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
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. …