Thursday, May 28, 2015

Forgotten History: quiet, pleasant and self-possessed Sarah Jane Negley Mellon

If you're from Pittsburgh, you know the name Mellon.

The name seeped into my consciousness at an astonishingly early age. I vividly recall being 5 years old and placing my chin on a walnut handrail after clambering up a marble step to peer into display cases at the Carnegie Museum.
Scaife miniature dioramas, Carnegie Museum of Art

Scaife miniature dioramas, Carnegie Museum of Art
I left astonished vapor Os on the glass as I gazed into the miniature rooms installation, newly-bequeathed from the estate of a lady I learned was named Sarah Cordelia Mellon Scaife. Those displays (still on view at Carnegie Museum of Art) exactly reproduce the dining room, bedroom and library from Penguin Court, the family's former 'country home' in Ligonier.

I didn't know then that I was looking at three inch tall Chippendale chairs covered in petit point needlepoint, a mahogany dining table, or wee 18th century collectible silver pieces from Europe. I just knew that I was entranced.

And of course I couldn't know that Sarah's father Richard B. Mellon had always been the showiest of the famous Mellon brothers. He likely nurtured his daughter's sense of grandeur from the cradle. He did, after all, arrange for the Pittsburgh wedding of the century in 1927 when Sarah married Alan Magee Scaife.

At age 5, I knew nothing of the dissipated, privileged, alcoholic life Sarah is said to have led. I couldn't know that Sarah's son Richard Mellon Scaife was even then carrying on the legacy of alcoholism and ratcheting the family's reputation to new heights (or moral depths) with monied bullying behavior. Nor could I predict that (once sober) he would eventually become one of this country's most generous and influential donors to conservative causes.

And I surely couldn't have known that Sarah's grandfather, Judge Thomas Mellon, had cautioned against precisely this kind of privileged existence when he wrote in his 1885 memoirs: 
The normal condition of man is hard work, self-denial, acquisition and accumulation; as soon as his descendants are freed from the necessity of such exertion they begin to degenerate sooner or later in both body and mind.
What I did know, even at age 5, was that a different kind of life was lived by the sorts of folks who had the money and hubris to reproduce their houses in miniature. And I wondered about what kind of lives those were -- not simply in terms of material possessions, but about how the world must seem to them.

Growing up surrounded by the Mellon name in Pittsburgh

To kid-me, a family name such as "Mellon" seemed pretty funny: it conjured up images of posh, well-dressed fleshy fruit. My childish deductive reasoning skills led me to assume that this family must be like some PBS high-brow version of Mr. Potato Head. But I soon realized that these Mellons were omnipresent. Whenever I encountered something fancy in my hometown, be it a staggeringly grand bank, college, building, or parks, it likely bore the Mellon name.

At some point in my childhood, I learned that the Mellon family had established one of my favorite places on earth: Idlewild Park. Insulated by innocent pleasure, I was grateful to them for that. I had no idea that Judge Mellon had prudently created the park in 1878 for the sole purpose of providing a destination to increase profits for his already-existing narrow-gauge railroad.

Postcard of bridge spanning Lake Bouquet leading to Flower Island at Idlewild Park.
Ligonier Valley Railroad tracks would have passed near here.

I also had no idea that one of Sarah Mellon Scaife's foundations had funded the opening of the children's section of the Pittsburgh Zoo in 1949. I just knew I liked crawling in that big old whale's mouth, which was disgustingly and delightfully spongy (although it had seen better days by the time I was visiting in the mid-1970s).

There were other parks, ones I thought were meant mostly for grown-ups. A showpiece of the mid-century downtown Pittsburgh Renaissance movement, Mellon Square was constructed as a Modernist urban oasis by Sarah and her brother Richard King Mellon. It was dedicated to their father Richard B. Mellon and their uncle Andrew Mellon in 1955.

Mellon Square dedication, October 18, 1955.
Heinz History Center, Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs


The younger Mellons footed half the $7.8 million bill for this park. The combined visions of Pittsburgh architects Mitchell & Ritchey and landscape artists John and Philip Simonds were responsible for the urban open space, built over a six story parking garage. Nine giant bronze basins weighing 3,500 pounds each were used for the square's central fountains, which were considered the largest single bronze castings made to that date.

