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Mellon: An American Life
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on April 26, 2015
If you love books about audacius, bad assed business men, then read this one. Mellon was a VC. The two unicorns he backed were Alcoa Aluminum and Gulf Oil. And oh, a small bank that beared his name.
His Scotch Irish decent served him well until the Great Depression hit. Then his Scotch Irish decent failed him miserably because he couldnt accept the thought of deliberately expanding the money supply. As Treasury Secretary he was the guiding hand for Hoover and Mellon couldnt see the forest for the trees. His immense wealth kept him from understanding what the market actually needed.
Very good economic lessons from this book. Stuff they dont teach you at HBS.
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on April 23, 2008
Cannadine exceeded expectations on a number of fronts with this definitive biography of Andrew Mellon. It has everything you'd expect from a grade-A biography, laying out where Mellon's family came from (both physically and philosophically), how Mellon grew up, his rise, peak, eventual fall from grace, death and legacy. Not only that, but Cannadine does all of this exceedingly well, giving his reader a sense of the nuances and subtleties of Mellon's personality and life. If Cannadine had done nothing else, he'd still have written a five-star book.

This book goes beyond most rock-solid biographies that I've read in Cannadine's sensitivity to the larger meaning of the events in Mellon's life, his place in history and his impact even after his death. While this sensitivity is present throughout Cannadine's book, it really comes together in in his three-part epilogue, which you will absolutely not want to miss, it is the highlight of the book.

The first point Cannadine develops is that Mellon's life straddled the line between two different eras in American history. He shows how Mellon, without changing his behaviors, was perceived one way for much of his life, then a totally different way at the end of his life. Through his awareness of this point, Cannadine really demonstrates to the reader how radical the shift in sentiment was in America in the 1930s.

The second point Cannadine is aware of, as any successful biographer of a great historical figure must be, is the idea that Mellon was a human being with some great strengths and some great flaws. In my experience, people who have the strengths to accomplish the most often have corresponding weaknesses to go with them; Cannadine really makes this point clear in his epilogue, doing a "balance sheet" of positives and negatives of Mellon's character and accomplishments. I've never seen an author take even-handed analysis to a similar place, and it really helped bring together the books ideas at the end.

Finally, Cannadine captures a truth about life, society and politics that imbues the book with a sense of sadness. It becomes obvious that many (though certainly not all) of the good things that happen to Mellon happen out of chance. Similarly, when bad things happen to Mellon, most (again, not all... his divorce comes to mind as an obvious exception) of them are undeserved. Mellon dies near the low point of his public popularity, suffering primarily for sins he did not commit.

I highly recommend this book for lovers of biography and history, it is truly a step beyond a really good biography.
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on June 24, 2009
Andrew Mellon is a man whose life and legacy has cast such a major shadow over post-depression America, that it continues to accrue, like small interest reinvestment to this day.

This book traces the rise of the austere, suppressed financial leader. It tells of being born to a financial tycoon, and taking the reins of the business and guiding it through a tsunami of growth with detached and dispassionate wisdom.

This is a sprawling biography, guiding us through the generation preceding Andrew, and leaving a strong flavor of the eras represented in Mellon's domain.

Mellon's stint as Secretary of the Treasury was almost anti-climactic to his career, although it left his reputation in disrepair for several decades. Although he was hailed as a savior during the Harding-Coolidge years in the White House for the economy's stretching to its zenith, he was then assailed as the culprit of the ensuing Depression during Hoover's time in the White House.

By this time, he had forsaken his guidance of the Mellon business trusts, that continue to bear fruit to this day.

Mellon himself was a dry, ubiquitous figure. He stood off in a remote. chilling place to exercise his financial vision. It is a mysterious master plan to witness so cold a man exercise such massive guidance over an industrializing nation, but, this a worthwhile and fascinating biography.
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on February 4, 2008
Though I can not claim to be altogether objective about the subject matter in much of this great book, I must congratulate Cannadine for a masterful study of what has been an extremely closed subject for a long, long time - most of all in the Mellon's home town of Pittsburgh. The late Paul Mellon must be given a lot of credit for breaking with family tradition - first for allowing the book "Thomas Mellon And His Times" to see the light of public day and then to let it all hang out with Cannadine with regard to sources and family papers.

