Joshua and I have been reading three books, all biographies, sharing them back and forth between us. One is on Maximilien Robespierre, one is on George III, and one is on Andrew W. Mellon.
“Mellon: An American Life”, by David Cannadine, was commissioned by Paul Mellon, Andrew’s only son. Cannadine is a British biographer who was granted full access to the Mellon archives.
This biography took Cannadine twelve years to research, and his painstaking research is on limitless display in this long volume. I have never read a biography so filled with minutiae of all kinds, ranging from personal correspondence to the most mundane business figures and business memoranda to litigation transcripts to long lists of artworks owned. Cannadine has done his research well, and he was clearly determined to place the fruits of his research conspicuously before the reader.
Amid all this proliferation of detail, however, Mellon the man does not so much get lost as fail to make an actual appearance—although some reviewers have speculated, unkindly, that there was no human being there in the first place.
This is ungenerous. Only a very skilled and talented man could have founded and managed such vast enterprises as Mellon Bank, Alcoa and Gulf Oil, and served as Secretary Of The Treasury for the longest such tenure in our nation’s history, and amassed the finest personal art collection ever assembled in the Western Hemisphere (an art collection that was to serve as the core for The National Gallery Of Art in Washington, an institution founded and funded by Mellon).
Why cannot Cannadine capture Mellon the man? Part of the problem, I think, is that Cannadine relied too much upon the recollections of Paul, whose views of his more famous father were ambivalent at best. Paul clearly harbored grievances against his father, and those grievances are given full reign in this biography.
Another problem is that Cannadine is no fan of the rough-and-tumble world of American business and politics, at least as those endeavors were practiced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet another problem is that Cannadine has an intense dislike of American foreign and economic policies of the 1920’s (a dislike common among the British, who view that decade, correctly, as the decade of the emergence of American supremacy at the expense of Britain, a former great power forever decimated by the costs of The Great War). Still another problem for Cannadine is that he is inexpert in the fields of economics and tax and trade policies, on which subjects he espouses bizarre opinions that appear to have been learned at the knee of Ernest Bevin. Goodness!
If Cannadine were more knowledgeable about economics and American politics and American history, he may not have found it so necessary to turn Mellon—a rather marginal figure in American history, all in all—into some sort of emblem of American ills in the first third of the 20th Century. His attempt to do so is the chief failing in his book.
I wonder what Paul Mellon would have thought about this book, had he lived to see its completion and publication. I suspect that he might actually have been pleased.
“Mellon: An American Life” appears to have been “written to order”. It strikes me as a blatant effort to contrast an inhuman, relentless, driven father with a refined, noble, philanthropic son.
Further, it was a mistake, I believe, for an Englishman to have been handed this particular biographic assignment (Paul Mellon was one of America’s—and the world’s—greatest Anglophiles). This is so for two reasons.
The first reason is Cannadine’s fatally superficial understanding of American politics and history, a superficiality that quickly becomes irritating and renders all of Mellon’s genuine accomplishments immaterial.
The second is Cannadine’s unwillingness to portray Mellon’s wife as the true piece of work she was known to be, during her lifetime, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Andrew Mellon’s wife—Paul Mellon’s mother—was British, and the disastrous marriage that ensued between these two incompatible souls may be blamed largely upon Mellon’s British wife: a notorious liar, notoriously unfaithful to her husband, notoriously spendthrift with his money (as was her equally notorious family), and notorious in her endless efforts to embarrass him and make his life as difficult as possible. Cannadine tries to turn Mellon’s British wife into a sympathetic figure—was this another requirement of Paul Mellon, who may have wanted to see his mother portrayed in a favorable light before he died?—but Cannadine utterly fails in this effort. Mrs. Mellon cannot help but be revealed as the harridan she was, no matter how hard Cannadine tries to scrub her clean and sponge her off.
An American biographer of Mellon would not have made two such fateful errors.
A significant after-effect of a biography like Cannadine’s is that it inhibits any other biographer from taking another look at the subject for at least another generation. What major publisher will finance a second Mellon biography to correct the deficiencies in this one? This unlikely volume, sadly, will serve as the authoritative guide to Mellon for the next twenty or thirty years. Mellon, and the American reader, deserve better.
Until then, scholars of the period may benefit from the wealth of factual detail presented in this book, but they must look elsewhere if they want to compile an objective and full-dimensional portrait of Mellon the man and Mellon the legacy.