Mellon Square, Pittsburgh
Mellon Square, Pittsburgh

My family visited Mellon Square, situated mid-way between Kaufmann's and Gimbel's department stores on Smithfield Street, whenever we shopped downtown during the 1970s. It was still in good enough repair then to conjure my mother's memories of the park as a chic working-girl gathering place from earlier decades. She'd buy me a raisin-filled cookie from the Jenny Lee Bakery just below the square, then let me amuse myself. I'd pretend that each carefully landscaped section was a room in my make-believe mansion, then I'd hop-scotch around on the groovy terrazzo paving (reportedly those designs came from a suggestion by Sarah Mellon Scaife) and fantasize about climbing the magical cascading fountain. All this, while my mother smoked and rested for what seemed like an eternity.

Thus a progression from dollhouses, amusement parks and fruit: in my later childhood, the Mellon name became associated with cookies, urban adventure, and impatience.

In my adolescence the Mellon name was associated with something unattainable: attending benefit steeplechase races at Richard B. Mellon's Ligonier Rolling Rock estate. The Rolling Rock Hunt Race Meeting, whose proceeds benefited the Pittsburgh Rehabilitation Institute, was attended by the monied, class-skipping students of my high school. I was uncultured, and had never skipped class in my life, and I didn't get why Rolling Rock was a Thing. It certainly wasn't a Thing for this truck-driver's daughter to attend, so I never went. I still felt a vague sense of loss when the races were shut down in 1982.

When I moved to Highland Park as a young adult in the mid-1980s, my first apartment was in a home at the corner of Mellon and Bryant Streets. For well over a decade, I studied and worked across the street from Mellon Institute, an imposing classical limestone building ringed with 62 enormous Ionic columns that kid-me had believed was a sinister fortress in the heart of Oakland.

I occasionally took myself to Mellon Park in Shadyside. There had stood Richard B. Mellon's 65 room mansion, built in 1909 and torn down in 1941 having passed its period of usefulness -- though not before hosting that 1927 Mellon-Scaife Pittsburgh society wedding reception of the century. Today's Mellon Park encompasses the mansion's grounds; remaining gatehouse; a Tudor Revival mansion dating to 1904 and given as a wedding gift to the Mellon-Scaife newlyweds; and a circa-1912 mansion belonging to Charles D Marshall of Bethlehem Steel. The buildings are today leased from the City of Pittsburgh as the campus for Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Phipps Garden Center. But back when I roamed the area, the park was just beginning to emerge from a period of seediness and disrepair.

Oddly enough, bits and pieces of the RB Mellon mansion can be found scattered around Western PA. Many structural and fine architectural elements made their way to Mount Saint Peter Church in New Kensington (LINK to more photos). These lovely statues which grace the Broderie Room at Phipps Conservatory in Oakland once stood in the mansion's gardens. The girls are probably grateful to be inside and removed from the elements, because Pittsburgh's industrial climate clearly did their complexions no favors!
 
Phipps Conservatory Broderie Room
As a history-loving adult, I came to understand how ubiquitously present the Mellons were in the development of this city and nation. It was more than just parks and dollhouses; taken as a whole, this one particular family dramatically shaped Pittsburgh's economic and civic character, and their influence extended far beyond the city. Only a few other families could influence urban or national destinies to such an extent in the modern era. And even fewer managed to hold onto their money and influence the way the Mellons have done.

The Mellon family

Although there are four distinct branches descending from the legendary Judge Thomas Mellon, I'm unsure how many Pittsburghers know (or care) which Mellon is which. Given that few descendants even carry the Mellon name today, genealogical clarity and historical perspective are that much more difficult to achieve. Famously private, for the most part Mellons and their kin have kept mostly to themselves in a removed social sphere. Because of this insularity even the most famous Mellon individuals don't signify in the collective Pittsburgh consciousness, and are not instantly recognizable the way other local tycoons Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie are.

