried to blackball people he fired with other possible employers. "People are really afraid of him," said the director of a charity in Pittsburgh.

    Shuman said he saw in Scaife's history "a sort of steady thread of hurting people who don't like him or who he gets at cross [purposes] with."

    "When he gets a hate on for somebody, he tends to pursue it to substantial length," said a prominent Pittsburgh lawyer whose firm has had extensive dealings with Scaife.

    Scaife has often behaved like a man who expects the world to bend to his wishes. Hersh, author of "The Mellon Family," recounted an example. Nearly 25 years ago Hersh had an extensive interview with Scaife, who told him more than he has told anyone else about his early life, his disputes with members of the Mellon family and his political and business activities. Hersh was at home in New Hampshire writing the book when he received a telephone call from Scaife, who evidently had decided that he told the author too much. Hersh recently recalled:

    "He tried to bully me into not using parts of our interview, and he warned me ominously that I could regret it if I didn't do as he asked.

    "'No, I won't,' I replied.

    "'Why not?' Scaife asked.

    "'Because I'm tape recording this conversation,' I said. I never heard from him again."

    Hersh concluded that Scaife was "basically just a great big spoiled child."

    Several years ago Scaife got angry with the Mellon Bank, which owned the building in Pittsburgh where he had his office, for letting conditions in the building deteriorate. He complained, according to a member of the board of the Sarah Scaife Foundation, but the bank was not responsive. So he announced that he was moving and got a new office (on the same 39th floor he had been on for years) in a nearby tower. He also took all his and his foundations' money out of the Mellon Bank.

    Mellon Family History Left Scaife With Mixed Feelings

    Several of Scaife's associates said his complex feelings about the Mellons are a key to the man. Those feelings are the product of two generations of family history.

    By all accounts the Mellons were delighted in the mid-1920s when their rather plain and shy Sarah caught the eye of the dashing Alan Scaife, a handsome Yale graduate and fine horseman. Alan Scaife's grandfather, Jeffrey Scaife, had landed in Pittsburgh at the dawn of the 19th century and established a metal fabricating firm that was never fabulously successful but did well enough to establish the family firmly in Pittsburgh's upper crust, where they arrived before the Mellons. Sarah and Alan married in 1927, feted by 1,000 guests in a pavilion built for the occasion. Man-made moons beamed down from four directions.

    Alan's dash was not accompanied by business acumen. The Scaife Co. struggled under his command. When war broke out, Alan Scaife joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as an Army major. Richard Helms, Scaife's OSS colleague then and later director of central intelligence, remembers Scaife's flattering, tailor-made major's uniforms. "If you said anything about him, you'd say he was a lightweight," Helms recalled. After the war he returned to Pittsburgh.

    William Block, who was editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the postwar years, remembers several letters from Alan Scaife complaining about Block's decision to make the paper's editorial line more moderate in the late 1940s. "Alan Scaife was terribly worried about inherited wealth, apparently feeling that you have to be Republican to stay rich," Block said recently.

    Sarah's brother R.K. Mellon, whose successful investments vastly enlarged the family fortune in the post-World War II years, had little confidence in his brother-in-law, and gave Alan Scaife no meaningful authority in Mellon family businesses. "My father was sucking hind tit," Richard Mellon Scaife told Hersh in the mid-1970s.

    After his father died suddenly in 1958, Scaife, who had graduated from college the year before (from the University of Pittsburgh, whose board chairman was Alan Scaife), took his place on various family boards and committees, but rarely had anything substantive to do. He knew where he stood with his uncle R.K., and resented it.

    He would put together a life of his own. It would not involve the Scaife Co., which was failing. After his father died Scaife sold it "for a dollar," he told Hersh.

    In 1974, Scaife had an opportunity to express his feelings about the Mellons. In honor of his mother, he had decided to donate a new wing to the Carnegie, Pittsburgh's leading museum, and to fill it with her art collection. In life she had always been Sarah Mellon Scaife, so Pittsburgh society was taken aback when the new wing was opened. At her son's insistence, it was called simply the Sarah Scaife wing. Later, he removed the Mellon from the name of the Sarah Mellon Scaife Foundation.

    Continued on Page Two

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar