The Magazine

Quiet Capitalist

The portrait of a founding father of business philanthropy.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By CLAUDE R. MARX
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Mellon had a lifelong aversion to displays of wealth and philanthropy. He was also skeptical of philanthropic efforts by others (including Carnegie) when they required the government to pay for part of the largesse. While on the Pittsburgh city council, Mellon unsuccessfully fought an effort by Carnegie to donate a public library to the city because Carnegie wanted the city to pay for its operation. Mellon preferred to have the library run privately by a group of businessmen. Ever the advocate for his distinguished ancestor, James Mellon writes that “Pittsburghers can look back wistfully on the day when a flinty old judge warned the city government about assuming burdensome and continuing financial obligations.’’ Mellon’s heirs were far more enthusiastic about philanthropy than the patriarch. His family founded an institution of higher learning (which eventually merged with another to form Carnegie-Mellon University) and was active in shaping museums and other cultural enterprises.

The family, incidentally, almost didn’t have any money to spend because the senior Mellon came very close to losing his fortune in the Panic of 1873.

Drawn and quartered between wealth and respectability, he waffled and agonized and miraculously emerged clinging to both. . . . Like a battle-scarred, tempest-tossed warship, with her sails in tatters, her masts broken, and bilges awash, T. Mellon & Sons was, incredibly, still afloat.

Point made—and would have been understood without the rhetorical overkill.

In a memoir, Mellon would paint a decidedly unromantic account of his feelings toward his wife: “There was no love beforehand so far as I was concerned,” he wrote. “Nothing but a good opinion of worthy qualities; if I had been rejected I would have felt neither sad nor depressed only annoyed as to the loss of time.’’ Nevertheless, the Mellons had eight children (four survived to adulthood), and all of the surviving offspring worked in the family’s businesses, with varying degrees of success.

The son who became the most successful, Andrew (1855-1937), was a triple threat: He vastly expanded the family business, served as secretary of the Treasury during the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations—and amassed an art collection that would become the nucleus of the National Gallery of Art. The author paints a vivid portrait of Andrew Mellon: “He was sparing with words, but those that he uttered flew straight to the mark. He had X-ray vision for spotting the hidden defects in a business proposal.’’

After handing off his business affairs to his children, Thomas Mellon would spend his final years somewhat frustrated and bored. He slowly lost his eyesight and could no longer indulge his lifelong love of reading, and he lost money on an unsuccessful business venture, trying to build an incline railway in Kansas City. This got him caught up in that city’s notoriously corrupt politics, and he was (unsuccessfully) sued for slander by a local pol. Never a particularly religious man, he explored the contemporary vogue for spirituality and participated in séances. It was a slightly eccentric ending to an extraordinary life.

Claude R. Marx is a writer in Washington.