Andrew W. Mellon, c. 1920
University of Pittsburgh Historic Photographs
There are stand-out Mellons, to be sure. For example, the wealthiest Mellon was Andrew, a Gilded Age venture capitalist who became the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury and eventually President Hoover's economic scapegoat (rightly or wrongly depending upon your read of history) in the lead-up to the Great Depression. He also built, designed, gifted and endowed the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and donated much of his personal art collection (as would his two children). But because Andrew Mellon deliberately disassociated his name from the institution he created (unlike Frick and Carnegie, who kept their names connected to their philanthropic efforts), that wonderful museum is not commonly associated with the Mellon legacy.

If you're on the look-out, you might spy his name on this bench that surrounds a fountain on a traffic island at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, between the west wing of the National Gallery and the Newseum. It's in plain sight but bland and usually overlooked...rather like AW Mellon, actually.



What Pittsburghers do remember about the Mellons are the salacious details. Like these:

  • Andrew Mellon's cuckolding and subsequent very public divorce from Nora McMullen, 24 years his junior, rocked the world in 1912. His marital woes brought him a lifetime of embarrassment. The Mellon children, Ailsa and Paul, were caught in the crossfire and suffered emotionally.
  • The specifics of Sarah Mellon and Alan Scaife's extravagant 1927 wedding still leave readers slack-jawed in amazement. According to contemporary accounts, proud papa Richard B. spent
    Sarah Cordelia Mellon Scaife, 1940 
    Gerald L. Brockhurst, Carnegie Museum of Art
    $100,000 to build and decorate a pavilion at his East End mansion for the wedding feast and ball. Mind you, RB Mellon's personal sense of style was exemplified by a hat-rack made of mirrors and buffalo horns and half a taxidermied buffalo head (yes, half), both of which he kept on display as mementos of his youth in the untamed West. We must assume that these items were rendered less conspicuous by decorators who transformed the mansion into what contemporary newspaper accounts described as "a scene rivaling the beauty of a fairyland bower."  The multiple reception areas of the mansion were decked out with tapestried walls; red velvet hangings lined with gold satin; a faux-marble dance floor; tons of flowers and greenery; seven-foot wide chandeliers; silver candelabras; crystal urns filled with silver fruit; Italian mirrors lining the walls; and gold bird cages suspended from the centers of archways (I could find no mention of the birds living in these gilded cages). The pièce de résistance must have been the blue bridal canopy suspended from the ceiling to act as an artificial sky, festooned with silver stars and flowers twinkling in reflected light from walls of mirrors. Or maybe it was the lighting illuminating the estate's life-size statuary that surrounded an artificial lake (no doubt including the above-mentioned girls now living at Phipps Conservatory, where today they witness comparatively down-scale nuptials).
  • Sarah's daughter, Cordelia Scaife May, scrupulously shunned publicity but left a legacy brimming with gossip. There was an early disapproved-of marriage and subsequent divorce. And then there was all that fuss about her then-boyfriend former Allegheny County District Attorney Robert W. Duggan, his political scandals, their hasty marriage orchestrated to legally avoid being compelled to testify against him during a federal corruption investigation, and questions surrounding his sudden death (accident? suicide? murder?). She characterized her mother as "just a gutter drunk" whilst also noting that she and her brother were no better. Amidst all this, Cordy May's lifelong championing of environmental and sustainability causes, her many private but  generous philanthropic efforts through her Laurel Foundation, and her backing of conservative anti-immigration/population control causes (including funding some recognized hate groups) through her Colcom Foundation have often gone unnoticed.
  • Three of the four adopted children of Richard King Mellon (son of Richard B.) managed to slide under the media radar. But the youngest of his two sons, Seward Prosser Mellon, made headlines in the mid-1970s related to a horrific custody battle with his ex-wife. The potential  trauma inflicted on their daughters (who were first abducted by their troubled mother after she left a treatment program and then re-abducted a year later at gunpoint by Mellon's employees outside their mother's home in NYC), rivaled that inflicted on Ailsa and Paul Mellon during Andrew Mellon's custody battle at the turn of the century. A grand jury found that the forcible removal of the girls to Pennsylvania was not subject to prosecution given the previous conflicting custody rulings involving competing jurisdictions of New York and Pennsylvania. Federal law was on Pross Mellon's side since the federal kidnapping statute specifically exempted parents. Given his ex-wife's well-documented personal difficulties, plus alleged threats to the girls' safety by organized crime, Mellon was able to keep and raise his daughters with his second wife. The case is often cited in discussions of custody conflicts that result in parental child-napping, and eclipses his many good works, including the largest single gift of land ever made to the nation in 1990.
