42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2007
As I was nearing the end of this large and thorough biography of one of America's most prominent plutocrats, I was rooting for nonagenarian Andrew Mellon to live a few more years--just long enough to see the completion of his marvelous dream project and generous gift to the nation, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Sadly, Mellon did not live to see it completed, but this biographer holds our interest to the very end, in a book that comprises 620 pages of narrative and many more of notes and which took the author more than a decade to research and write.
Having previously read both father Judge Thomas' and son Paul's autobiographies (both well worth your time and attention), and having lived in and around Andrew's milieu for many years, I knew the basic outlines of Mellon's life. The Scots-Irish Presbyterian boyhood growing up in what had been the Negley estate, the partnership with his father in Judge Thomas' investment forays, the lifelong friendship with business demagogue H C Frick, the late and ill-fated marriage to Englishwoman Nora McMullen, and the undemonstrative relationship with his children, not to mention the mature years during which Mellon's fortune burgeoned and consequently, his reshaping of the Pittsburgh urban scene. Anyone who has lived and worked within an hour's radius of "The Cathedral of Earning" as Mellon Bank's 1920s building on Mellon Square is still nicknamed, has heard the stories of Andrew's doings and indeed they still impact the social and business scene of Pittsburgh. However, Cannadine fleshes out the outline in so thorough a fashion that we do get a sense of the man who was lucky in business and unlucky in love, and who compensated for his disappointments in flesh and blood relationships by surrounding himself with portraits of beautiful but silent Englishwomen and amassed one of the world's greatest art collections.
This biography was commissioned by Paul Mellon--with the goal of there being as complete and well researched a record of his father's life as possible. Cannadine, who is an acclaimed and prizewinning author, accepted the task with the caveat that he would draw his own conclusions and these were not subject to censure or review by Paul Mellon. So, we find this work as the end result of his Herculean labors.
After spending 12 years with his subject, Cannadine, whose social and political orientation is not the same as Mellon or his family's circle, confesses that he has come to admire the man and his accomplishments even where he disagrees with Mellon's choices and convictions. Cannadine also makes it clear that Mellon was so private a man that at the end of the day it is hard to grasp some of the secrets of his persona. Certainly one of more interesting discoveries, and I would suspect one of the more frustrating unsolved aspects of Mellon's private life, is the question of who or what was "M___", the oft noted appointment in Mellon's diary during the years 1912-1917. It is unlikely that this tantalizing mystery will be solved, considering that after twelve years of sleuthing, it eluded Cannadine.
The biography contained a few disappointments for this reviewer, who admits a thoroughgoing interest in the events of late May 1889 in the life of Andrew Mellon and his sixty-odd fellow members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Why, after all the research, does Cannadine choose not to include the reaction of the big bosses of Pittsburgh to the Johnstown Flood--Mellon included. That is, the clandestine meeting at which they formed "The Pittsburgh Relief Committee" and publicly pledged financial support for the relief of the disaster, at the very same meeting also pledging a code of silence about their immediately-abandoned Club as the chief cause of the deluge. This is a silence that has been kept by the Club's members and their descendents to this day. One would have to read David McCullough's account of the Johnstown Flood to get even a whisper of the backroom secret maneuverings of the lawyers (and fellow Club members) Knox and Reed, who successfully defended the Club's members against the very few attempts to hold them accountable for the failed earthen dam at their elite rustic retreat, which had contributed so directly to the death of more than 2000 Johnstown area residents.
Mellon, like Carnegie and Frick, and friends whose names are less well known, were part of the conspiracy of silence. A grandson of one of their fellow Club members has told me that the Johnstown Flood was never to be spoken of in their East End home, and that he did not know until his father had died and he was going through his father's papers that his grandfather had been a member of the infamous Club. Certainly Cannadine's research brought these and similar facts to light. One wonders why he censored himself in this key event in Mellon's life, especially so since most long-time Pittsburghers know the story, right down to the fact that Knox and Reed's firm is said to have "lost" an entire room's worth of files and records about the Flood and the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club when they moved premises in the early 1900s.
Someday, some biographer or historian will dare to tell the rest of the story, how the burden of silence dogged and haunted those sixty plus men and their families, men whose names are known to history for other reasons--Mellon, Frick and Carnegie, Leishman, Pitcairn, Phipps, Phillips, Horne and Knox, for the remainder of their lives. Some may think, "Why dredge it up; that was all in the past." However, the Flood was America's greatest one day non-wartime loss of life on our shores until 9-11. The Founder's Room at the exclusive Duquesne Club still sports the solemn portraits of some of the SFF&CH members as silent testimony that these larger than life figures are still with us, casting long shadows.
Moreover the case can be made that such benefactions as the National Gallery of Art, the Frick Collection, the Carnegie Foundation, Phipps Conservatory and the Phillips Collection are in some ways offerings of absolution of these millionaires, most of whom were staunch members of prominent Pittsburgh congregations, for their part in the tragedy. But Cannadine chooses not to make this case.
Also, I was sorry that I had to go back and reread the passages in Paul Mellon's very enjoyable autobiography in order to remind myself of details of his mother's relationship with Alfred Curphey including the packet of letters that were given to Paul and caused his mother Nora such tremendous alarm--as well as the conclusion that Paul drew about himself vis a vis the timing of Nora and Curphey's liaisons. One would have thought Cannadine would have dealt somehow with this personal matter, in the pages of his life of Andrew.
There are many fine illustrations, especially those relating to the account of Mellon's accumulation of the wonderful art collection; even so, one might argue that a format more akin to Martha Sanger's book on H C Frick, and a consequent inclusion of more of Andrew's old masters, would have improved this biography.
These having been said, this is a book well worth the time and attention of anyone who wishes to know more about Andrew Mellon.
If you find this review helpful you may wish to read my other reviews of similar works: Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait,Andrew Carnegie,Johnstown Flood. Don't miss my reviews of Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America,The Miss Stone Affair: America's First Modern Hostage Crisis and the insightful but incomplete After the Ball: Gilded Age Secrets, Boardroom Betrayals, and the Party That Ignited the Great Wall Street Scandal of 1905.
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
A continual flow of books appears on Carnegie, Rockefeller, Frick, J.P. Morgan and others of the "gilded age" zillionaires who benefitted from the post-civil war industrialization of the U.S. But until now, Andrew Mellon (1855-1937) has lacked a substantial biography. David Cannadine, one of Britain's leading historians (who has taught here at Columbia and Princeton as well), has remedied this deficiency in this superb biography. It is a long book to be sure, 617 pages not counting notes; I always feel books of this dimension could benefit from more stringent editing. In its defense, it can be said to be authoritative and comprehensive.
Mellon is largely a forgotten figure today, even for those of us who live in Washington and benefit from the National Gallery of Art and the National Portrait Gallery, and are aware of his service during three administrations (Harding, Coolidge, Hoover) as Secretary of the Treasury. Cannadine covers all aspects of Mellon's very diverse life and interests. He devotes limited attention to Mellon's parentage, although his father, Thomas Mellon, is quite an interesting figure in his own right. Much of the book is devoted to a solid business history of Mellon's activities--Alcoa, Gulf Oil, Mellon banks, etc. This affords us with an excellent resource for understanding this period in American history when these financial giants exercised such influence (Morgan stopping the panic of 1907, for example). Next, the book contains an excellent political history of the period, particularly 1920-1937, which witnesses the loss of GOP control and the shift to the New Deal. The third major dimension of the book is Mellon's art collecting and his plans for the creation of the National Gallery, and so we come to understand the reasons why so many of these financial giants ended up donating much of their money to build art museums, libraries, and other philanthropic endeavors. Finally, we learn about Mellon the man, a very private fellow who was capable of negotiating the donation of his extensive art collection to the very same United States that was trying him for tax fraud. Mellon's children in the late 1960's financed the construction of the National Gallery's East Building, and contributed much of the art which reposes there. Quite an interesting family.
Cannadine was invited to undertake this 12 year project by Andrew's late son, Paul Mellon, a well-known cultural figure here in the nation's capitol. But this certainly is not an "authorized biography" which seeks to nominate its subject for sainthood. One of the most valuable sections of the book is "The Balance Sheet" section of the final chapter where Cannadine offers a very balanced but incisive summing up of Mellon and his life. Supported by 100 pages of notes, as well as photographs, color reproductions of some key Mellon art, and tables, this is clearly the work of a professional historian at the peak of his considerable powers. Mellon probably deserves nothing less.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2007
I heard David Cannadine talk on"Biography"here in Canberra some months ago and describe his monumental research on Andrew Mellon.I knew nothing of Andrew Mellon except that his father and grandfather had emigrated from my home town in Co. Tyrone,Northern Ireland, in the early 19th century.Then I read Russell Baker's review and decided that I must read the biography and Amazon obliged.
It was entrancing from start to finish and I learned hugely of the Mellons and the history of Pittsburg and the industrial and economic rise of the U.S.
David Cannadine is to be congratulated on making such an astonishing amount of detail so easy to read, and keep ones interest to the final page.
52 of 64 people found the following review helpful
This is one of those big biographies that I wanted to spend a bit more time with because of the way the life that is the subject of the book connects with the age in which he lived, how the generations before conditioned his opportunities and how the way he lived and affected his times echoed into the next generation. Andrew Mellon is an enigmatic character that has great complexities and yet at the same time seems to be not fully realized in his personal life. At his economic zenith, he paid more personal taxes than all but two men. While never nearly as rich as Carnegie or the senior Rockefeller, he was still amazingly wealthy.
Mellon was shrewd and fiercely competitive in his business dealings and seemed to view investment and business growth in ways that are recognizable in, say, Warren Buffet today. He emphasized developing good companies and management teams rather than speculating in financial instruments. Yet, for all his business talent, he married disastrously and his daughter and son never felt close to him. They also felt quite burdened by the vast wealth he left them. Still, they never repudiated the wealth or the material ease of life it gave them despite their difficult search for their personal identity.
The Mellons were Ulster Scots who came to American in the 1810s. Andrew Mellon's father, Thomas, was a boy when his father and mother, Andrew and Rebecca settled in western Pennsylvania to farm. Sewn into Rebecca's belt were 200 guineas that were to become the seed money for the Mellon fortune. As Thomas grew, he realized that he was no farmer. He worked to get himself a better education than any of his many sons obtained. The sons were provided as much of a private education as was necessary to set them up in business (including a smattering of college, if necessary). Otherwise, why waste the time and money on frivolity? Thomas became an attorney, a judge, a successful investor, and eventually a banker. To be sure, it was a private bank with extremely high standards for its clientele and hard dealing for the investments they made in the burgeoning Pittsburgh. Thomas married into a family with high social status that had fallen on hard times.
Combined with his talent and hard won money, the dynasty was founded. Thomas and Sarah had eight children (six sons and two daughters - several of whom died very young), lived into their nineties. Thomas became known as The Judge and was one of the founders of the Republican Party, which the Mellons dominated in Pennsylvania until the New Deal. As he aged he even wrote an autobiography. David Cannadine, the author of this fine biography, uses quotes from The Judge's book to introduce each chapter and it is uncanny how aspects of The Judge's experience and thought echoed in the life of his most talented son.
Andrew was a middle son, but easily the most talented. In fact, when facing decisions, the father would ask himself and the other sons, "what would Andrew do?" The brothers seemed to pair off by age and work together that way throughout their lives, even though they all pooled together as a group as seemed wise. All of them eschewed luxury and the trappings of wealth. It was accumulation and acquisition that mattered. Otherwise, they lived a rather flat existence. It was work and family existed to train up for more work.
Pittsburgh was exploding in those decades and the Mellons did extremely well. The author quotes the famous saying that the city was like "hell with the lid off" more than once to describe the raw industrial influences, the horrible pollution, and awful living and working conditions for those that labored at the bottom end of the systems that produced that great wealth.
