Mellon: An American Life
Allen Lane, London, 2006, 779 pp, 20 col., 86 b&w ills 30 [pounds sterling]
The first published biography of Andrew Mellon provides not only a detailed account of this American financier, filling out a character whose surname was perhaps the only thing previously known by a British audience, but discusses wide ranging issues affecting a crucial period in American history. Twelve years in the making, this book is informative and inspiring in its lucid arguments, grasp of complex material and pace of narrative, fully justifying the confidence placed in the author by the Mellon family. For David Cannadine has continued, in his researches into Andrew Mellon, his exploration of the historical currents affecting modern society, begun in 1980 when be investigated two major developments in modern British history, namely the decline of the aristocracy as the landed ruling elite and the rise of a mass urban society, and continued in major works on class and British society. (1) In this book, the history of a rapidly industrialising Pittsburgh is tracked together with the rise of the new plutocracy in America with all its economic and social ramifications.
The Mellon story is complicated and hardly believable. Andrew Mellon's life, 1855-1937, spanned a period which began with the Crimean War, just before the American Civil War, and finished four years before Pearl Harbor. Andrew Mellon was the son of Thomas, who had emigrated from Ulster in 1818, aged five, with his 'middling' prosperous farming parents, encouraged by reports from relatives who had already settled in Pennysylvania. (2) Andrew Mellon used his considerable financial acumen (building upon a solid foundation constructed by his father 'Judge' Thomas Mellon) to develop his family's influence in five areas, banking, industry, politics, art-collecting and philanthropy, amassing a fortune in the process, and the book, with all these competing narratives, could easily have become unwieldy and confusing. But not only are these different themes tightly controlled, particularly the sections dealing with how Mellon exploited the unregulated, laissez-faire business environment nurtured by Republican industrialists in late-19th-century Pittsburgh and the complicated tax reforms introduced by Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury under three Presidents, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, between 1921-1932, but the essence of his relationships with parents...