  • Matthew T. Mellon, Sr., grandson of the eldest of the Mellon sons, obtained a PhD in history and was an American Studies professor at University of Freiburg from 1928-1939. His dissertation was published as Early American Views on Negro Slavery, hailed as a ground-breaking treatise of the views of some of the founding fathers on slavery. Despite that, and despite his charitable generosity and reported kind character, if he is mentioned at all these days it is in the context of his Nazi connections. He attended the Nuremberg Day exercises in 1936 as a personal guest of the Führer, and very much respected the revitalization of Germany under Hitler's rule. To his credit, he voluntarily left Germany before the outbreak of the war and did not support the subsequent Nazi regime, although he remained a Teutophile all his days.
  • His brother William Larimer Mellon Jr, gets lost in the gossip despite his astounding humanitarian efforts. Reflecting upon the Mellon monies and a life of privilege, Larry Mellon once stated "Wealth really can't work for you. Either you get a cockeyed notion of your own importance or you get an inferiority complex. I guess [the latter] is what I had. Once I got the idea that dollars were foolish, the people chasing them seemed foolish." Inspired by Albert Schweitzer, Larry Mellon decided to return to college in his late 30s to become a physician. After graduating from Tulane University at age 45, he and his second wife Gwen established l'Hôpital Schweitzer in 1956 some 90 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. They devoted the rest of their lives to serving the people of that horribly impoverished country, working in an atmosphere of mutual respect for Voodoo priest-healers whose cultural practices traditional missionaries would have immediately tried to expunge.
  • Western Pennsylvania music lovers have never gotten over the closing of the Graffiti Showcase Cafe, a venue for live music for 26 years, when the entirety of the former Oakland warehouse housing Grafitti was purchased by Cordelia's son David Scaife in 2000. Scaife had been storing his multi-million dollar collection of luxury automobiles in the adjacent car boutique, and chose to evict the rock-n-roll riff-raff so he could peacefully use the remainder of the warehouse for more fancy car storage space.
  • Other Mellons have became punchline-famous because of their associations with the moral failings and political machinations of characters on the national stage. Witness, for example,  Sarah's son Richard Mellon Scaife's obsession with the Clintons, which went on for decades. Or how the mental competency of Rachel Lambert "Bunny" Mellon (a Mellon by marriage, she being the second wife of Andrew Mellon's son Paul) was called into question over her support of now-disgraced Senator John Edwards. 
  • And then there's the drugs. Peggy Hitchcock (daughter of Margaret Mellon Hitchcock, a sister of Matthew and Larry mentioned above) was married for a time to 1960s American counterculture leader Walter Howard Bowart, whom she met through mutual friend and former lover Timothy Leary. Yes, THAT Timothy Leary. Peggy Hitchcock participated in Leary's early psychedelic experiments. She introduced Leary to her brother William "Billy" Mellon Hitchcock, and he in turn became the Daddy Warbucks of the Counterculture. Billy made the family's secluded Millburn, New York estate available to Leary and his team of Harvard researchers, where they famously examined psychedelically-altered states of consciousness. So it's not a stretch to say that we have the Mellon family money to thank for LSD. Hitchcock himself kept his distance from Leary and his trippy team, and eventually evicted them from the "Big House" with things got out of control. However, he himself bankrolled an extensive black-market LSD manufacturing and distribution operation from the West Coast. He was fined and received a suspended sentence for his efforts after providing crucial testimony against some partners.
  • All that makes international fashion mogul Matthew Taylor Mellon II's (3x-great grandson of Judge Thomas Mellon through his oldest son James) investments in Bitcoin and contributions to Julian Assange’s bail fund look tame by comparison.
Even the venerable institutions associated with the family make news when scandal hits. Mellon Bank, then Pennsylvania's largest banking institution, dis-invested in the Pittsburgh region during its time of need in the early 1980s. It became the target of steelworker ire culminating in disruptive demonstrations, boycotts and mass withdrawals of funds. The church that Richard B. Mellon built, East Liberty Presbyterian, became one of several targets of protests by the controversial Denominational Ministry Strategy (DMS).

