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Mellon: An American Life 
by David Cannadine.
Allen Lane, 779 pp., £30, November 2006, 0 7139 9508 4
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‘There is nothing so enervating,’ Andrew Carnegie wrote in 1891, ‘nothing so deadly in its effects upon the qualities which lead to the highest achievement, moral or intellectual, as hereditary wealth.’ Boys born with silver spoons in their mouths, Carnegie said, were likely to choke on them. To spare them from ruin, and society from being despoiled by dynastic wealth, he argued for a nearly 100 per cent tax rate on large estates. ‘Looking at the usual result of enormous sums conferred upon legatees,’ he wrote in the Gospel of Wealth, ‘the thoughtful man must shortly say: “I would as soon leave to my son a curse as the almighty dollar.”’ Carnegie might well have wondered whether Thomas Mellon, in passing on his huge fortune to his son Andrew, had not bestowed on him a curse rather than a blessing.

The two families made their fortunes in Pittsburgh after emigrating in the first half of the 19th century: the Mellons from County Tyrone in the late 1810s, the Carnegies from Dunfermline in 1848. Andrew Carnegie’s father, William, an impoverished linen weaver in Scotland and a business failure in the US, left his son nothing but debts. Andrew Mellon’s father, Thomas, passed a bank on to his son, as well as millions of dollars in stocks, bonds and real estate.

As Pittsburgh prospered in the mid-19th century, so did Thomas Mellon. At 21 he left the family farm for the Western University of Pennsylvania, then studied law with a former judge and set up his own practice. Though a competent enough lawyer, he made his early money by investing in foreclosures and trading in mortgages, then married ‘a substantial heiress’, and used her dowry to acquire properties in and around the city.

In 1859, Thomas Mellon was elected a judge of the Court of Common Pleas. During his ten-year term, he also managed to expand his real-estate holdings and enter the coal and banking businesses, adroitly riding the post-Civil War boom in western Pennsylvania until he had more than enough capital to set up his five surviving sons in business. He was as zealous a superintendent of his large family as he was of his fortune. He schooled his older boys at home, chose the businesses they should enter, and kept careful watch over their personal lives. ‘Though Judge Mellon had rebelled decisively against his own father,’ David Cannadine writes in his new biography of the judge’s son Andrew, ‘he had no intention of tolerating any such conduct in the next generation … The judge regarded his sons as essentially extensions of himself.’

When Andrew Mellon was in his teens, his father introduced him to the banking business. In 1882 he decreed that Andrew would take over ‘both the management and income of T. Mellon & Sons’. In 1890 he transferred his and his wife’s remaining assets to Andrew ‘to hold them on behalf of the four surviving brothers’. Andrew did what was expected of him. All his life, ‘whenever confronted by any major problem, his authentic reflexive response,’ Cannadine tells us, ‘was to wonder what his father would have done.’ He even followed his father’s example and broke off his engagement to his first love when he found out she had consumption. With his father lurking in the background, and with the help of his brother Dick, who was installed by the judge as vice-president of T. Mellon & Sons in 1887, Andrew expanded the family’s banking businesses and invested, usually wisely, in a variety of new ventures: the Mellons became major shareholders in Gulf Oil and Alcoa Aluminum.

The Mellon family fortune grew geometrically during Andrew’s lifetime, but it is difficult to ascertain what role he played in the piling up of dynastic wealth. We know that Andrew Carnegie played a major part – even as an absentee owner – in his iron and steel businesses: he left behind thousands of pages of memoranda, accounting sheets, annotated board minutes, drafts of contracts in his own handwriting, and letters instructing his partners what to do and when. Unfortunately for Cannadine, Mellon did not leave behind the same wealth of documentation, probably because he was less involved in the management of the companies than Carnegie was. The aluminium business, a cornerstone of the Mellon fortune, was, Andrew later admitted, managed by Arthur Vining Davis: ‘You might say that he was practically the whole business.’ Gulf Oil was overseen by one of Andrew’s nephews. The banking businesses were controlled jointly by Andrew and Dick, but they were advised by a succession of highly talented managers. And then there was Henry Clay Frick, who became a friend, client and partner of the Mellons in the 1870s and remained one for thirty years. In their joint ventures – and there were many – one suspects that Frick, not the Mellons, was the dominant partner.

While the Mellon family offered Cannadine carte blanche to examine every scrap of paper in the family archives, there may not have been much material there. Andrew Mellon was reticent in the extreme. He had no way with words, written or spoken, and little intellectual curiosity. Unlike his father, he did not write an autobiography. Assistants produced the books, articles and speeches that appeared with his name attached. His correspondence and interviews reveal little. Even the entries Mellon made in the diary he began to keep in 1910 tell us very little about his personal life, perhaps because there was so little of it. He was, his biographer concludes, emotionally stunted and ‘never quite a three-dimensional figure’.

