Giants of the Gilded Age ; Biographies of Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon Offer Complex Portraits of the Two Philanthropists

Article excerpt

Between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, the American economy was transformed. Huge new industries - petroleum, railroads, iron and steel, natural gas, and aluminum - emerged and a rural, agrarian nation became urban and industrial.

One aspect of this transformation that has long fascinated Americans is the role that a small band of men - collectively known as "the Robber Barons" - played in this revolution. The names are well known: Morgan, Carnegie, Frick, Gould, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Mellon. But we tend to view them as stereotypes - greedy, rapacious individuals who accumulated vast fortunes by buying politicians and exploiting employees.

The truth is, of course, far more complex as two superb new biographies reveal. David Cannadine's Mellon: An American Life and David Nasaw's Andrew Carnegie bring these important men to life and, taken together create a vivid portrait of the era that Mark Twain labeled "The Gilded Age."

Andrew Mellon is perhaps less well known than his fellow industrial titans because he was a banker who invested in multiple industries rather than focusing on one in particular. But his impact was extraordinary: "He financed and facilitated the massive industrial expansion of Western Pennsylvania" and created, among other firms, Alcoa, Gulf Oil, and National Carborundum.

Late in life, despite personal misgivings, he became Treasury secretary for three US Presidents. He presided over the Roaring '20s and was referred to as the "greatest Treasury secretary since Alexander Hamilton" until the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression shattered his image.

Another US president - Franklin Roosevelt - used Mellon as the personification of a "malefactor of wealth" and indicted him on trumped-up charges of tax fraud. But at the same time that the government was prosecuting him, Mellon created the National Gallery of Art and donated his art collection to the country, instantly creating one of the finest art museums in the world.

British historian David Cannadine brings this important and elusive figure to life in a book that is a model of the biographer's craft. Paul Mellon, Andrew Mellon's son, commissioned the book and gave Cannadine free access to the family's records. The result is an extensive, careful, fascinating study that will satisfy the scholar and appeal to a general audience as well. This is, surprisingly, the first full-length biography devoted to Mellon since his death and, given his seminal place in American history, is a welcome and much needed work.

Cannadine portrays Mellon fairly and sympathetically but, at the same time, leaves no doubt that this shy, intense, taciturn business genius was not a terribly likable human being.

Cannadine devotes a great deal of time to Mellon's personal life - his impetuous marriage to a much younger woman who did not love him, his insensitivity to her needs and feelings, her infidelities, a scandalous divorce, and the crushing impact it had on their children. The book conveys a great feel for Mellon's entire family and illustrates how the personality that served him so well in business undermined his personal life.

Andrew Carnegie was completely different. His was the prototypical rags-to-riches story. The son of a poor Scottish weaver, he went to work at age 12. He began working on the Pennsylvania Railroad and advanced rapidly, thanks to his intelligence, drive, and a gift for befriending his superiors. He later moved into iron and then steel to amass his fortune. He was small in stature, but his ebullient, outgoing personality and natural affection for others made him a human dynamo.

Carnegie, like Mellon, married a much younger woman in his middle age, but for Carnegie it proved a very happy union. Mellon worked constantly and followed his business interests intently but Carnegie "semi-retired" in his forties, worked just a few hours a day, moved to New York, and spent most of the year abroad. …