For me, a childhood of passing familiarity has led to a lifetime of fascination. A direct line of correlation can be drawn from kid-me peering through windows into a miniature Mellon world in 1969, to adult-me reading articles and biographies about the family. I can now extemporaneously follow various Mellon lineages, dissect Mellon accomplishments and scandals, and find it interesting to trace how this family worth some $12 billion has disseminated its wealth and influence. But while all that makes me an unintentional font of Mellon trivia, the family still exists for me in a world apart, one separated from my understanding and experience by more than glass.



The other day as I was walking in Highland Park I came across a memorial erected in 1912 by Sarah Negley Mellon to honor her grandparents, Alexander and Anna Maria Burkstresser Negley, who were buried there in unmarked graves along with many other nameless Pittsburgh pioneers. I'd walked past this grove many times in the six years I lived in Highland Park. Even as I half-remembered old jokes about the haunted grove in the park, I was haunted by other musings. Here, I thought, perhaps here is something I can actually relate to.

Forget the dollhouses of that other Sarah Mellon, or the myriad Mellon parks, businesses, and mansions built by the Mellon men. Never mind the scandals. Instead, take heed of this: a monument to one woman's love of family and her desire to honor the past.

But who was this woman?

Sarah Jane Negley

This much, I knew: Sarah Jane Negley Mellon was an heiress descended from multiple Pittsburgh pioneer families who once owned nearly all of the East End.

The family of her grandfather Alexander Negley had settled in eastern Pennsylvania, but Alexander moved westward to Pennsylvania to soldier during the battles of the Seven Years War. Like the earliest Mellons, Alexander originally settled in Westmoreland County. After harrowing skirmishes with Indians, he resettled his family in the more hospitable Pittsburgh area. His farm, Fertile Bottom, extended along the Allegheny River up over most of what is now Highland Park and the city reservoirs. His son Jacob married Barbara Anna Winebiddle, a descendant of the Taubs (who owned property in present-day Shadyside) and Winebiddles (who owned property all around today's Bloomfield, Friendship, Lawrenceville, and Downtown areas).

Reservoir I loop, Highland Park Pittsburgh on the site of Alexander Negley's farmhouse Fertile Bottom

Jacob and Barbara Negley's combined property holdings encompassed most of modern East Liberty (once actually known as Negleytown) and the adjacent East End. Their 1808 red brick farmhouse, known as the Negley Mansion, once sat at what is now the corner of Stanton and Negley Avenues. They continued to add to their property, farmed, established a bank, ran a general store called the Black Horse Tavern, and operated the first steam-powered gristmill east of the Allegheny Mountains. The Negleys built the first of an eventual five churches on the same property that their grandson Richard B. Mellon would one day enshrine as the present-day Gothic-style cathedral of East Liberty Presbyterian Church.

But by the time the ambitious Thomas Mellon came looking for a wife, the Negley fortunes were in decline. Despite his commercial and proprietary successes, Jacob Negley had borrowed heavily against his property for investments. That gamble worked against him following the economic downtown of 1819. He died deeply indebted, and only the financial support of family friend Congressman James Ross allowed the Negleys to keep their property.

Jacob and Barbara Negley had a dozen children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. Tenth child Sarah Jane Negley received her share of the family money in the 1830s when it was divided by Ross into parcels for each of Jacob Negley's surviving children/heirs. Her inheritance was not an inconsiderable amount of land.

