The Mellons

The name Rockefeller is equated by the general public with money, for the Rockefellers are a large and very wealthy family. The Mellon name, however, is not as widely recognized, though the Mellon family is just as large and far wealthier. The Rockefellers are known as philanthropists. The Mellons have also given enormous sums of money through their charitable foundations. They have founded and endowed the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and heavily support other arts and cultural events directly and more recently through public television.

The Mellon family far outshines the established Rockefellers and DuPonts in wealth, topping even the newer wealthy family names of Getty and Hunt. The Mellon fortune is diversified and complex. The Gulf Oil Corporation, for instance, is only the tenth largest industrial corporation in the world, yet its annual revenues are greater than those of any state in the union. The Mellon fortune controls the Gulf Oil Corporation. The Mellons are the principal stockholders of Alcoa, and the major stockholders in many of the other “Fortune 500” businesses.

David E. Koskoff, in The Mellons: The Chronicle of America’s Richest Family, describes who the Mellons are and how they became so wealthy. This is not a genealogy; he does not list every family member with equal emphasis on each. Rather, it is a family history, highlighting certain of the family members and glossing over others.

Much of the personal detail in the book is grounded in family genealogical sources, for there were many family members who recorded such information for posterity. In the first section of the book, which highlights the founder of the fortune, Thomas Mellon, Koskoff relies heavily on Thomas Mellon and His Times, an autobiography which the founder had privately printed for his descendants in 1885. Koskoff quotes extensively from this work, allowing Judge Mellon’s own words to provide for the reader a fairly clear picture of his character and values.

Thomas Mellon was born in Northern Ireland in 1813 of Scotch-Irish parentage. His family immigrated to western Pennsylvania in search of better farmland when he was five years old. His father was a hard-working and thrifty farmer who assumed that his son would be also. Young Thomas, however, had other ideas. He had been allowed to attend school for brief intervals and read incessantly from Pope, Shakespeare, and the like. The turning point in his life came, however, with his reading of the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. He found Franklin’s values the same as his own and their early circumstances parallel. While Thomas’s own father discouraged his son’s ideas of leaving the farm to enter a profession, the Franklin autobiography inspired him to try. Thereafter, Thomas Mellon relied on no one else but himself for support or inspiration.

The words “self-made man” are often used to describe such persons, but such a phrase does not provide the entire picture. The real significance lies in the way in which these persons go about “making” it. Single-mindedness and the ruthless drive toward a particular goal seem to be characteristic of their actions. Some want to acquire power; some want to acquire fame; Thomas Mellon wanted to acquire money.

His thoughts about entering an honorable profession were overshadowed by his drive for money soon after he left the farm. From his observations of the townsfolk, he decided that to be genteel was very nice, but to be wealthy and genteel was much nicer. He decided on the profession of law because he could, through it, cultivate many of the “better” people and because it was the quickest way for someone with no capital to make money. This cold analysis of his goals and methods is reflected in a number of the quotations from his own writings which Koskoff has selected for inclusion and typifies his approach to all decisions, including that of choosing a proper wife.

Once Thomas had amassed a sizable amount of money, he quit the practice of law and, aside from a...

(The entire section is 1666 words.)


Best Sellers. XXXVIII, July, 1978, p. 118.

Esquire. LXXXIX, June 6, 1978, p. 35.

Library Journal. CIII, July, 1978, p. 1397.

National Review. XXX, September 15, 1978, p. 1161.