On finishing Cannadine’s biography, we can understand why it is the first to be published since the journalist Harvey O’Connor’s appeared in 1933. As Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, there isn’t any there there. Cannadine dutifully charts the success of Mellon’s various investments and the growth of his banking businesses, but there is little narrative drama in the story of his rise from riches to more riches.

Mellon becomes intriguing as a biographical subject only when, at the age of 43, he repudiates his father’s training, abandons all pretence at good sense, and proposes marriage to a woman half his age. Nora McMullen of Hertfordshire and Andrew Mellon of Pittsburgh were married in September 1900. Their daughter, Ailsa, was born the following June. The marriage was a disaster from the outset. Nora ‘was appalled and bewildered by Pittsburgh’, unprepared for domesticity, angry that her husband spent more time at the bank than at home, and distraught that he had so little to say to her. Andrew, who had until his marriage lived in his parents’ home, was oblivious to his wife’s unhappiness and shocked when, four years after they married, she asked for a divorce: she wanted to live with the man she had been seeing for two years. Andrew tried to talk her out of her ‘madness’. They stayed together, and had a second child, Paul, in 1907. In 1909, Nora, who had started seeing her lover again, once more asked her husband for a divorce and enough money to settle comfortably with the children in England: she could not, she insisted, live any longer in America. She ‘threatened to make Pittsburgh “ring with scandal”’, Cannadine writes, ‘unless Andrew met her demands. She would accuse him of being infected with venereal disease, of having procured an abortion for a young girl, and of keeping a woman in New York.’

Mellon, now in his mid-fifties, was left with two choices, neither particularly desirable. He could accede to Nora’s demands and share the children with her – and her lover – or he could do battle in the divorce courts. For perhaps the first time in his life, he chose the alternative that posed the greater risk for himself and his family. He filed for divorce on grounds of adultery, hired detectives to trail Nora and gather evidence of past liaisons, placed every first-class lawyer in the region on retainer – just so Nora could not hire any of them – and used his influence with the Pennsylvania Republican machine to make the state legislature overturn the law that required a jury trial when the charge was adultery.

The divorce proceedings became, as Nora had threatened, ‘the talk of Pittsburgh, an utter embarrassment for Andrew’, and a burden that Ailsa and Paul would bear for the rest of their lives. To prevent Nora from poisoning the children with recriminations or removing them to England, Andrew filed an application with the Orphans’ Court to have them made wards of court and assigned a guardian. ‘These were terrible times for the Mellon children,’ Cannadine writes. ‘By turns lonely and fearful and bored, they were uprooted, hauled off to unfamiliar and impermanent surroundings, and looked after by a strange German lady.’ In the end, the divorce decree was granted. Andrew was given custody of the children for eight months a year, Nora for four, but she was forbidden to remove them from Allegheny County without Andrew’s or the court’s written approval.

In 1920, Mellon turned 65, richer than ever and known locally for his wealth, his scandalous divorce, and his devotion and financial contributions to the Republicans. When Warren Harding was elected president that November, he invited Mellon to serve as his treasury secretary, not because of his brilliance as a banker or his knowledge of international finance, but because Harding’s first choice had turned him down and the president-elect owed Pennsylvania’s Republican leaders a favour. Mellon fitted the requirements: he was a loyal Republican contributor and ‘acceptable to Wall Street, but … not of it’.

Mellon has been identified – and often condemned – as an architect of the Republican policies which declared that what was good for business was good for the nation. But Cannadine argues that ‘he was certainly never as powerful as his many contemporary nemeses presumed.’ He ran the Treasury as he ran his businesses: by relying on his advisers and leaving much of the work to his deputies and chief assistants, several of whom he brought with him from Pittsburgh and paid out of his own pocket.

The Treasury’s major initiative during his time in office was tax reform: the reduction of the top rates; the abolition of estate, excess profits and gift taxes; and the elimination of the public disclosure of individual returns. Though Mellon claimed – and Cannadine supports him – that lowering tax rates for the wealthy would increase revenues by discouraging tax avoidance and investment in tax-exempt bonds, it also resulted in a bonanza for millionaires like Mellon. As Cannadine notes, Mellon’s income doubled in the mid-1920s, while, as he mildly says, ‘the tax he paid on it went up rather more slowly.’ The removal of gift tax also benefited him by enabling him to begin ‘transferring his immense holdings to his children’ without penalty.

On taking office, Mellon had pledged to retire from business, as was required by the 1789 statute that ‘prohibited anyone engaged in trade or commerce from becoming secretary of the treasury’, but he didn’t. He consulted regularly with his brother Dick and the managers of the family firms, including Gulf Oil and Alcoa, lobbied his colleagues in government for contracts and concessions for his companies, and supported legislation that benefited the industries and firms he had investments in. Mellon, Cannadine tells us, ‘went to Washington an orthodox believer in the plutocratic creed that government existed to serve business interests’, his own included. ‘The Mellon interests and the national interest went hand in glove … He simply never understood or accepted the notion of conflict of interest.’