Sarah Jane Negley Mellon, Carnegie Library collection
The young Sarah Jane attended school in a frame building built near today's East Liberty Presbyterian Church by her father in 1819. She was 'finished' at the Edgeworth Ladies' Boarding School in Braddock, where she benefited from an exceptionally well-rounded education in addition to polishing the necessary social skills for a woman of her position. For $200 a year (paid three months in advance) Sarah Jane would have studied reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, composition, geography, astronomy with the use of globes, natural philosophy, chemistry, history, and plain and ornamental needle work. Music, drawing and painting, and French cost extra. The school noted that "To study, coercive means are not employed, reference is made to the heart as well as the head, and the study of every branch, and the proportion of time given to it, will be subservient and tributary to useful and moral and religious improvement."


The title pages of Sarah's school books were copied by her son James and can be found in the Heinz History Detre library collections:






Looking back on the day they met in her parents' parlor, Judge Mellon would later write a clinical appraisal of Sarah Jane and their courtship in his memoirs:
Photograph of Thomas Mellon, circa 1840s.

I took her in at a glance; and now, after over forty years, can well remember how she looked then, even to the fashion of her hair and every minute particular of her dress. I see her now in the mind's eye, as she stood there in the sunlight which was struggling through the window curtains giving me a full view of her appearance--quiet, pleasant and self-possessed. I remember thinking to myself, in person she would do if all right otherwise. I remember also of its flitting across my mind, whether this might be the one of destiny!
Apparently she was "all right otherwise" since Thomas Mellon decided to pursue Sarah Jane.

Was it love at first sight? Did he know in an instant that Sarah Jane was "the one of destiny"? Doubtful! This was a relationship that appears to be based on mutual emotionally-detached appraisals. Even writing in retrospect, what stood out for Thomas Mellon was that, all things considered, this 27 year old heiress was a good catch.

She'd "do."

We can only assume what Sarah Jane thought of her suitor, for she did not record her impressions for posterity. She didn't turn Thomas away, but then again, neither did she encourage him.

The way Thomas describes their courtship is intriguing for the boorish but earnest picture it paints of him, and the enigmatic portrait presented of Sarah Jane. Thomas Mellon pursued his intended via weekly chaperoned visits at the Negley Mansion over six long months. He persisted in the face of little if any enthusiasm from Sarah Jane, whom he saw as polite, conversational, but distant and discouraging of intimacy. She flatly ignored attempts at flattery and flirtation, leaving poor frustrated Thomas lamenting that he was made to feel "...that to talk love would be out of place and might subject me to to ridicule." By the end of his six months a'wooing, Thomas Mellon no doubt wryly ruminated over the observations of his close friend Richard Beatty, who had passed over Sarah Jane for a younger Negley sister because Sarah was "....too independent for him, had no elasticity in her composition, and did not seem to appreciate gentlemen's attentions."

Even Sarah Jane's small talk seemed to get on Thomas' nerves, for he notes in his memoirs:
I was not there to take lessons in flora culture or botany, or to learn the history of birds, fishes or butterflies. I did not want to spend evening after evening in admiring pictures in her album, or in having items read to me from her scrap book. But to her credit I must say that she never inflicted any music upon me, as she professed no special efficiency in that accomplishment.
Apparently the Negleys didn't pay extra for those music lessons at the Edgeworth Ladies' Boarding School!

Thomas finally reached his limit. Seizing an opportunity when their chaperone was out of the room, he one day declared his intentions to Sarah Jane, voiced the hope that she felt the same, then "....took a kiss unresisted and said that would do, and I was satisfied; and left her abruptly, feeling unnerved for conversation."

