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The Wealth of Loneliness

With his two lengthy opening chapters focused on this domineering personality, Cannadine makes the Judge such an awesome figure that his sons seem inferior, and this may well be the fact. His control was so close to being complete that in his late sixties he still had his oldest son and his family living next door and his second-born living across the street. Andrew, a bachelor into middle age, still lived in his father’s house at the age of forty-three.

The Judge was proud of how well he had raised his sons. It was “very remarkable,” he wrote, “that we never seriously disagreed, but seemed to see everything pretty much alike.” He thought of them as “extensions of himself,” Cannadine says. With Andrew his success was nearly total. It is easy to imagine Andrew in his prime, one of America’s richest men, wondering, “What would Father do?”

The Judge was a nearly ideal expression of the Scotch-Irish culture which suffused industrial Pittsburgh in the nineteenth century. It was an intensely money-minded culture and deeply Protestant in the cunning with which it had adapted Christianity to justify ruthless pursuit of acquisition and accumulation. In decadent form it survives today as the so-called “Protestant work ethic,” but the nineteenth-century Presbyterians of western Pennsylvania observed it with a religious scrupulosity that would seem quaint to today’s tycoons. As devout Calvinists they were all too aware of the awkward contradiction between capitalism’s love of maximized profit and Christianity’s disapproval of moneychangers. To preserve their faith as well as their profits, they had arrived at a workable compromise: the rich would be permitted to enter Heaven without having to pass through the needle’s eye provided they refused to take pleasure in their wealth and gave some of it back to society.

The Judge, who had no use for philanthropy, gave back very little, but believed that hard-earned business success enriched the entire nation and so squared his account. He was assiduous, however, in resisting temptations to pleasure. The family environment he created was “predictably stern,” Cannadine says. “There was little light or laughter” in his house. Meals were taken in silence, even at Thanksgiving and Christmas. “Displays of emotion were frowned upon: in public, Mellon men never kissed Mellon women; handshakes were as demonstrative as they ever got.”

Courtship was conducted as a major business enterprise. The Judge did not limit his preliminary investigation to a prospective wife’s financial assets. As with any big investment, he also checked on her physical soundness. One highly promising potential bride—socially prominent, well-fixed financially—was rejected after investigation turned up a family history of tuberculosis. His own account of courting Sarah Jane Negley, whom he married in 1843, describes their meeting:

I see her now in the mind’s eye, as she stood there in the sunlight which was struggling through the window curtains giving me a full view of her appearance—quiet, pleasant and self-possessed. I remember thinking to myself, in person she would do if all right otherwise.

Sarah did prove all right. She came with a substantial sum of money, for which the Judge found profitable use, and she bore him eight children. Andrew, born in 1855, was the sixth. In almost every respect Andrew seems to have been a pale reproduction of the Judge, but fitting himself into the paternal model seems to have cost him dearly. His son Paul, describing a man “seemingly devoid of feeling,” wrote, “One always had the impression that deep in his psyche there was an unbounded sadness, a deep despair that it would have been death for him to realize or reveal.”

Cannadine’s story is enriched by a huge cast of supporting characters, including four presidents of the United States. Andrew served as secretary of the Treasury to three—Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover—and as a prize scapegoat to Franklin Roosevelt. He admired Coolidge highly, Hoover moderately, but thought so little of Harding that a family member later said he would “never have dreamed of giving him a senior job in one of his companies.”

His counsel to Hoover for dealing with the Great Depression reflected the conventional economic wisdom of the era: crashes were inevitable in the business cycle and losses had to be stoically endured without dangerously aggressive government intervention until the economy just as inevitably righted itself. (Mellon had already experienced a few collapses himself and emerged richer as less prudent men went to the wall.) This was lethal advice to a president who was not inclined anyhow toward vigorous governance. Three years after the market crash, Franklin Roosevelt, sensing that the country wanted government at least to try to do something, made both Hoover and Mellon pay heavily for their loyalty to the old-time religion.

