Biographical Memoirs: Paul Mellon

By Prown, Jules David | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Biographical Memoirs: Paul Mellon

Prown, Jules David, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

11 JUNE 1907 * 1 FEBRUARY 1999

PAUL MELLON, who died on 1 February 1999, devoted himself and his wealth to the support of excellence. While doing so, he personally excelled in many realms, including collecting works of art and building museums to house them; breeding, racing, and riding horses; and, above all, philanthropy. Blessed with inherited wealth, a strong constitution (he was a champion trail rider into his seventies), and an equable demeanor, he made the most of a long life. Born 11 June 1907, Paul described his childhood in his highly readable autobiography, Reflections in a Silver Spoon (Morrow, 1992), as less than ideal despite the comforts of life in a well-to-do home: an aloof, distant father, the financier Andrew W. Mellon; strained relations between his parents that led to separation and divorce; and the bleak, drab setting of industrial Pittsburgh. His brighter memories of early years were of summers in rural England, where his English mother, Nora McMullen Mellon, instilled in him a love of horses, horsemanship, and country life.

With appropriate filial piety, Paul's primary philanthropic activities were closely linked to the source of his wealth, Andrew W. Mellon, and to his father's previous charitable undertakings. One of his earliest philanthropic responsibilities, undertaken while still in his twenties, was as a founder, trustee, and eventually chairman of his father's Pittsburghbased A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust (liquidated in 1980). Later Paul oversaw the consolidation of his own Old Dominion Foundation and the Avalon Foundation of his sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, into the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (1969), of which he was long a trustee.

Paul continued the work of his father in his involvement with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Andrew Mellon formally offered the Gallery as an intended gift to the nation in 1936. He donated spectacular paintings, provided funds for the construction of John Russell Pope's splendid classical design, and decreed that the Gallery not bear his name so as not to discourage future support from others. Paul himself later followed that pattern of philanthropy and modesty in creating the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven and the East Building that more than doubled the size of the National Gallery. After Andrew Mellon's death in 1937, the year construction of the National Gallery began, young Paul stepped in and oversaw the project through to successful completion in 1941. That summer he enlisted as a private in the cavalry. After Officer Training School he served two years as a riding instructor at Fort Riley, Kansas, then went overseas with the OSS in England and Europe, rising to the rank of major. On his return in 1945, he became president of the National Gallery and served in that capacity for forty years before becoming an honorary trustee in 1985.

Whatever Paul received from the schools at which he was educated-Choate; Yale; Clare College, Cambridge; St. John's College in Annapolis-was generously repaid by his benefactions. As a student, Paul's primary interests were literary. At Yale, he was inspired (and his Anglophilia reinforced) by such English department luminaries as Chauncey Brewster Tinker and William Lyon Phelps. After graduating from Yale he continued his study at Cambridge, where his love of English outdoor life burgeoned through rowing on the Cam and riding-especially fox hunting. The latter interest precipitated his first steps as a collector, the purchase of books on hunting and racing. This led in 1936 to his first purchase of a painting, George Stubbs's Pumpkin with a Stable Lad, which he always maintained was his favorite English painting in his collection.

Paul's wide-ranging literary interests are manifest in the achievements of the Bollingen Foundation, which he and his first wife, Mary Conover Brown, established in 1945 for the advancement and preservation of learning in the humanities.

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