What was it about this "quiet, pleasant, and self-possessed" woman that set the steely-eyed and practical thirty year old bachelor off course, yet kept him coming back for more? Thomas Mellon assures us in his memoir chapter entitled "Courtship and Marriage" that Sarah Jane's attitude was not born of coquetry. She was not playing hard to get. She seems instead to have been one who naturally kept her own counsel and was always emotionally reserved. She certainly didn't adopt any newly found maidenly airs once they were engaged, either:
At my next weekly visit we met on closer terms and more cordial feelings; the wall of separation was removed and I applied to her mother for her consent, and received a ready and satisfactory answer to the effect that as we had agreed she knew of no objection. I then applied to my affianced to set the day, suggesting a week or ten days as sufficient interval. This she opposed with some surprise, and insisted on six weeks. We finally compromised on a month, and accordingly the transaction was consummated on the 22d of August, 1842. The details of the wedding are uninteresting; all such ceremonies are pretty much alike. Her distant and independent attitude, so well maintained during our preliminary acquaintance, had made me sometimes fear a cold and unsympathetic disposition; but I found her nature quite the contrary, her feelings warm and abiding, but undemonstrative.
No record exists as to how Sarah Jane Negley characterized her husband, the man who described their marriage as a "transaction" that was "consummated." We don't know if she, too, found recounting the details of their 1842 wedding "uninteresting." Nor do we know what she thought of their then-novel honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls, returning by way of Boston, New York City and Philadelphia.

Their wedding trip made quite an impression on Thomas, though, who states that neither of them had hitherto traveled much (Sarah Jane previously having been on a "boat excursion with some friends" to Louisville). Thomas devoted an entire memoir chapter to their trip. He mentions his wife twice, by the way, book-ending this chapter with comments about her at beginning and end. It's not that she isn't present throughout--he makes consistent use of first person plural pronouns when describing their travels. But the chapter is all about their itinerary, not their intimacy. Only a comment following a frightening adventure on the Pennsylvania Canal when their boat almost plummeted over a dam on the Juniata River near Harrisburg reflects the experiences of his new wife: "In this crisis I first noticed my wife's entire command of her feelings in the suppression of every sign of fear or alarm." It's hard to tell whether Sarah Jane's preternatural self-possession alarmed or impressed him, but I suspect it's a bit of both.

Mid-1800s canal boat along the Juniata Division of the Pennsylvania Canal
Juniata County Historical Society

Married life of Sarah Mellon

The newlyweds moved in with Sarah's mother and some Negley siblings who remained in the family home. Interestingly, Thomas Mellon heaps unreserved praise upon his new mother-in-law, whom he found to be "....agreeable and pleasant...a kind mother possessed of superior qualities and sound, practical good sense...."  He would later claim that never was there "....the slightest unpleasantness or misunderstanding ever occurred between us" throughout their lives. Mrs. Negley would eventually live out her final days with Thomas and Sarah Jane, bequeathing the bulk of her considerable real estate holdings to Sarah Jane and other descendants (thereby providing the foundation for lucrative Mellon real estate development in the East End).



Thomas Mellon warmed up to his wife, who took "....full possession and master of the situation, not the least discouraged through without any company or help...." when the couple moved into a rented home downtown. Things were looking up, especially since "....my wife was herself a good cook and not in the least averse to work....we were all in all to each other. Such was the beginning of my married home life."




But Thomas got back to business quickly "....since marriage, the last important event of my life was consummated, and nothing left to distract my attention from business, I could feel that I was fairly settled...."

Did Sarah Jane feel "fairly settled"?  Did she grow to like, even to love, her husband? The couple moved back in with the widowed Mrs. Negley when Sarah was pregnant with their first child in 1844. A few years later, they moved nearly next door into a home Mrs. Negley gifted them. More children followed in rapid succession. Their two daughters did not live past infancy, and another son died at age 9. Thomas had his acknowledged favorites, but we don't know if Sarah had a favorite among her surviving sons or if she longed for a daughter to replace the girls she lost as babies. The education and supervision of chores for their five surviving boys seems to have been left to Thomas's oversight.

After nearly a decade of marriage, Thomas and Sarah Jane built a new home for their growing family on Negley land adjacent to their existing cottage, with an eventual address of 401 Negley Avenue. Surviving photos reveals a stolid farmhouse, described as white with green shutters.

