Interview with David Cannadine: His New Biography of Andrew Mellon


Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

Last week Knopf published Mr. Cannadine's latest book, Mellon: An American Life. The following interview was conducted by email.

Was Mellon a cold fish? It's impossible not to start with this question.

He was certainly a distant, fenced-in, taciturn man. It was said that he and the equally unloquacious Calvin Coolidge conversed in pauses. He was a very difficult man to get to know; I don't think anyone ever knew him well; and I'm not sure that he knew himself all that well, either.

What drew you to the topic?

I was asked to undertake this biography by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with the encouragement and approval of Paul Mellon. The terms on which I undertook it were that I should have free access to all available papers, and that I should also have complete freedom to reach any conclusions that the evidence warranted.

You say in the introduction that you would like to think that you would have voted for Democrats in both the 1920s and the 1930s and not for Mellon's party. Was his defense of Republican laissez-faire policies in the 1920s persuasive?

Mellon's defense of his laissez faire policies of the 1920s was persuasive in a boom time when standards of living were higher than they had ever been. He was also determined that rich people should pay their taxes and, contrary to what the Roosevelt administration later alleged, Mellon certainly paid his. He also played a major part in the financial reconstruction of western Europe in the aftermath of the First World War, by negotiating settlements on the debts that these nations owed America, which opened up the way for the restoration of the gold standard.

Do you think your being British was a help or a hindrance in writing a balanced account?

Not sure. Mellon was certainly an anglophile, and his wife was British. He was also (briefly) US Ambassador to Britain. After the US, it was his favorite country. And, of course, Mellon's Scotch-Irish background is also very important. On the other hand, it was also a great challenge to write about the history of America for the period covered by Mellon's life, which was something I'd never done before.

How did you manage to get access to Mellon's papers? Were any restrictions placed on your use of the material? This already to some extent answered above.

There were no restrictions. Mellon's papers are massive and scattered: personal and family papers in Washington; business papers in Pittsburgh; art collecting papers in New York, LA, Moscow and St Petersburg; and his official Treasury papers also in DC. And, of course, Mellon corresponded with an astonishing range of people, so he turns up in many archives across the country. The book is based on seventy eight collections of papers, so while its not comprehensive (no biography can ever be that) its prett6y thorough.

Were there any surprises buried in the papers?

Lots. Among them: how late he came to great riches and art collecting; the full details of the divorce case; the fact that he paid so much income tax in the 1920s, but also that he broke the law in other ways; the long-cherished nature of his scheme for the National Gallery of Art; the astonishing episode of the purchase of the pictures from the Hermitage; the extent to which his reputation collapsed and the degree to which the Roosevelt administration went for him; the remarkable triumph of getting the whole National gallery matter settled just weeks before his death. None of this had really been known in greater detail before.

Was Mellon a tax cheat as FDR's administration alleged? Or was Mellon simply set up for political reasons?

Mellon was not a tax cheat. He had broken the law in the 1920s, by being still involved in business, which the Treasury Secretary was not supposed to be. I think the Democrats wanted to get him for that. Following the precedent established when Mellon was Treasury Secretary, they prosecuted him for tax evasion, as Al Capone had earlier been. The difference was that Mellon had paid his income tax.

What do you hope the reader will learn from reading about Mellon?

What will the reader learn? Mellon is the last of a group of figures -- the others include Rockefeller, Carnegie, Frick, Ford, Morgan -- to get a full dress biography. So this is a big book which fills a big gap in the history of America during the time when it was becoming, in part as a result of the labors of these men, the richest economy in the world. There's also lots that is new on Pittsburgh, art collecting, the politics of the 1920s and 1930s, and the foundation of the National Gallery of Art. It was a very big life, and I think it deserved this big biography, which I hope readers will enjoy. No one could have made this story up!

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/10/2006

That answer above says he broke the law in other "ways" - plural. Then the only example given is that he kept his hand in his business while Secretary of the Treasury, an offense not quite as serious as murder in the first degree. My guess is he was scrupulous to avoid any conflict of interest between those jobs, too. Andrew Mellon would not have become the success that he was in the banking field if he were not extremely honest and trustworthy, nor would he have enjoyed the high regard of men like Coolidge. If there was any other law-breaking, it seems the author would have mentioned something about it here, unless it was some incredibly sophisticated crime under some horrendous law that never should have been on the books.
People do break laws sometimes pro bono publico, like when the Nixon's associates perjured themselves to save America from George McGovern.