cover image Mellon: An American Life

Mellon: An American Life

David Cannadine. Knopf Publishing Group, $35 (800pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45032-0

In this volume, the first published ""full-scale life"" of financial pioneer Andrew Mellon-who would help propel the country to economic domination, serve as servant and scapegoat for powerful White House administrations, and establish the National Gallery of Art-biographer Cannadine (In Churchill's Shadow) tackles every aspect of a towering American figure who was nevertheless ""shy in life and secretive in business."" Beginning with the boyhood immigration to Pittsburgh of Mellon's domineering father, Cannadine chronicles the busy buildup of Mellon's early career, as he involves himself with his father's successful real estate projects and enters the world of Pittsburgh's wealthy industrial elite. His largely obstacle-free ascension, however, packs the book's first third with humdrum lists of business transactions. Tellingly, the chapter titled ""The First Scandal"" provides the book's first meaty narrative: the disastrous collapse of Mellon's mid-life marriage to the young Englishwoman Nora McMullen. Following this, Mellon becomes a more dynamic character and his money takes a more secondary role. Mellon's contentious stint as Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover provides interesting insight into the clash of democracy (which Mellon was never such a fan of) and high finance; it also provides Mellon a telling conflict between his responsibility to the country's failing post-war economy and his desire to re-engage his estranged daughter Ailsa. Cannadine does not shy from pointing out the hypocrisy and insensitivity in his subject-especially in his devastating behavior toward his unfaithful wife-but remains sympathetic throughout, providing a balanced look at a supremely principled businessman who made some startlingly unprincipled choices. Though a scholarly work with limited popular appeal, this is a valuable, comprehensive look at an important American life.