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MELLON by David Cannadine

MELLON

An American Life

By David Cannadine

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 2006
ISBN: 0-679-45032-7
Publisher: Knopf

Lavish, multifaceted portrait of the early-20th-century American business titan, emphasizing the man rather than the money.

British historian Cannadine (In Churchill’s Shadow, 2003, etc.) shows power, politics, art and money all working together in the life of Andrew Mellon (1855–1937). Born and bred into the world of finance and industry, Mellon was shy and obsessed with self-sufficiency. A lengthy opening section here on Mellon’s father, Thomas, explains his impact on his son’s character. At 19, Mellon began work at the family bank under his father’s watchful eye. Their formula for success—invest to increase value; leave get-rich-quick schemes to fools—was hardly revolutionary, but Cannadine’s exposition of the early years lays the groundwork for a fuller picture of Mellon. Somewhat repetitive stories of mergers and acquisitions (both financial and artistic) frame the story of Mellon’s personal struggles. Less than adept in relationships outside the office, at 43 he fell for and married an English girl of 19. The marriage ended in divorce 14 years later, the first of two major scandals the otherwise private Mellon endured. (The second involved accusations of tax fraud in the mid-1930s by a hostile New Deal government.) Though the financier preferred to exercise his power out of the spotlight, circumstances often moved him to the center of attention. When asked to become Secretary of the Treasury in 1921, Mellon would have liked to turn down the offer in order to concentrate on building closer ties with his estranged daughter, but he felt obligated to help rebuild a country recovering from war. Once in Washington, he saw an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy in the form of the National Gallery of Art. Although he didn’t live to see its completion, his dream was ultimately fulfilled. Cannadine’s insightful account reveals Mellon as a man who took personal risks that seemingly defied his upbringing.

Grand successes and epic failures, engrossingly recounted.