Magazine article The Spectator

American Midas and Maecenas

Magazine article The Spectator

American Midas and Maecenas

Article excerpt

MELLON : AN AMERICAN LIFE by David Cannadine Penguin, £30, pp. 560, ISBN 0713995084 . £24 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

In this current climate of diminishing government funding, it is important for us to turn to other means of supporting public purposes, philanthropy being one. Britain therefore has wisely looked to America where they have never had the same level of government support for social causes. The percentage of individual charitable giving to GDP is more than double in the United States than in the UK. A key issue is tax incentives. Gifts of capital and assets in Britain do not have an allowance similar to that on gifts of shares, and the recent review by Sir Nicholas Goodison, Securing the Best for our Museums: Private Giving and Government Support, published by H. M.

Treasury in January 2004, recommended a tax allowance to encourage getting more art into museums. Sadly nothing was done to implement this recommendation. But without obvious and understandable tax benefits the rich are unlikely to put as much back into the community as they do in the United States.

Therefore, it is entirely appropriate and meaningful that David Cannadine, the new Chairman of the National Portrait Gallery, should have written the biography of Andrew Mellon who had been America's greatest collector of art and who was the uncharacteristic founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Mellon has now been dead for almost 70 years and the fact that there has been no full-scale biography published in that time constitutes an enormous gap in American biography. Curiously the 200,000-word Mellon biography by the Pulitzer Prizewinning author Burton J. Hendrick, commissioned by the Mellon family soon after he died in 1937, was never published because while the second world war raged, and while Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President of the United States, Mellon's financial affairs were under severe scrutiny.

Andrew Mellon was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1855 six years before the American Civil War broke out. He was the son of the banker and judge Thomas Mellon and was educated at the Western University of Pennsylvania, now the University of Pittsburgh. Very early in his life he demonstrated his extraordinary financial ability, and joined his father's banking firm in 1872. Ten years later at the age of 27 he had the ownership of his father's bank transferred to himself. In 1889 he helped organise the Union Trust Company and the Union Savings Bank of Pittsburgh. Branching out from banking, he financed the massive industrial expansion of western Pennsylvania, and between the 1860s and 1920s, during which time America became the world's leading economic power, he amassed fortunes in oil, steel, shipbuilding and construction. Gulf Oil, Alcoa and the Carborundum Company were giant American corporations that grew out of Mellon's conviction and financial support.

A lifelong Republican, Mellon was appointed US Secretary of the Treasury and became a member of President Warren G. Harding's Cabinet in 1921.

Two years later he introduced the 'Mellon Plan', a programme for tax reform. He also reduced the public debt inherited from first world war obligations from almost $26 billion in 1921 to about $16 billion in 1930.

Mellon continued to hold high office throughout the administrations of presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. However, with the onslaught of the Great Depression he became increasingly unpopular. …

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