Yale Bulletin
and Calendar

February 8-15, 1999Volume 27, Number 20

Reflections on the Life of Paul Mellon

In his autobiography, "Reflections in a Silver Spoon," Paul Mellon '29 describes an incident from his days at the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut:

"One lazy Sunday morning, we were discussing what we were going to do in life after college. All of a sudden Jimmy McKay said to me, 'I know what you ought to be in the future ... you must be a philanthropist.' It would be stretching the imagination to say that this pronouncement was either encouraging or prophetic, but looking back on my life, I can see that he didn't miss the mark by much."

During his lifetime, Mr. Mellon contributed to a number of charitable organizations, especially in support of higher education, the arts and humanities, conservation and veterinary research. Under his leadership, outstanding cultural treasures were preserved in the renowned structures he built to house them, including the Yale Center for British Art and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He also helped to preserve nature through his contributions toward the purchase of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina and his gift of Sky Meadows State Park to Virginia, among other areas.

Because of these and his other generosities, Mr. Mellon has been called "the greatest philanthropist of his time."

Paul Mellon was born on June 11, 1907 in Pittsburgh. He was the son of Nora McMullen and Andrew W. Mellon, an industrialist and financier who served as U.S. secretary of the treasury 1921-31 and as ambassador to the Court of St. James 1931-32.

Because his mother was English, Mr. Mellon was often taken to visit that country -- the first time when he was just under six weeks old. In "Reflections in a Silver Spoon" (which was written by Mr. Mellon with John Baskett and published in 1992 by William Morrow and Company, Inc.), the philanthropist relates the tale of how the Dean of Windsor, "horrified that an infant has crossed the Atlantic not having received baptism," insisted on performing the rite in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. "So, on December 22, 1907," Mr. Mellon writes, "I was baptized in the historic surroundings of this famous building, scene of many royal baptisms, weddings, and funerals, which houses the remains of the kings of England and their consorts over hundreds of years. I have always felt conscious of this singular privilege, as if the ceremony somehow foreshadowed my later addiction to English life and English places."

After graduating from Choate School, Mr. Mellon continued his education at Yale, where he earned his B.A. in 1929. During his undergraduate years, the young scholar served on the board of the Yale Daily News, wrote for the Yale Literary Magazine and was a member of Scroll and Key, among other activities. "There were some wonderful lectures at Yale during the years I spent there," noted the alumnus in his autobiography. He recalled, in particular, the talks presented by William Lyons Phelps: "Billy Phelps was a bit of a showman, and at one point he managed to persuade Gene Tunney, the heavyweight boxing champion, to deliver a lecture on Shakespeare. He had met Tunney while playing golf on a holiday in Florida and discovered that they shared an interest in the bard. I managed to squeeze into the lecture hall, which was absolutely packed, and heard Tunney speak without notes on 'Troilus and Cressida.' It wasn't a bad lecture at all."

From Yale, Mr. Mellon went to Clare College at Cambridge University, where he received an honours B.A. in 1931. "I loved the gray walls of Cambridge," Mr. Mellon declared in his book, "its grassy quadrangles, St. Mary's bells, the busy, narrow streets full of men in black gowns, King's College Chapel and Choir and candlelight, the coal fire smell, and walking across the quadrangle in a dressing gown in the rain to take a bath."

Mr. Mellon then returned to Pittsburgh, where he worked in the Mellon Bank and various businesses. In 1935, he married Mary Conover Brown and they moved to a farm in Virginia. The couple also spent time in Europe in the late 1930s, chiefly because of their interest in the work of psychoanalyst Carl Jung. In 1938, Mr. Mellon received a M.A. from Clare College. The couple was in Europe when World War II broke out, and they stayed until 1940.

After returning to America, Mr. Mellon enrolled at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. Six months later, he joined the U.S. Army. He received cavalry training and his commission at Fort Riley in Kansas and subsequently served with the Office of Strategic Services in Europe, attaining the rank of major.

In 1945, the Mellons founded the Bollingen Foundation, which was active in the advancement and preservation of learning in the humanities. The foundation published 100 books, including a best-seller, "I Ching," and supported the publication of many others before closing in 1969. Mary Mellon died in 1946.