All of the business glories (one wonders at times if Andrew ever really enjoyed his successes), all of the personal agonies (it must have been excruciating on many levels), and much of the rancor between both Judge Thomas Mellon's as well as Andrew's detractors and adversaries are, for the first time, put into print for ALL of the public's perusal. It will be up to each individual reader to judge for themselves how they feel about this man and his father and family.

It came as no suprise to me when Cannadine named my great-great grandfather as being one of the "vexatious litigation" principles who Judge Mellon would only refer to as "A", "B", or "C" in his autobiography. Cannadine is specific about the bad blood between the Negleys and the Mellons after the "eugenic" match (his words) and Pittsburghers specifically will find much new insight here.

However, this long and comprehensive book never lets down as it explores all facets of the Mellon dynasty, how it was aquired (at times skirting legality and even morality), and he leaves very few stones unturned. What Cannadine might have missed was the fact that the rehabilitation of the Mellon name in Pittsburgh was undertaken by Andrew's nephew Richard K. Mellon (Richard Beatty Mellon's son) when "Renaissance I and II" which, along with the Allegheny Community Conference, cleaned up the city of Pittsburgh and made it livable again after over 150 years of take, take, and more take by men such as "A.W." and "R.B" among many others, including Andrew's buddy Henry Clay Frick.

The mystery of "M..." will, I feel, eventually be solved but as was mentioned in a previous review, even as good a sleuth as Cannadine could not hazard even a guess (though I'll bet he had a guess). Notice that she becomes "Mrs. M---" on pg 259. I hardly believe that such a man would be so indiscreet as to write an entree with such a clue, or such an admission of a possible affair - but this entree IS followed by perhaps the most emotional outburst of his heart, "CRUEL", in uppercase.

A flawed man, as are all men, and obviously a tortured one for much of his life, this book will give everyone the chance to weigh the evidence and decide for themselves the verdict which until now was impossible to consider to to lack of full factual disclosure. I found it fascinating the whole way from beginning to end. The source notes are a gem in and of themselves.
I would also recommend both books by father and son for a comprehensive look at all three men, and how wealth, acquisition, and the drive and pressures of both shaped them.
"Thomas Mellon And His Times"
"Reflections In A Silver Spoon"
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on January 1, 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.
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on January 12, 2015
Exhaustively and comprehensively written; a 'reference' manual if you will. I have no complaints with content, only with the presentation/style: VERY dry reading. I was hoping to be inspired / awed; but instead felt like I was slogging through a textbook. Again, my criticism is based on style only; not content.
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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.
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on January 5, 2010
Like other reviewers have said, this book is superb. I've read the significant biographies of quite a few of the great figures of American business and this one is among the best (along with Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow and The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles). As the author states, individual and collective human experience are not simple matters. Andrew Mellon's life was not a simple one, and it's taken a master to document it in such a readable and balanced manner.
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on October 30, 2009
Cannadine's biography of Mellon is a masterpiece. The author diligently deconstructs the demonization of Andrew Mellon, effectively offering a very human characterization of a beautifully complex and fascinating individual. I was moved almost to tears by several passages in this lengthy journey. As a Democrat with very different views than those of Andrew Mellon, I was profoundly surprised to discover the integrity of his humanity, many good works, and astute decisions. I've come away from this book with a deep respect, admiration, and sympathy for Andrew Mellon. Cannadine does Mellon a tremendous service with his thorough examination. I have only one complaint: I wish that the author had been as disciplined, balanced, and compassionate in his treatment of Nora McMullen Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce as he was in the treatment of Andrew Mellon. I think that surely these two women deserve their characterizations to be deconstructed just as Andrew Mellon's was.
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on December 10, 2015
My favorite author and book. Perfect writing. Other authors must read this to learn about biography and how to write!
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