The Magazine

Prophet of Prosperity

A second look at a great American capitalist.

Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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A piquant sidelight was that, on New Year's Eve 1936, with the tax case still pending, Mellon came by invitation to the White House for tea to be thanked by FDR for the gift of his art collection to the nation. As usual, FDR was so disarming that Mellon left marveling at what a nice man he was! But it must have diluted the charm when Mellon discovered, if he did, that while he had paid tens of thousands in income tax in the years in which he was accused of evasion, FDR himself had paid all of $31.31 on an income of nearly $20,000. After a long and heavily publicized process before the Treasury's Board of Tax Appeals, Mellon was vindicated, though not soon enough to savor the victory. He died of uremia and bronchial pneumonia at 82 in August 1937, some months before the vindication.

Mellon's munificent gift of art to the nation has been much chronicled, never better than in S.N. Behrman's delightful sketch Duveen half-a-century ago, a zesty supplement to Cannadine's hurried and impatient handling of Mellon's great late-life collecting passion. Sir Joseph, later Baron, Duveen was a transatlantic art dealer of Dutch-Jewish ancestry and wiles whose theory it was that new money in America and old art in Europe needed bringing together--by himself. A notable cartoon of a later day depicts Duveen as a huge, predatory cat assailing a tiny, timid bird (Mellon) in a hotel elevator.

The implication, however, is as misleading as the anecdote it is based on; for Mellon was as shrewd a bargainer as Duveen was a salesman. Duveen, however, managed many of Mellon's signal acquisitions, and by 1930, Mellon's purchases of Old Masters had piled up so rapidly (and awkwardly, since there was a Depression on) that many were secreted in the basement of Washington's Corcoran Gallery.

Behrman's book originated as a saucy New Yorker profile and remains delicious reading, although its rarely understated storytelling needs a bit of salting. Behrman's main defect was that he gave credence to the legend that Mellon's gift was an after-the-fact tax dodge that saved him from criminal prosecution. In fact, there was ample evidence--enunciated with panache by Duveen himself at Mellon's "trial"--that the donor had planned his gift for a decade. Whatever else may be said, Mellon was as generous as he was dutiful.

The late Paul Mellon commissioned this warts-and-all portrait of the father with whom he had a troubled relationship; and Cannadine doesn't scant the negative side. Andrew Mellon, with many of the super-rich of his time, had no sympathy for the as-yet-unrecognized legal claims of labor; and it hardly helped the family reputation when his brother Richard, custodian of the Pittsburgh assets, declined to make it clear in a congressional hearing that machine guns would be out of place in the hands of company "police" keeping order in the Pennsylvania coal fields.

Andrew Mellon seems to have had only the slightest sense of what today we call "conflict of interest." Throughout his tenure at the Treasury he was active in the management of his personal fortune. Mellon was as blinded as other contemporaries (of all persuasions) by the mystique of classical economics. He believed that no official tools could alleviate the huge distress of the Great Depression, even with a third or more of the labor force jobless, 5,000 banks in failure, and tens of thousands of homeowners facing foreclosure.

The Depression became the debacle of an era, the graveyard of the rigid theory of governmental noninterventionism Mellon championed, and far from incidentally, the source of a lingering disfavor. The Mellon worldview had been overtaken by the more adventurous spirit of the New Deal, and by John Maynard Keynes's withering dissection of classical microeconomics in the General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936). Keynes's most famous words--that "practical men . . . are the slaves of some defunct economist"--might have been Andrew Mellon's public epitaph.

Cannadine, a fine historian of British origin, misses a few American political subtleties, occasionally confuses names, and entertains more than one stark misconception: for instance, that Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes was the leader of the anti-New Deal Supreme Court faction before 1937. And he and this reviewer have very different conceptions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous creation, Jay Gatsby. Still, the overriding point of this massive and impressive chronicle is that no figure of Andrew Mellon's magnitude can or should be dismissed as the stuff of caricature or cartoon. David Cannadine has proved his point.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr.'s novel, Lions at Lamb House, will be published in September.