It was when he was in his 40s that Mr. Mellon began collecting art in earnest -- an "incurable habit" (in his words) that he shared with his second wife, "Bunny," the former Rachel Lambert Lloyd. He purchased works by the French Impressionists and post-Impressionists, and for many years collected English pictures and books. His collection was rich in the works of the recognized masters of British art -- such as John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, George Stubbs, William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson and Joseph Wright of Derby -- but he also collected works by their lesser-known contemporaries. Mr. Mellon had particular interest in what he regarded as unappreciated genres, such as sporting art, informal portraiture and topographical painting.

"Neither Bunny nor I have ever felt a driving urge to own any picture just because it is important and certainly not because we consider it a good investment," Mr. Mellon wrote in his autobiography. "We both like to wander down the byways of art, too, looking for something that catches our eye or for minor works that nonetheless recall happy memories or otherwise appeal to our heart."

While Mr. Mellon gave some of his British paintings to the National Gallery of Art and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, the majority of the collection came to Yale, where Mr. Mellon built the Yale Center for British Art (designed by Louis I. Kahn) to house the works. "My object in giving these collections to Yale was largely to give young men and women an opportunity to enjoy them at a period in their lives before age and familiarity dulled the immediacy of their visual impact," wrote the philanthropist in his book.

The alumnus continued as the chief benefactor of the British Art Center and maintained close ties with the museum. "I frequently fly up to New Haven for the day," he wrote in his autobiography, "and it is always a great pleasure for me to meet with the staff and to have an opportunity to look at the paintings and drawings, the books and prints that I had such fun collecting."

To give the University a "London subsidiary" to the Yale museum, Mr. Mellon established the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, now the locus of the Yale-in-London program. His numerous other gifts to the University include funding the construction of two residential colleges, Morse and Ezra Stiles, which were dedicated in 1962.

Mr. Mellon and his sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, were also the second generation of major benefactors to the National Gallery of Art, which was founded by their father, Andrew Mellon, in 1937. In addition to presenting the gallery with thousands of artworks during their lifetimes, Mr. Mellon and his sister provided funding for numerous projects, including the construction of the gallery's East Building. Mr. Mellon served as a trustee of the gallery for many years, and was instrumental in establishing its Center for Advanced Study in Visual Arts. He also served on the boards of trustees of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and numerous other organizations.

In addition, Mr. Mellon was an avid equestrian, who called horses his "one great recreation in life." He enjoyed fox hunting, and he bred and raced top horses, including many stakes winners, from his Rokeby Stables in Virginia. Among these was Mill Reef, the 1971 winner of the English Derby and the French Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe, who has been called one of the greatest horses of this century.

The Yale alumnus received many distinguished honors during his lifetime. One of the earliest (1953) was the Yale Medal, which the University presents to alumni who have made outstanding contributions to their alma mater. President Reagan awarded Mr. Mellon the National Medal of Arts in 1985, and President Clinton gave him the National Medal of Arts and Humanities in 1997. In 1974, Mr. Mellon was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (K.B.E.), and in 1982 he was appointed Knight Grand Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau.

When he died on Feb. 1 at Oak Spring, his home in Upperville, Virginia, Mr. Mellon was 91 years old. In addition to his wife, "Bunny," he is survived by his two children from his first marriage, Catherine Conover and Timothy Mellon; and by three grandchildren, John W. Warner, Virginia S. Warner and Mary W. Greenway. A private burial service was held in Upperville.

Near the end of "Reflections in a Silver Spoon," Mr. Mellon summed up his life this way: "I have been an amateur in every phase of my life; an amateur poet, an amateur scholar, an amateur horseman, an amateur farmer, an amateur soldier, an amateur connoisseur of art, an amateur publisher, and an amateur museum executive. The root of the word 'amateur' is the Latin word for love, and I can honestly say that I've thoroughly enjoyed all the roles that I have played."


Paul Mellon greets Queen Elizabeth during a visit to the National Gallery of Art in 1957.