Having turned Hoover out of the White House, FDR personally directed, through Attorney General Homer Cummings, what Cannadine portrays as a vicious campaign to destroy Mellon’s reputation. Newspapers reported his tax returns were being examined. There were imputations of his finagling with public money, and finally a formal charge of criminal tax fraud which was brought to trial. Mellon fought it vigorously and welcomed the chance to clear his name by appearing personally to testify.

The punishing tax case dragged on through the final years of Mellon’s life. The decision clearing his name did not come until the end of 1937. He had died three months earlier at the age of eighty-two. By then the case had already served FDR’s purpose, which was to fire up New Deal loyalists by arousing public rancor against “economic royalists.” In modern political jargon, FDR had used Mellon to “energize his base,” and he probably enjoyed doing so.

Though a millionaire himself, FDR represented “old money”—Cannadine calls him “a Hudson Valley squire of ancient lineage (at least by American standards)”—and he had a “patrician disdain” for the super-rich parvenu culture which years of Republicanism and corruption had created after the Civil War. Putting one of its great bankers to the rack must have satisfied a natural urge to punish uppity vulgarians awash in money. In his heyday Mellon had been called “the greatest Secretary of the Treasury since Alexander Hamilton.” When FDR’s work was finished, those words had become a sarcastic sneer.

In the second half of the nineteenth century Pittsburgh became one of the country’s most vital industrial centers. Rich in coal and oil, it was the natural frontier of the new industrial America, with rail connections and navigable rivers that made it a transportation center. The steel industry grew up there.

The Scotch-Irish, as Cannadine points out, enriched it with a resourceful people in whom the capitalistic impulse was aggressive, almost religious in its ferocity. They were a people who lived to work and had little tolerance for those who didn’t. Presbyterians whose ancestors had been moved from Scotland to stabilize Catholic Ireland for England’s Protestant kings, they started leaving for America in the early 1700s and were heavily established in the eastern Piedmont states a century later. Andrew Mellon’s father, born in County Tyrone, arrived at Baltimore with his parents in 1818, and they immediately started for western Pennsylvania in a Conestoga wagon. Cannadine provides detailed accounts of how the Mellons went from country farmers to supreme plutocracy in two generations. Readiness to work doggedly was vital of course, but what he repeatedly emphasizes are the diligence with which they investigated before investing and their extraordinary ability to make accurate judgment of other men’s talent, ability, and ideas.

Pittsburgh society offered little to satisfy lively minds. Two of its richest citizens, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, were lured by New York and built showoff mansions on Fifth Avenue. Mellon could not be tempted. Though he had loyal, sometimes brilliant retainers, he had few friends. The closest was probably his younger brother Richard, who was also his full-time business partner. Decisions that built the Mellon empire were all made jointly with Richard.

Outside the family his most important friend was probably Frick, Carnegie’s operating partner in the steel industry. It was Frick who, with Carnegie silently standing aside, directed the bloody pitched battle that broke the strike by steel workers at the Homestead mill. The workers needed to be taught a lesson, Frick explained.

Frick was also forceful about asserting money’s power in politics. After Theodore Roosevelt became president and started flirting with progressivism, Frick angrily stated his complaint in plainest English. To reach power, he said, TR had “got down on his knees to us. We bought the son of a bitch and then he did not stay bought.” For all that, Frick seems to have been a civilizing force on Mellon. He was well read, widely traveled, interested in art, and a collector of the finest paintings. Guided by the international art dealer Joseph Duveen, he became a big spender in the art world and urged Mellon to join the sport.

The early Mellon purchases disclosed a beginner with a great deal of money and a costly shortage of taste. Between 1900 and 1905 he spent an average of $400,000 per year—maybe $7 million in today’s dollars—on paintings, not one of which he later thought worth including in the National Gallery. He was in his sixties before he began buying top-of-the-line offerings in quantity.

Mellon’s one venture in love did not occur until he was forty-three years old, and it was calamitous. It was also the only important matter on which he acted against his father’s advice. It began in the summer of 1898 when he was transforming his status from “country banker” to “industrial financier,” as Cannadine describes a moment when he was suddenly becoming immensely rich. En route to Europe with his friend Frick, he met Nora McMullen aboard ship and turned “deeply and abruptly and assertively to love.” Nora was nineteen. What explained the ease and pleasure which this stiff, shy, middle-aged father’s boy found in her companionship is a mystery, but they got along so famously that he pressed her parents for a chance to pursue the relationship and was soon a guest in their house.

