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Andrew W. Mellon, 1855-1937

  Portrait of Andrew W. Mellon by
Oswald Birley

By David Cannadine

Andrew W. Mellon belonged to a remarkable American generation which witnessed the creation and accumulation of individual fortunes in unprecedented abundance by such men as Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Morgan, and Frick. But among these figures, Mellon was unique in that he excelled in four fields of endeavor: as a businessman and banker; as a politician and statesman; as an art collector; and as a philanthropist.

The Mellons were Protestant immigrants from Northern Ireland, who had settled in western Pennsylvania in 1818. At an early age, Andrew joined his father Thomas, and his brother Richard, in the management of the family bank, T. Mellon and Sons, which soon became the prime financial agent in the transformation of western Pennsylvania into one of the richest industrial regions in the United States during the forty years before the First World War. Andrew Mellon was an extraordinary judge of entrepreneurial talent, and among the many companies he helped to found and fund were ALCOA, Carborundum, Koppers, and Gulf Oil. He rarely interested himself in the details of such businesses, but he acquired extensive holdings, which meant that by 1914 he was one of the richest men in the United States.

But Mellon was still almost unknown outside Pittsburgh, and it was only his appointment as Secretary of the Treasury in 1921 by Warren Harding which turned him into a national figure. He had long been active in Republican politics in Pennsylvania, he was strongly opposed to the League of Nations, and he delighted in bringing business practices into government. During his long period of office, Mellon cut taxes, enforced Prohibition, and presided over a period of such unprecedented financial prosperity that he was hailed as the greatest Treasury Secretary since Alexander Hamilton. But the Great Crash of 1929, combined with growing criticisms of his close business ties, meant Mellon lost the confidence of President Hoover, and early in 1932 he resigned from the Treasury, and was sent to Britain for a brief period as American Ambassador.

This was the end of Mellon's public career; but it was far from being the end of his life. Since the turn of the century, he had been collecting paintings-initially in the conventional manner of the Pittsburgh plutocracy, but on a larger and more discerning scale after his move to Washington. Urged on by Henry Clay Frick, and aided by Duveen and Knoedlers, Mellon specialized in Old Masters and British portraits, and by the early 1930s he had amassed the greatest collection of his generation. Indeed, at the very time his political career floundered, he scored his greatest triumph as a collector, purchasing twenty one masterpieces from the Hermitage in Leningrad for more than $6 million.

During his life, Mellon gave away nearly $10 million. Much of it went to educational and charitable institutions in his native Pittsburgh, but his most famous gift was of the money and the pictures to establish the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Ironically, at the very time this benefaction was being negotiated with the Federal Government, Mellon was also being prosecuted for tax evasion. Roosevelt hated Mellon, as the embodiment of everything that was bad about the 1920s; Mellon vehemently denied the charges, and was eventually found not guilty of tax evasion. But he did not live long enough to learn of this decision, and nor did he see the opening of the National Gallery.

Soon after Andrew Mellon's death, his daughter, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, set up the Avalon Foundation, and his son, Paul Mellon, established the Old Dominion Foundation. Like their father, both children were generous benefactors to many causes, and in June 1969, these two organizations were merged to form the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in his memory. Uniquely among his generation of American capitalists, there has been no published life of Andrew W. Mellon.

David Cannadine is Professor at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and has authored a biography of Andrew Mellon, Mellon: An American Life, 2006, Knopf.

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