After decades of building companies such as Gulf and Alcoa, the 40-year-old Andrew took an interest in the 19-year-old English girl, Nora McMullen. The old truth that no one from the outside can ever understand the inside of a marriage was never more true than in this pairing. She even told Andrew that she was not interested in him. Yet he persisted and won her. When he took her home to Pittsburgh she was horrified. She even took on an English scoundrel as a lover. Andrew and Nora had two children, Ailsa and Paul, and then they had a very painful divorce. Yet, because of Nora's neediness and the children, the divorce was more a living arrangement than a reality.
At the height of his wealth and fame, Andrew was tapped by Warren Harding to be the Secretary of the Treasury, a position then vastly more influential in setting economic policy than it is in our time. He helped lower taxes, advocated lower government spending, and even worked at paying down the national debt and could see at time when it was eliminated. The prosperity the country enjoyed in the 1920s seemed to confirm his policies and buoyed his popularity. Mellon was retained in the Coolidge and Hoover administrations, although his relationship with Hoover was much colder.
When the world economic crisis came to America and the Wall Street collapse of 1929 was followed by the Great Depression, Mellon advocated riding it out, that recessions had happened before and would happen again. He was too aloof from the suffering that was occurring in the cities and on the farms of America. And the politics of the times caught up with him. He had been Treasury Secretary for ten years and had stayed too long. Hoover appointed him Ambassador to the Court of St. James and got him out of town. FDR beat Hoover by claiming he could fix the recession. And despite his great activity in attempting to turn the economy around, FDR did not fix the Depression any faster than it would have been fixed on its own. Mellon was right in his diagnosis, but his bedside manner was wrong. And the people at the bottom of the economic system did need help in riding out the terrible storm of those years.
After a lifetime of success and then service to the country, what FDR did to Mellon was unconscionable, but politically understandable. FDR had his henchmen drum up charges against Mellon that resulted in acquittals. Then they would come up with new charges. The whole point was to keep Mellon and his wealth in the public eye so FDR could use him as a political smear of the Republicans and retain his power. This was essential to FDR because his own policies were resulting were impotent in stopping the worsening of the recession. Mellon died before the final verdict acquitted him.
Alcoa, a great Mellon company, was essentially a monopoly for aluminum at the time, so FDR and his minions accused them of nefarious dealing. The finding was that Alcoa had done nothing illegal, but the government took it up the appeals process. When it got to the Supreme Court, it was found that too many justices owned Alcoa stock, so the hack Learned Hand was given the case. He found that it didn't matter how you became a monopoly, it was only if you were one. And since Alcoa was a monopoly, it had to be dealt with. Again, the fighting continued and after Mellon's death, Alcoa was acquitted.
Mellon had begun collected great works of art later in life. Along the way he had decided to help create a bequest to the United States for a National Gallery such as the National Gallery of the United Kingdom in London. During the height of the persecution from the FDR administration, he went to FDR and made his offer and requirements for the donation. FDR and Congress wisely accepted Mellon's gift. While work had begun on the building, Mellon died before he could see the dream become real.
The chief irony of the gift was that the trust Mellon had set up years before to hold the art for the gift was one of the main points in FDR's persecution of Mellon. And despite this, Mellon had enough quality of character to keep to his dream and make the gift. He saw beyond his own lifetime and the administration then in power and knew that future generations would benefit from his gift. Any of us who have had the joy of visiting the National Gallery know how well his vision has been realized. Other great bequests have been added and the expansion he foresaw in reserving land next to the Gallery was built with the design by I. M Pei (yes, it was controversial).
Mellon's children were also great patrons to the Gallery and Paul served on the board more than once. Paul was also generous with Yale and I have benefited from visiting a William Blake exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art not too many years ago. Seeing all hundred pages of Jerusalem up close was almost overwhelming.
Of course, you still need to read this wonderful book in order to understand the times and complexities of this man and his family. It is an age that most of us understand too little of and usually in a shorthand phrase like "malefactors of great wealth" (FDR recycled that from his distant cousin and uncle by marriage, TR).
Firmly and enthusiastically recommended.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2007
In the past decade, great biographers have mounted intense research and delivered a new generation of material documenting America's remarkable economic growth. David Cannadine has added greatly to that new canon with "Mellon: An American Life."
