Scandal in Pittsburgh

David Nasaw

  • Mellon: An American Life by David Cannadine
    Allen Lane, 779 pp, £30.00, November 2006, ISBN 0 7139 9508 4

‘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.

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