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The Wealth of Loneliness

Why Andrew Mellon started buying so many fine paintings in his old age we can only guess, for he was not one to talk about the inner man. Maybe the lifelong loneliness in which he had wrapped himself finally became unbearable and the paintings provided a desperately needed sense of warmth and friendship. David Cannadine thinks it quite likely. At the end of his absorbing history of Mellon’s emotionally stunted life, he finds it “difficult to avoid the conclusion that the pictures Mellon called ‘his friends and companions’ were indeed a belated substitute for the genuine intimacies which he sadly never enjoyed.”

There is something implausibly romantic here, something too much like fiction: a man of limitless wealth who “could never really give or receive love,” as Cannadine puts it, finds his humanity at last in the companionship of the old masters. In The Forsyte Saga John Galsworthy created the cold, money-obsessed Soames Forsyte, a fictional character remarkably similar to Andrew Mellon. Cannadine takes on a hard job, however, in trying to persuade us that Mellon was emotionally capable of succumbing to the charms of art and thereby rounding out a singularly unromantic life with an improbably romantic grace note. The Mellon presented by Cannadine in unsparing detail was a man so relentlessly devoted to “acquiring and accumulating” that it left him neither time nor energy for human relationships.

There may have been color and warmth in his life, sometime and somewhere, but if so, he suppressed them so much that no one later knew where to find them or how to draw them out,” Cannadine writes. Behind his “steely exterior,” he adds, it seemed to many, and notably his wife, “that there was either something vaguely unpleasant—or nothing at all. He was a hollow man, with no interior life.”

As an emotionally frozen man of countinghouse mentality, Mellon is strongly reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge in the utter joylessness of his life and his indifference to society’s losers. Scrooge is redeemed by buying the Cratchits a turkey and going to dinner with his nephew. At Christmas the tale goes down like mulled wine and ginger snaps, probably because everyone knows that it is just seasonal hokum of a very high order and that life’s real Scrooges never abandon their conviction that profit is nobler than handouts for Cratchits.

That Mellon, this living, breathing specimen of the countinghouse soul, could be humanized at long last by exposure to great paintings seems a far-fetched proposition. That Cannadine cottons to the idea tells us a good deal about Cannadine, first and foremost that he has the gifted writer’s eye for a good story. He is a rarity among modern academics: a historian who writes well and has the storyteller’s instinct for exploring personality and its effect on events. His essays on such British eminences as Florence Nightingale, Cecil Rhodes, Lord Beaverbrook, Harold Macmillan, Queen Victoria, and Margaret Thatcher are pleasures to read, partly because he dares to write history as if he wants his readers to enjoy reading it. In his essay on Princess Diana, for example, he writes, “From her grave to his, Diana is going to haunt Charles in death even more than she came to haunt him in life.”

This is gaudy stuff for a certified academic historian (Christ’s College Cambridge, Princeton, Columbia), but it is in the tradition of Macaulay and Trevelyan, who believed that historians also have obligations to literature. With Mellon, Cannadine writes like a storyteller, and the book often reads as compulsively as one of those immense fictional sagas that weigh down the best-seller lists. Sin and redemption are always close to the center of those family tales, and so they are in Mellon.

Andrew Mellon’s life of course was rich in story possibilities beloved by the public: cold-blooded rich men discovering that money cannot buy happiness, unloved rich men who have never had a good laugh or paused to smell a rose, and so on. Cannadine is using these possibilities when he concludes that the wretchedly unhappy rich Mellon was humanized by the power of art.

This conclusion can be easily avoided by sticking to the obvious but duller idea that Mellon collected art simply because acquiring things was his business and accumulation his habit. Accumulating Goya, Raphael, and Vermeer, after all, involved the same skills that had enabled him to accumulate coal mines, real estate, banks, railways, corporations like Gulf Oil and Alcoa, and so much else, including politicians.

But the good story often brings us closer to the truth than the dull fact, and Cannadine’s preference for dealing with Mellon as a person emotionally renewed by art leads to an interesting exploration of a man who, at first glance, seemed to exist only to be disliked. In Cannadine’s telling, Mellon, like Scrooge, will be a man redeemed by becoming a giver of gifts. Mellon’s Cratchits will be the American people and his Christmas turkey will be the National Gallery of Art, housing some of the world’s most glorious treasures at the foot of Capitol Hill. And he will insist that the gift not bear his name. The gift will be made at a moment when his name has been vilified by President Franklin Roosevelt as the symbol of a detestable banker class being blamed for the misery of the Great Depression.

Why, in the face of what surely seemed a popular repudiation of his service to the state, should he have been so determined to make a great gift to the nation?” Cannadine asks.

