Anthony Smith ponders a robber baron whose bequest was priceless
David Cannadine's vast but gripping biography of Andrew Mellon is a treatise on the influence of Irish/ Scottish Presbyterianism on the growth of American capitalism. It is also an account of Pittsburgh's role in the construction of American power, and it can be read as a moral tale of avarice and its comeuppance, a parable of the souring of the American Dream. But by the end of the book, you are left with one indelibly etched picture of a single moment in the life of the unhappy and unlovable figure of Mellon, a moment towards which all the decades of merciless wealth creation, all the family traumas, manias, divorces and persecution have been leading. That is the moment in December 1936 when the exhausted Mellon, diagnosed with a fatal cancer ("a dried-up dollar bill that the wind might whisk away"), the unjustly reviled victim of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vindictive electoral demagogy, arrived at his enemy's office in the White House to offer the American people the greatest private art collection in the world and the site and the money to build the National Gallery of Washington.
At this meeting between New Deal President and publicly dishonoured benefactor no reference was made to the public auto-da-fe through which Mellon had just passed. He had for months been sitting patiently - though entirely innocent of the charges - through a public arraignment for tax evasion engineered by the Democrats through a tireless campaign as they sought power in the era of the Great Depression. Theirs was an ideological struggle against a Republican view of American needs - low spending, low taxes, minimal wages in austere working conditions - and it was fought with great personal animus against the robber barons - Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Frick and Mellon - in an unscrupulous campaign. Mellon was exonerated posthumously (he had always known he would be) and had persisted in preparing his gift with unimaginable magnanimity. For part of the accusation against him had been that the trust in which he held the paintings was a tax fiddle, though in truth it had always been the intended vehicle for his unprecedented benefaction.
Mellon's taste had long been under training at the hands of the bustling art dealer Joseph Duveen, who was constantly at Mellon's elbow assisting him to acquire masterpieces in what must have been the last opportunity to collect Old Masters of such quality on such a scale. In the meantime, Mellon's negotiations with Stalin's exchange-hungry henchmen had also prised half the masterpieces in the Hermitage into his hands for the ultimate benefit of America. One can only speculate as to what went on in Roosevelt's mind as his dying political enemy explained the extent and nature of the gift that was being laid before him.
What Cannadine builds up is a picture of a hollow man obsessed with the accumulation of wealth, living in an era in which both characteristics were well represented. He was a thin, wordless man of matchless avarice who was constituted in such a way as to fail in any relationship outside the commercial. His 19-year-old English wife, Nora, was another acquisition, persuaded through protracted negotiation to marry the 45-year-old Mellon, and the melodrama through which she led him to their divorce, torturing him with alternating scandal and hysteria, was her vengeance for the life into which he had drawn her, presenting her the grim tedium of sullen, grimy Pittsburgh in exchange for the rills and hills of her family's estate in England. Her husband "rarely smiled and hardly ever laughed". But, like an Elizabethan stage cuckold, Mellon was led a dance by Nora's tenacious, money-seeking, comic-opera lover, Alfred Curphy, who conned Mellon out of $20,000 before fleeing to the Isle of Man - and abandoning Nora. Among her vindictive lies, Nora said that her husband visited prostitutes and might have given her syphilis. Mellon was baffled by human nature, and any out-of-character excursion he made into the personal realm always ended badly, including his relationship with his son and daughter. It seemed that the greater his wealth, the emptier he became - his acquisition of a grim-faced, money-based and calculating taste for fine painting was his sole redemption.
The Mellon approach to fortune-making was generally rather different from the more expansive and collegial methods practised in our day. He entered a wide variety of industries - oil, steel, aluminium, property and much else - and maintained a total grip on each burgeoning enterprise. When aluminium first appeared in 1888, he sold it at $5 a pound directly from his office, reducing the price as demand passed into the phase of mushroom growth. When the Carborundum Company and Alcoa exploded into vast industrial concerns, he clung to as much of the equity as he could for as long as he could, and by such techniques did the Mellon fortune swell into the third largest industrial empire in America. Gulf Oil was held as closely. Cannadine places Mellon's personality (and his approach to capital) within the Scottish-Irish tradition of inward-looking self-sufficiency. Mellon's approach to business was largely as taught him by his Irish immigrant Presbyterian father, and Pennsylvanian politics were to be shaped by such chill and grasping instincts.
Mellon at the height of his powers, after the Great War, was recruited into political life and served as Treasury Secretary for more than ten years and under three presidents. It was arguably his acumen in renegotiating the postwar debts both of allies and enemies that made possible the roller coaster prosperity of the Roaring Twenties; government spending was halved; the taxes paid by the rich were slashed; the national debt was reduced by nearly half. The Republican Party believed that the natural job of government was to assist rich men to create wealth. But when the Depression arrived, Mellon and his industrialist friends were made the scapegoats for the coming cataclysm.
Mellon had stayed too long in the job, and for extraneous aesthetic reasons: he had wanted to see through the completion of the Federal Triangle building project in Washington and to gain acceptance for his National Gallery. But meanwhile disastrous suffering spread across the capitalist world. Ten million Americans (20 per cent of the entire workforce) lost their jobs, and, as the historian Arnold Toynbee put it, people the world over were "frankly discussing the possibility that the Western system of society... might cease to work". But Mellon's advice to President Herbert Hoover had continued to be to let the economy find its true level and recover through "purging its excesses"; he thought that that was the way to get people to work harder and live morally. "Just sit and watch with folded arms" was how a liberal journalist such as Stuart Chase saw it. But, for Mellon, it was a matter of uncontrollable forces that the voters would understand and not hold against the Republicans.
The fortunes of the Mellon family declined with the rest, but their firm personal control meant that they survived and recovered swiftly. Hoover let Mellon go from the Treasury and sent him as Ambassador to London. He returned to America after a year, in time to hear the triumphant Roosevelt denounce the administrations of the previous decade: in his inaugural address, FDR spoke of "false leadership", a "generation of self-seekers"
who had now been "rejected by the hearts and minds of men". FDR's commination was delivered in broad generalities, but everyone knew who was meant, and in any case he had before the election castigated Mellon personally as "the mastermind among the malefactors of great wealth".
Government intervention in the economy now occurred swiftly and massively.
While the media howled its execrations, the machinery of justice slowly closed in on Mellon, now well into his seventies; he sat patiently for months refuting unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and malfeasance while his dysfunctional family offered little comfort. Even as his health gave way, he persisted in the struggle for a National Gallery, which today stands as an irreversible tribute to his unwavering nature.
This is a scholarly biography penetrated by melodrama. It has been researched with an assiduousness characteristic of its subject and written with a brilliance that places Cannadine among the finest of living biographers.
Anthony Smith was president of Magdalen College, Oxford, 1987-2005.
Mellon: An American Life
Author - David Cannadine
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 779
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 713 99508 4