Mellon: An American Life

By Hardy, Pat | British Art Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Mellon: An American Life


Hardy, Pat, British Art Journal


Mellon: An American Life

David Cannadine

Allen Lane, London, 2006, 779 pp, 20 col., 86 b&w ills 30 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-0-713-99508-4

The first published biography of Andrew Mellon provides not only a detailed account of this American financier, filling out a character whose surname was perhaps the only thing previously known by a British audience, but discusses wide ranging issues affecting a crucial period in American history. Twelve years in the making, this book is informative and inspiring in its lucid arguments, grasp of complex material and pace of narrative, fully justifying the confidence placed in the author by the Mellon family. For David Cannadine has continued, in his researches into Andrew Mellon, his exploration of the historical currents affecting modern society, begun in 1980 when be investigated two major developments in modern British history, namely the decline of the aristocracy as the landed ruling elite and the rise of a mass urban society, and continued in major works on class and British society. (1) In this book, the history of a rapidly industrialising Pittsburgh is tracked together with the rise of the new plutocracy in America with all its economic and social ramifications.

The Mellon story is complicated and hardly believable. Andrew Mellon's life, 1855-1937, spanned a period which began with the Crimean War, just before the American Civil War, and finished four years before Pearl Harbor. Andrew Mellon was the son of Thomas, who had emigrated from Ulster in 1818, aged five, with his 'middling' prosperous farming parents, encouraged by reports from relatives who had already settled in Pennysylvania. (2) Andrew Mellon used his considerable financial acumen (building upon a solid foundation constructed by his father 'Judge' Thomas Mellon) to develop his family's influence in five areas, banking, industry, politics, art-collecting and philanthropy, amassing a fortune in the process, and the book, with all these competing narratives, could easily have become unwieldy and confusing. But not only are these different themes tightly controlled, particularly the sections dealing with how Mellon exploited the unregulated, laissez-faire business environment nurtured by Republican industrialists in late-19th-century Pittsburgh and the complicated tax reforms introduced by Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury under three Presidents, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, between 1921-1932, but the essence of his relationships with parents, siblings, wife and two children also emerges. The British reader may have liked some comparative analysis with events in Britain, particularly in relation to the art-collecting mores of wealthy industrialists on either side of the Atlantic, the economic climate which nurtured these art-collectors, the art dealership networks and the type of art on offer, but this would have expanded an already large book.

Where the reader remains uncertain and still wondering is in relation to the shadowy persona of Mellon himself, whose every letter and diary entry evokes control, dispassion, and secrecy. Just as Gladstone was accused by Queen Victoria of speaking to her as if she was a public meeting, so Mellon appears to have written to everyone as if they were an audit, inanimate and numerate, and it is to Cannadine's credit that we obtain any sense at all of what Mellon was like. A shy man, with an almost inaudible voice, he was described by a journalist in 1921 as looking like 'a dried-up dollar bill that any wind might whisk away'. Mellon's huge capacity for work is brought to life by descriptions of his daily routine and by the apposite quote: Paul, his son, wrote in 1934, when Mellon was aged 79, that everyone was glad to see Mellon leave Pittsburgh because 'all had their tongues hanging out from exhaustion' and that Mellon was 'a comet of complete energy'.

Not surprisingly Mellon wriggled out of attempts to have his portrait painted by any fashionable (British) artist nor does his collection reveal anything which could give away any personal sentiments: there are no paintings in his collection, for example, which could evoke any nostalgia for Ireland, nor any leisure pursuits. …

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