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Unfortunately for Mellon, his public life did not end with Franklin Roosevelt’s electoral victory in 1932. The New Dealers were looking for scapegoats, and FDR himself engaged in some of the most virulent anti-big business rhetoric this side of Stalinist Russia. Mellon, a rich financier, businessman and prominent Republican, was at the top of the list. With FDR’s personal approval, the Justice Department launched a criminal tax-evasion investigation against Mellon. A grand jury refused to indict, but FDR chose to pursue it anyway in civil court. FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, explained to the government’s prosecutor that “Mr. Mellon is not on trial, but Democracy and the privileged rich.” Mellon was not on trial for anything he did (the charges of tax fraud were baseless) but for what he symbolized — or rather what the New Dealers wanted him to symbolize — greedy financiers who had selfishly destroyed the lives of working people.
Cannadine notes that FDR’s prosecution of Mellon was not just political and vindictive, but also hypocritical. Unlike Mellon, FDR liberally took advantage of tax loopholes, and in 1932 paid only $31 in federal income taxes. During the tax trail the general public first learned of Mellon’s remarkable intended benefaction, as the government had claimed that the charitable foundation into which he had been donating artwork and money for the eventual creation of a National Gallery of Art, was, in fact, a tax dodge.
Despite some opposition from radical New Dealers who didn’t want to accept any gift from Mellon (the acceptance of Mellon’s “National Gallery” required congressional legislation), and others who did not like the neo-classical architecture of the proposed building designed by John Russell Pope, Mellon’s gift was accepted on his terms. One of those terms was that the gallery not be named after him, but rather be called the National Gallery of Art — a reflection of his unostentatious nature, and his (realized) belief that more collectors would donate to a “National Gallery.” When it was all done, the man accused of attempting to defraud the government of $2 million had given the nation a gift in art, building, and endowment then valued at nearly $60 million. Mellon would only see the very beginning of the gallery’s construction, dying of bronchial pneumonia in August 1937 at age 82 — three months before his official exoneration in the tax trial.
Most everyone who worked with Mellon seems not only to have admired him but also to have liked him. As evidenced in his dealings with Nora and FDR, Mellon seemed incapable of hating other people. After his meeting with FDR to discuss his proposed National Gallery late in 1936, all Mellon could say of the man who had persecuted him was that he was a charming fellow. People with such a nature usually don’t let things gnaw at them, and though his fervent desires for a loving wife and a son to succeed him in business were not to be fulfilled, he may not have been such the sad and forlorn character that Cannadine makes him out to be. Cannadine’s work is a significant accomplishment, but he has left room for improvement for future biographers.
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