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Book Review 227: Mellon

February 25, 2012 - Harry Eagar
MELLON: An American Life, by David Cannadine. 779 pages, illustrated. Knopf, $35

Andrew Mellon had a greater effect on American lives than any other Cabinet officer, and his long public career began at the end of one of the most remarkable business careers in our history. He also built and filled the National Gallery of Art.

Yet there has never been a biography, until this authorized version paid for by his son.

Despite some excellences – not including the charm we had come to expect of David Cannadine in books such as “Ornamentalism” – we still need a proper biography of Mellon and the achievements and disasters of his long life.

A large portion (the first 100 pages) is the life of Andy Mellon's fierce father, Thomas, a greedy bigot who shaped and blighted the life of his most talented son. In the later chapters, I was led again and again to think of Sinclair Lewis's George Babbitt.

Babbitt as a byword is not the man of the novel, who had tendencies toward personal and artistic impulses outside his narrow business interests. Thomas, the old Judge, may have successfully squelched any human impulses in Andy, but late in life Andy did, unlike George, develop a taste for art.

What that taste meant is obscure, since being inarticulate was one of his specialties.

This closemouthedness makes it hard on the biographer, who is also not an economic historian (obvious on nearly every page) but is, unfortunately, too ready to grab for psychoanalytical explanations.

There are four serious deficiencies in “Mellon.”

First is that Mellon's business success is presented almost as an act of magic. In the '90s, he and his brother Dick began backing a series of technological triumphs – aluminum, carborundum, a novel process for making coke – and businesses that thrived on these concerns, oil, shipbuilding, iron building frames and many more, but especially banking.

It is not clear that Mellon was a talented business manager. His ventures into rationalizing an older business, coal, showed indifferent to poor results. Some of his big successes fed off his buying power.

When he consolidated coal operations, he needed thousands of gondolas. So he and Dick formed the Standard Steel Car Corp. to build them. With a fat and guaranteed order book, Standard Steel achieved economies of scale that allowed it to compete successfully generally. The same approach made a success of the New York Shipbuilding Co. The Mellons generally avoided Wall Street and held their companies closely. Even a giant like Alcoa was for long a family firm.

Mellon was a financier, not an operations man. Still, we need to learn much more than we do about the way his companies were run. Other Pittsburgh industrialists of the time are remembered as killers, like Carnegie and Frick. So far as Cannadine reports, Mellon was not a killer. But his methods were brutal.

Cannadine likes to say that Mellon hated organized labor. It appears that he hated labor, period.

Mellon certainly hated Franklin Roosevelt for exposing the heartlessness of Mellonian business success.

I have before me Michael Lesy's album of New Deal photographs of the world Mellon made, “Long Time Coming.” On page 264 is a picture of the company store in Osage, West Virginia. It is not stated whether this was a Mellon store, but he owned hundreds like it. The caption says, “Sack of flour in A&P in same town costs 69 cents and in company store costs $1.25.”

And that's how Andy Mellon could afford the Old Masters he gave the nation.

The second great deficiency in the book is Cannadine's agnosticism – ignorance, really – about Mellon's role as secretary of the Treasury.

Mellon was entirely uneducated; the Judge considered knowledge a handicap in business. His economic ideas were the most naïve sort of Adam Smithian nonsense. Shortly after Mellon joined Harding's Cabinet, the American agricultural sector fell into a Great Depression that lasted until 1940.

It is not clear that the wholly urban Mellon even realized it, but in any case, he believed that government could not and should not do anything about it. The New Deal proved him wrong.

Meantime, Mellon (and Cannadine after him) was under the delusion that the country was prospering.

Cannadine praises Mellon for the policy of forgiving German debts. This is conventional but unsound. As a specialist in Victorian history, Cannadine ought to be aware that when France paid off its indemnity (in gold) after 1871, it led to one of the longest periods of prosperity the country ever knew. The results of debt forgiveness did not lead to such happy outcomes.

Mostly Mellon was concerned to eliminate the national debt. Although he has recently been adopted by the Reaganomics crowd, he was also concerned to see that the wealthy paid a large share of income taxes. Much more needs to be said about Mellon's attitude to income tax.

The third deficiency concerns Mellon's morality. Cannadine touches this lightly and warily. My conclusion is that Mellon was conscienceless, except that he regarded business contracts seriously. He refused to take seriously the law (one of the republic's oldest) forbidding Cabinet members from engaging in business. It seems clear Mellon could not conceive that there could be a problem.

He lied about it. Even Mellon ought to have recognized that an as offense.

But the great failure of Cannadine as an historian – it amounts to malpractice – is to ignore the one thing Mellon is still dimly remembered for: "liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate … it will purge the rottenness out of the system.”

Mellon was rightly reviled for it at the time. Cannadine barely alludes to it, merely reporting that someone quoted Mellon to that effect.

(If the sentiment sounds familiar, it has been resurrected by conservatives so that their rich bosses can profit even more by our current economic distress/)

Yet the remark sums up Mellon's life and its baleful influence. All 700 pages can be summed up in that stupid, cruel rule.

The fourth deficiency concerns Mellon's love life. His reticence works against Cannadine, /As far as this book shows, Mellon's romantic interest began when he was in his 40s and ended a couple of years later.

This seems improbable. The record shows he suddenly married a girl young enough to be his daughter, a disastrous match for both.

After that bruising episode, Cannadine suggests that Mellon's interest in women was limited to Georgian beauties on canvas, because they could not hurt him. This is just glib enough to be plausible, except that Mellon's other collecting interest was pastoral landscapes, an odd choice for this totally urban man.

A cynic might surmise that Paul Mellon chose a biographer without business or economic background for a reason,. Whether that be so or not, we need a biography of Mellon by a specialist.


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