He should have known better. As the richest businessman and banker in an administration that made no secret of its commitment to businessmen and bankers, and which had lowered taxes for the wealthy, Mellon was a magnet for criticism. Most of his critics were Democrats, but perhaps the most vociferous and resolute among them was a Republican senator, James Couzens from Michigan, a millionaire himself, who set up a Senate investigation of the Internal Revenue Service. Mellon or someone else at the Treasury (Cannadine doesn’t make clear whose idea it was) retaliated by having another look at Couzens’s 1919 tax return and charging him an additional $11 million. The decision was quickly overturned by the Board of Tax Appeals, which found that Couzens had overpaid, not underpaid his 1919 taxes.

After this disastrous attempt at revenge, Mellon responded to the mounting criticism by withdrawing from public view, ceding greater responsibility to his assistants at the Treasury, and spending more time assembling his collection of paintings. He had been encouraged to buy into art by his friend Henry Frick, probably during their vacations in Europe in the late 1890s. Like other Gilded Age millionaires, he relied on his dealers to advise him. He began by collecting genre paintings, French landscapes of the Barbizon School and English portraits. He didn’t become a serious collector until his mid-sixties, when he spent considerable sums decorating the walls of his new Pittsburgh mansion and the opulent Washington apartment for which he paid an annual rent of $25,000, twice his salary. The coming of the Depression presented new opportunities. ‘The international art trade came close to collapse in the aftermath of the crash,’ Cannadine writes, ‘as many rich people suddenly stopped spending on such luxuries.’ But Mellon was rich enough not to have to stop. The final episode in his collecting history – and the most entertaining to read about – was his purchase of paintings from the Hermitage which Stalin put on sale in 1929 to raise foreign currency. Though fiercely anti-Communist and a member of an administration that refused to grant official recognition to the USSR, Mellon gladly delivered $7 million to the Soviets in return for more than twenty masterpieces by Hals, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velázquez, Rubens, Raphael and others.

Cannadine devotes many pages to Mellon’s art-collecting and his plan to establish a National Gallery of Art to house his collection, though in the end he can’t quite explain the motives or sensibilities behind the individual purchases or the plans for a gallery: ‘What began as a way to decorate his drab marital home evolved into a personal interest and a delight in driving hard bargains, in which the aesthetic component, though probably present, remains largely inscrutable.’

In November 1928, Herbert Hoover became the third Republican in succession to win the presidency. Though Mellon disliked and distrusted Hoover and, at 73, should have retired as treasury secretary, he chose to remain in place, perhaps in the hope of facing ‘down the critics who had dared doubt his integrity’. When, a year later, to his great surprise, the American stock market crashed, accompanied in time by bank failures, catastrophic decreases in output, increases in unemployment, a depression in Europe and the collapse of the loan arrangements negotiated with debtor nations, Mellon ‘did little and stayed quiet, still governed by his faith in the self-regulation of markets’. In 1930 and 1931, as the situation worsened, he continued to counsel inaction and spent more and more of his time on his art collection. ‘Buying pictures covertly from the Soviets captured his imagination in a way that presiding over an uncertain economy did not.’

In January 1932, Mellon finally resigned from the Treasury and accepted a new post as ambassador to Britain only days after Wright Patman, a Texas congressman who had been collecting incriminating material on him for some time, initiated impeachment hearings. Still not really understanding Depression-era economics and politics, Mellon anticipated Hoover’s re-election, a quick return to prosperity, and many more years for himself as ambassador in London. He was mistaken on all counts.

In March 1933, Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office as president and Mellon resigned his ambassadorship. Within months, Homer Cummings, the attorney general, told reporters that he intended to look into charges that Mellon had under-reported his income and underpaid his income tax – the same accusation Mellon had made against Senator Couzens a decade earlier.

Mellon spent the last years of his life defending himself against tax fraud charges and finalising his plans for a National Gallery. In March 1937, his plans were approved by Congress; on 26 August, Mellon died of complications from cancer. He was 82. In December, the Board of Tax Appeals cleared him of filing fraudulent tax returns. He had broken the law by taking part in business decisions while he was treasury secretary, but he had paid his taxes in full and on time, though at the much reduced rates he had been instrumental in setting.

David Cannadine has done a masterful job telling the story of this cold, isolated, secretive and taciturn banker, businessman, senior government official, art collector and philanthropist, though the subject doesn’t always afford full rein to his talents. While the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Professor of British History, whose work until now has been exclusively on British topics, has ably negotiated the crossing of the Atlantic, one might have preferred him to make another subject his entry-point into US history. Still, it is difficult to imagine any historian writing a better biography of Andrew Mellon than this one.

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