Maybe it’s just me, but many of the most tantalizing books on the shelves these days seem to be quite thick. I have decided not to be deterred by the length of these behemoths, but to try them out and, if need be, read only the parts that interest me.
But in the case of David Cannadine’s “Mellon: An American Life” (Knopf, 2006), an 832-page biography of successful financier Andrew W. Mellon, the book is so well written and compelling that I read the entire work (though 200 pages are footnotes).
The author claims that his is the first comprehensive biography of Mellon, who founded several highly successful businesses in the early 20th century, served as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under three presidents and founded the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Cannadine paints Mellon as a complex man, one who was both very much like his father and very much the product of his times.
Mellon’s early claim to fame was his financial prowess. Indeed, he, his brother Dick and their associates developed several innovative means for investing in and nurturing both individuals and companies, rather like venture capitalists in the present era. Mellon invested heavily in banking, oil, steel, shipbuilding and construction. Many of the firms became major employers in Pittsburgh, where Mellon was born and raised. He became one of the richest men in America as a result of his investments.
Cannadine notes that Mellon, aside from his business interests, was a man who bloomed rather late in life. His drive to acquire power and money left him little time or interest for hobbies or romance, But at 45, Mellon married Nora, a pretty English woman 25 years his junior. Unfortunately, Nora proved unfaithful, and the marriage, while producing two children, Ailsa and Paul, was unhappy and scandalous in its final years.
Mellon lived and served in turbulent times. President Warren G. Harding appointed him to the post of Secretary of the Treasury in 1921, where Mellon served diligently, overseeing a relatively small department that prided itself on having a minimum of regulations. Mellon espoused the belief that government departments should be run like businesses and managed his department accordingly. But when the Great Depression struck the U.S. in the early 1930s, Mellon’s policies probably hurt the chances of recovery. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1932, he removed Mellon from office.
Prior to his death in 1937, Mellon endured several unhappy years in the early 1930s, when the government charged him twice with tax evasion and fraud. He was ultimately exonerated of all charges.
Mellon shared his fortune as a noted philanthropist. In addition to funding many art, educational and research charities, he contributed $10 million toward construction of the National Gallery of Art and donated his extensive art collection to the free public gallery.
Cannadine does a skillful job of capturing the complicated nature of this private man and the reasons behind his numerous missteps and misfortunes. I could understand, for example, why the people of Pittsburgh booed Mellon when he returned from Washington in 1933. And the author even-handedly describes an amazing moment in history, when the Russians, under Stalin, arranged a secret deal for Mellon to purchase 21 major works of art from the Hermitage Museum – ironic, considering that the ultimate American capitalist forged a deal with the ultimate communist.
“Mellon” would be an especially rich read for book clubs that enjoy historical biographies.
Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.