Nora was English, the only daughter of a prosperous brewer in the pastoral town of Hertford. (She had eight brothers, all older, most of them destined to be long-term nuisances to their brother-in-law.) After his first visit to Hertford, where the McMullens occupied a castle as tenants of Lord Salisbury, Andrew was enchanted. In contrast to Pittsburgh’s industrial squalor, Hertford’s quaintness and calm beauty must have put him in a dreamy state of mind, and Nora was part of it. He decided very quickly that he would marry her.

Nora immediately rejected his proposal. With wisdom and foresight remarkable for a nineteen-year-old, she told him that marriage would be a mistake. “I do not love you enough to marry you,” she wrote, adding,

You only know the best side of my character. I feel certain that if you ever got to know me well, you would be terribly disappointed…you must see that it would mean nothing but unhappiness for us both.

Even her parents, as well as the Judge, were uneasy about the age difference.

Andrew was undeterred. He was an investment banker; he knew how to close a deal. Much of the courtship was pursued by mail between Hertford and Pittsburgh. Blithely, Andrew pressed on. Ignoring every investment principle that the Judge had taught him, he made no attempt to study the lives and character of Nora and her family, as he would have done before approving any applicant for a bank loan. Gradually Nora yielded to Andrew’s insistence. A country girl of great innocence, she may have needed time and coaching to realize how vastly rich Andrew actually was. As the youngest of nine children, she could anticipate only a small inheritance from her own family.

They were married in England in September 1900. Cannadine’s story of the marriage and its ensuing disasters occupies a large chunk of his book. Poor, rich Andrew was clueless in matters of love. He was making the wrong moves even before the wedding day. Without consulting Nora, he bought a big gloomy house and furnished it with decor of his own choosing. All descriptions of that house make liberal use of the word “gloomy.” Writing ninety years later, their son Paul described it as “gloomy.”

Andrew also failed to prepare his bride for the ugliness that was Pittsburgh in 1900. As the train carried the newlyweds homeward through a depressing mill-town landscape of bleakness and ruin, Cannadine writes that Nora suddenly realized she was entering an alien world—“the hills seared with outcropping seams of coal, the rivers dark and polluted, the atmosphere thick with soot.” When the train finally stopped, “she could scarcely believe that this blighted and benighted place would now be her permanent home. ‘We don’t get off here, do we?’ she asked. You don’t live here?’”

Nora’s despair seems to have been total. She was “appalled and bewildered.” She “loathed the silent formality of dinners at the Judge’s house” and considered him “far gone mentally.” She thought Pittsburgh society “smug, parochial, and materialistic.” She hated her gloomy house. She was “disgusted” by Pittsburgh’s squalid, filthy environment. She hated its factories and mills. “Almost immediately, she was lonely, homesick, and disoriented,” Cannadine writes.

Andrew noticed nothing awry. “We were devoted to each other,” he said later, “and it seemed to me to be a state of happiness seldom reached.” He was then absorbed in a variety of negotiations that made him, at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the richest men in the country. Among other household matters that failed to stir his curiosity was the appearance at his table of a dinner guest named Alfred Curphey. With a long-forgotten wife back in England, Curphey brought charm, amusement, and romance into the lives of rich men’s wives and traveled the world on their money. Soon Curphey, whose transparent rascality would have been instantly obvious to the Judge, had persuaded Andrew to lend him money. When Nora traveled alone Curphey began showing up at her hotels. When she crossed the Atlantic he turned up on board the ship.

When reality dawned at last on Andrew, a civilized period of legal separation quickly gave way to angry quarreling about child custody, which proceeded into the usual madness of divorce warfare at its nastiest. Andrew threatened Nora with the public shame that accompanied adultery charges; Nora threatened to make Pittsburgh “ring with scandal” about Andrew. One can imagine the damage to their children, whose lives were the battleground on which their parents waged this savage struggle. It seems obvious that their daughter Ailsa, already fragile emotionally, suffered lifelong effects. Their son Paul always felt uncomfortable in his father’s presence.