There is no evidence that he felt guilt, or a need to atone for anything. He did not want his name perpetuated, he was not much concerned with how future generations would judge him…. But what was he to do with his money, and what was he to do with the pictures his money was buying?

His daughter Ailsa, who wanted them, was “frivolous, sad, and self-involved.” His son Paul had inexorably refused to carry on the Mellon business dynasty—although Andrew thought that doing so was a service to the country—“the ultimate justification of business.”

But Andrew himself could enrich the nation by donating his pictures and creating a gallery. That he should have committed himself so doggedly, and under siege, to this purpose; that he should have arranged the gift with no thought of perpetuating his name; that he ensured that it would be accepted by his nemesis FDR: all this suggests that Mellon did come to appreciate a patriotic imperative and obligation attendant on his good fortune.

Yet this disturbing inconsistency remains: If Mellon was the human iceberg described by Cannadine’s evidence, how are we to account for one of the most gracious acts of generosity in the annals of philanthropy? Perhaps the explanation lies in a profound need to break free of the “lifeless hard shell” in which his son saw him encased. From childhood on, he had been so thoroughly conditioned to emulate his father that he often seemed an extension of the old man. Perhaps finally he just got tired of being a replica. Perhaps he was seized by an overpowering need to be Andrew Mellon before he died. Extravagant philanthropy would have been a good way to declare that he was free at last. His father had hated philanthropy.

In later life when wrestling with a difficult business decision Mellon often asked, “What would Father do?” Father was Thomas Mellon, always called “the Judge.” He was a man of extraordinary, some might say terrifying, willpower. He had eight children, and after his two daughters and one son died in early childhood he undertook to mold the remaining five sons into close reproductions of himself, and succeeded remarkably well.

Not one of them, however—not even Andrew—was as formidable as the Judge. He was “hard, cold and forbidding, and scornful of the ‘tender emotions,’” Cannadine says.

He believed that life was a perpetual battle, in which victory depended on willpower, determination, perseverance, hard work, and self-discipline. He admired self-denial and self-control, and accordingly despised those who fell into debt or drank too much. He hated extravagance, display, waste, and ostentation, feared the corrupting allure of ease and luxury, and disapproved of those possessed of “festive disposition.”

A voracious lifelong reader, he knew his Bible and Shakespeare, was familiar with Latin, Greek, and French, and fascinated with economics, history, and philosophy. Like Benjamin Franklin, whom he greatly admired, he wrote an autobiography. Cannadine thinks it “one of the great American autobiographies of the nineteenth century” and begins each chapter of Mellon with a quotation from it.

This remarkable career began in the age of Andrew Jackson with an exhausting ten-mile walk to town on the day he realized, not a moment too soon, that he did not want to spend his life farming. His father was in town that day about to buy him a small farm adjacent to his own when he decided that farming must not be his destiny. The purchase was “almost past recall,” he wrote, and his “air castle and bright fancies of acquiring knowledge and wealth and distinction” were about to be “wrecked and ruined.” He suddenly dropped the job he was doing and took off to stop the purchase.

After working to acquire a classical education at Reverend Gill’s Tranquil Retreat Academy, and then at the Western University of Pennsylvania, he turned to law, discovered how useful it was for making money, and ever after devoted himself to the pursuit of profit. Cannadine says he decided it was “better to be rich than to be educated.” He obviously thought it was better, too, to be rich than to dispense justice, for after serving one term of a judgeship he left the bench to concentrate on business.

He seemed born to succeed. At the age of seventy-seven when he put his many businesses under Andrew’s management they did not constitute a colossus—Andrew would create the colossus—but the Judge was by modern measures a multimillionaire. From small banking operations and local dealings in coal, lumber, real estate, building supplies, and mortgage buying he had laid the foundation for a family empire.

Cannadine clearly loves him as a writer invariably loves a larger-than-life character with big juicy defects. In modern liberal culture, much about the Judge seems reprehensible. Cannadine tells us he “distrusted democracy,” “despised Irish Catholics,” and thought politicians were dishonest, self-seeking, financially irresponsible menaces to the republic. He did not like the military either. Without strong feelings either way about abolition, he regarded the Civil War as a government folly that would lead to extravagant spending, more debt, and higher taxes, and he forbade his sons to enlist.

He hated labor unions, socialism, strikes, and individual workers who failed to understand that in a market economy, as in biology, it was the fittest who ruled the roost. He thought egalitarian principles were nonsensical and “welcomed inequality, which he believed was based on the necessary division of labor.” In short: “a formidable character with a siege mentality, conspicuously lacking in charm or empathy or compassion.” Though he fancied that his life was modeled after Ben Franklin, “he did not love his fellows, and he held no brief for public service.” Even family members thought he had “a downright mean streak.”

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