For those that have an interest in why America operates the way it does, this book is a "must read." Cannadine documents, in incredible and interesting detail, the rise of Andrew Mellon and the greater Mellon fortune. Along the way, the reader gains important, although sometimes biased, insights into the economic miracle that happened in Pittsburgh at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. For Pittsburgh truly was the "Silicon Valley" of its age, and Cannadine illustrates correctly that Andrew Mellon and his brother were the "Sand Hill Road" venture capitalists of that era.
Cannadine spends considerable time discussing the triumphs of Mellon's banking career, the important roles he plays in the development of Gulf Oil, Alcoa, and other large industrial organizations, his long tenure as Secretary of the Treasury, and his rank as one of the most significant art collectors of all time. For those that enjoy the minute details always present in good history and biography, Cannadine's effort is rewarding.
But while this work is top notch, it lacks an understanding and appreciation of Mellon's longer term impact. He may well have had personal shortcomings, as all people do, but he was transformative in what he accomplished, and millions have benefited from his many efforts and initiatives. Pittsburgh evolved as much as any city in the world, and in the end a good deal of the wealth created there at the turn of the century has been preserved and reinvested in making the city the great place it is today. Cannadine shows little understanding of this in his writing - perhaps only a native could give it true perspective. And importantly, Cannadine barely captures the magnificence of Mellon's gift of the National Gallery of Art to the nation. Cannadine spends a lot of effort describing various barbs leveled at the time regarding Mellon's choice of John Russell Pope as the architect of the National Gallery. Time has shown that Mellon's choice was perfect - there was never serious, credible disdain for the building. Mellon's gift of art to found the Gallery is perhaps the greatest gift ever given to our country.
Cannadine does make an effort to point out some of the shortcomings of Franklin Roosevelt - to limited success. Roosevelt is generally remembered as a great president, which is a well deserved reputation. But the man also had serious shortcomings and made many grave mistakes during his presidency. One has to wonder if the Holocaust might have been cut short if he had shown more leadership. One has to wonder if his monumental battles with big business actually prolonged the Depression (which really only ended with the advent of War). One has to wonder what it would be like in America today if he had been successful in demolishing all of the concentrated pockets of wealth that had been created in his time - wealth that has been preserved largely in the coffers of munificent foundations that provide the strongest pillars of support to the cultural fabric of the United States and fund many of our most innovative and ambitious efforts to improve our society. Roosevelt's goal was to take that wealth, and he surely would have spent it paying the bills of his administration. It would be lost today. Cannadine's treatment and depth of coverage of Roosevelt in the book lacks the appropriate critique that he was so willing to pile onto Andrew Mellon.
In the end, Cannadine delivers a fine piece of work, even with its shortcomings. It is a work that belongs in the company of Ron Chernow's "Titan" and "House of Morgan", Stephen Ambrose's "Nothing Like It in the World", and Edmund Morris' "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" and "Theodore Rex."
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2006
"MELLON: An American Life" is an enjoyably informative read into the life and times of an important 20th century American icon of the elite. David Cannadine has manifested a prose style and biographical insight that is both alluring and captivating. Combining a facility to entertain (e.g., vignettes recalling familial scandal) with a further ability to recount Mellon's financial dealings within the historical milieu in a manner that is instructive but not taxing, the author induces the reader eagerly to anticipate what lies ahead. This is a book that will not present itself a chore to read word-for-word.
Particularly clever and compelling is Cannadine's tapestry of quotes from "Thomas Mellon and His Times," Andrew Mellon's father's autobiography meant, incidentally, to be read only by family and close associates. The quotes tantalize to the degree that one is induced to obtain a copy. And, the quotes give tremendous insight into the soul of a man who was often constrained to ask: "What would father do?"
Enhancing the quality of the biography is the publisher's (Alfred A. Knopf) excellent production; the binding is of the highest quality, there are 16 pages whereon are reproduced the finest from Mellon's prodigious art collecting endeavors along with 32 black and whites offering revealing identities of many figures prominent in the text, and the typeface is that typically identified as Janson. In a word, the production is worthy of a Mellon.
