Monday, March 11, 2013

The Other Andrew and the Subsidy Press

Courtesy of Audible Audiobooks, I'm imbibing David Cannadine's not-quite-massive biography of Andrew Mellon, Pittburgh's “other Andrew,” the man who dominates our mythology of the great depression the same way Alan Geenspan does of the little depression. The book is a worthy effort, not impaired by the fact that it's a commission job (as Cannadine explains in the intro). Cannadine is a pro and he brings his pro chops to this task, unfailingly clearsighted about a man whose utter lack of self-comprehension must place him in at least the quarter finals of the clueless hall of fame.

But while we're talking clueless, there are a few clues on offer as to the rue provenance of the book. One, girth: it's about eight percent shorter than David Nasaw's (excellent) biography of the "original Andrew"--i.e., Carnegie. Yet it is nowhere near as full of incident.  For a man who did, in fairness, quite a bit with his life, still Mellon really must have been one of the dullest men alive. A tipoff as to the biographer's attitude is that Cannadine begins with a mini-biography of Mellon's father who, though not as rich or powerful as Andrew, seems to make a more promising subject. A related giveaway is that Cannadine gets his chapter epigraphs not from his subject but from the father—a man who at least had the courtesy to leave behind a sort of autobiography something Andrew never did, and which it would be impossible to imagine him doing.

There are other mini-biographies, especially Andrew's brother, Dick (with whom, in fairness, he was psychologically joined at the hip—you really can't tell the story without the other). Also Andrew's children: cookie-cutter trust-fund babies if there ever were any, each a wide-eyed misfit in his (her) own way. Also—and from the writer's standpoint, this was a break—Andrew's wife: a vulgar, energetic and remorseless woman who clearly needed some of Andrew's money (as did her near-numberless family), but who seems also, poignantly, to have needed Andrew. And he her: it's People Magazine stuff but the fractious marriage and its afterlife is surely the most vivid and energetic part of the book. Still at the end, every marriage is a mystery to anyone who is not in it, and Cannadine is prudent enough not to venture insights that he surely couldn't sustain.

Oh, and as to subsidy—finally, the very fact of audio. You know, agreeable as this book is as a read, I can think of a thousand I'd rather have in my ear. Do we hear the scratch of the donor's pen on checkbook here as well?

Afterthought:  As an undocumented extra--reading Cannadine, I come away with the conviction that Mellon did not utter the remark for which he is so often quoted.  It was Herbert Hoover, describing (or perhaps "caricaturing") Mellon who said:
Mr. Mellon had only one formula: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.”
 Note that it is Hoover speaking here, not Mellon, and note further that Hoover and Mellon entertained a minimum high regard for each other (amazing how much Hoover was disliked by those who knew him best).   And read in context, it's pretty clear the whole portrait was intended as a lampoon.  I don't mean to suggest that Mellon tooled around Pittsburgh or Washington in  Pierce Arrow tossing dollar bills out of the window.  I think what I may be saying is tht if Mellon really said anything so pithy and astringent, it would have been the only time in his life that he actually did so.

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