The case was notable for its demonstration of Mellon’s political power. He was a generously devoted Republican in a state that had been almost eternally Republican since the Civil War. State law provided for jury trial in divorce suits and because Mellon wanted to avoid the publicity which jury trials produce, his agents simply had the state legislature change the law, illustrating why Pennsylvania’s legislature was known as “the best money can buy.”

Between Nora and Andrew reason slowly asserted itself outside the courtroom, and the divorce decree was granted in 1912. Disputes that had been intractable gradually became tractable, and time’s soothing passage slowly dissolved all passion. Curphey fled the country, Nora found less parasitical liaisons, and in 1923, when she was in her mid-forties, she married an Englishman in the antiques business. By this time the poisonous hostility had drained out of her relationship with Andrew. He was now sixty-eight years old, secretary of the Treasury, and one of the world’s most influential men. Since the divorce, he and Nora had developed a correspondence, largely about the children, which had mellowed into something very like friendship.

Learning that Nora was about to remarry, Mellon suddenly and inexplicably “determined to try to get Nora back for himself before it was too late,” Cannadine says. The letter he wrote is gone, but Nora’s survives. “Andy, dear Andy,” she wrote, “…I cannot do what you ask me, dear, I simply cannot break my word.” Andrew wrote again saying he had felt “a twinge of pain” on learning of her engagement. Then, “revelation and understanding came to me,” he said, and added, “The old love was in my heart even while I was so obtuse and blind, and it makes me heartsick to think of you in all this time suffering so sadly alone.”

It may tell us something that Mellon’s warmhearted overture to Nora occurred during the period when he was heavily engaged in buying the paintings that would fill his great gallery. Maybe art really had made him more human, or maybe he had begun to escape the Judge’s chilling embrace, but Cannadine declines to wander into sentimental speculation.

Nora’s second marriage ended in 1928 with another divorce, and then she became the one pressing for a reconciliation, and it was Andrew’s turn to hold back. Nora, having outlived him by thirty-six years, died in 1973 in her ninety-fifth year.

Though he often seemed like a clone of the Judge, Andrew was a far superior businessman. As a banker he was innovative and imaginative. In politics he was an intransigent Republican who believed that government existed to serve business because it was business, not labor, that made the country successful.

Still, as secretary of the Treasury he reformed tax law to shift its burden to upper incomes, because he believed the rich ought to pay more. This was ethically consistent with his Protestant culture. Cannadine says that Mellon himself probably paid more taxes than the law strictly required. And yet Cannadine is certain that he lied about having cut all ties with his own business, as the law had long required all secretaries of the Treasury to do. From his office at the Treasury he regularly dealt with his own companies’ business. His principles, Cannadine says, did not include the idea of a conflict of interest.

In Washington he was a lonely figure, a chilly introvert in a backslapper’s town, living with a decidedly nervous daughter in a huge penthouse off Dupont Circle. He was starting to buy great paintings in volume. Few in Washington knew about the volume, but he was running out of places to store them. Cannadine’s account of his collecting, mostly conducted through Joseph Duveen and Knoedler & Company, is a tale of elaborate machination, secretive international scheming, and shrewd merchants at work on the gullible rich.

At bargaining Mellon seems to have been a match for the best of them. While the rest of the market slumbered, for example, he quietly acquired half of the finest paintings in the great Russian collection at the Hermitage, and at a very low price. Stalin, utterly ignorant of art, had decided to let it all go at fire-sale prices. As the world’s most famous capitalist villain of the 1930s, Mellon must have taken a good bit of pleasure in so thoroughly fleecing the world’s most famous Communist. So must he have enjoyed having his enemy Franklin Roosevelt accept his exact terms for establishing the National Gallery in Washington—designed by the architect of his choice, on the site he wanted, and under control of trustees he chose. According to a friend who returned with him from the meeting with FDR, he remarked, “What a wonderfully, attractive man the President is.” He then added, Cannadine writes, “I came through it much better than I expected to.”

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