For anyone who enjoys reading biography as an aid to historical perspective, this is one of the best among those recently published.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Character actor John H. Mayer gives a sonorous, highly listenable reading to this story of the life of one of America's greatest financiers. It was a life marked by the amassing of a vast fortune, marriage to a woman two decades his junior, political office, and the establishment of Washington's National Gallery of Art.
Mellon's life has been examined before but perhaps not in such great detail (621 pages). Beginning with his boyhood in Pittsburgh the author traces the evolution of a shy, rather retiring individual who had an inordinate gift for recognizing the potential in nascent American industries. In fact, many credit him with being the dominant force in making our country an industrial power.
Although he was known for keeping his own counsel, he became active politically serving as Secretary of the Treasury under Harding, Coolidge and Hoover.
His marriage at the age of 43 to the nineteen-year-old Nora McMullen ended in an acrimonious very public divorce in 1910. This was surely a great embarrassment to the reticent Mellon. It was later that he gave his personal art collection and countless small fortunes to establish the National Gallery.
For those interested in America's corporate history Mellon is a fascinating study. While the man may be unknowable his work is not thanks to prodigious research and time line narrative by David Cannadine.
- Gail Cooke
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2007
this book was a wonderful read. being from pittsburgh i never realized (despite the abundance of mellon buildings in town) the influence and power both andrew mellon and the family had. both locally and nationally. if you have ever had an interest in andrew mellon, their business adventures, or the family itself; i would highly recommend it.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2007
Overall, David Cannadine's biography of Mellon is an excellent book, well researched and written in a highly readable style. His description of Mellon's business acumen, his excellence as a banker, his art collecting, and his often sad personal life derived from extensive reading of letters, diaries, and other documents is comprehesive and interesting.
My only criticism of Cannadine's depiction of Mellon is that he may have been somewhat unfair in his description of Mellon as a completely cold, "flawed", unemphatic person who "could never really give or receive love". Quotes from letters (especially those from his wife, Nora) and conversions show that many individuals appear to have cared deeply for him, enjoyed his company, and truly missed him upon his death (his son-in-law David Bruce and his friend David Finley come to mind). Perhaps Mellon was just a very introverted person, very focused on business, often abstracted, not always aware of those around him, not demostrative yet still interested and concerned about their welfare. Unfortunately those who loved Mellon most had died prior to the commisioning of this book and could not be interviewed by the author for this otherwise excellent biography of a complex individual.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
David Cannadine's massive and detailed biography of Andrew W. Mellon is a well done examination of one of the major business figures in American history. He became a key figure in companies such as Gulf Oil, Alcoa, and, of course, Mellon National Bank, among others.
The biography begins with a background of the family, to provide context for Andrew Mellon's life. His own father, "Judge" Mellon, had been a "larger than life" figure, working until late in his life. His son, and other family members, continued the tradition of the Mellon family, increasing its financial power and the family's wealth.
Mellon's life is well told here. And not just the business side (which is done exceedingly well). His rough marriage to Nora (and their odd later in life semi-reconciliation) and his two children from that union were an important, and sometimes painful, part of his life. Indeed, one can draw something of an analogy between Galsworthy's Soames Forsyte and Mellon.
The book also details his public service, from his role in Republican politics in Pennsylvania to his tour of duty as Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. He might better have left office upon Coolidge's relinquishing the presidency, since he was never as close to Hoover, and had to live through the Great Depression on his watch as Treasure Secretary. After FDR's victory in 1932, Mellon became the target of tax charges and spent years trying to defend himself.
The final part of the book discusses the art collection he had been developing and his role in creating the National Gallery of Art. Oddly enough, after his combat with the Roosevelt Administration over the tax case, Roosevelt was most gracious in working with Mellon and acknowledging his work in helping to make the Gallery a reality.
The book is well documented and filled with relevant details. For those not liking massive biographies, this will not be a good read. Also, Cannadine is a functional writer, but the pages do not fly by because of any particular stylistic grace. But it is a strong work dealing with an important subject.