Mellon family home from 1851-1955, 401 N. Negley Avenue, Pittsburgh.
Photo from 1936, Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection
Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh
The Judge author and descendant James Mellon describes a dark and sturdily decorated Victorian interior. Bedrooms were on the second floor and formal entry, parlor, dining room, study and kitchen occupied the first floor. One of Sarah and Thomas' grandsons, William Larimer Mellon, essentially grew up in the house from 1868 on. In his memoir, Judge Mellon's Sons, he described how "....every kind of activity associated with a farm, including the slaughtering and dressing of hogs, was regularly carried on there. Yet it was not really a farm but a country home."

In The Judge, grandson William Larimer Mellon is quoted describing his grandmother, our Sarah Jane, thusly:
Portrait of Mrs. Thomas Mellon (Sarah Negley), 1896
Théobald Chartran, Carnegie Museum of Art
My grandmother, her voice was a little stronger...a little bit sharper...She had a little blue in her eyes....When I knew her, her hair was gray. It had been dark. She was an unusually kind person but a very energetic woman. Very energetic. She ran the house. She had some servants, but she was the main engineer by a long shot...was a tremendous worker...walked fast...one of those people who put up apple butter and everything else, all the same day...just a regular worker. She was very friendly always, and would bake cake for you or anything of that kind.
According to William, Sarah Jane maintained a large household comprised of some memorable characters:
My grandmother ran the home. But, since she likewise had duties to her church and to charity, she kept control of the household through old Mrs. Cox, who was called housekeeper.  Mrs. Cox compensated for my grandmother's gentleness by a certain quality of character which she must have inherited from some Simon Legree among her ancestors...Her nose and chin came close together for lack of teeth; so, as she sucked at her short-stemmed clay pipe, nose and chin and pipe seemed to form a trinity of features. As a little boy, I found it difficult to believe that anyone as tough-fibered and ferocious (on provocation) as Mrs. Cox ever could have been a beautiful girl. Yet such was the legend in the family. She was a connection of the Negley family. Soon after her marriage her husband had died and my grandmother had taken her in. She had stayed on, making her own place as the years passed--and a valuable place it was...There were a number of servant girls...because there was a vast amount of household work....The staff, which Mrs. Cox headed, included old Harriet, who was a kind of principal maid, supervising the chamberwork of lesser maids.
Sarah thus eventually acquired a sizable staff to supervise, for by necessity she would have become removed from day-today housework once she and Thomas became pillars of their community and she gravitated into a social role outside the home. But she remained connected to the goings-on at home. She had to, if this anecdote from William Larimer Mellon describing his involvement in "....a parasitical business based on selling the produce of my grandparents' country place" is any indication of what life was like in household filled with entrepreneurially enterprising men and boys:
The wagon had come down to me from my uncle Andrew; it had been prominent in an older phase of the business; to wit, the egg department. One of the worst scrapes my father got into as a boy was through an egg deal with the grocer down in East Liberty. One day my grandmother had driven up to the grocer's door on a shopping expedition. When the man came out to greet her, Grandmother ordered some dozens of eggs, complaining, as she did so, at the reluctance of her hens to lay. That grocer, caught off guard, made some remarks through which Grandmother found out that most of the eggs he sold at his store came from her own poultry house! The guilty entrepreneur was little James Ross Mellon, my father. He got a hiding for that--but only because he had been too greedy. Grandfather, I suspect, always was delighted when his boys, including me, engaged in any kind of business; even though we did it as a kind of play. He liked aggressiveness and initiative in men.
It's tempting to think that through all the bustle of testosterone-driven family life, Sarah Jane remained vastly competent, cool, and collected, if also emotionally detached and undemonstrative.

Circa 1887 at the latest. From Judge Mellon's Sons by William Larimer Mellon

And yet we have to wonder how she felt when she found out that her sons were stealing eggs from her henhouse and vegetables from her garden to sell for profits that came from her own pockets! Was she secretly amused, and perhaps also a bit proud of their ambition? Or did she make sure the boys got their well-deserved hidings?  It's hard to imagine any such shenanigans getting past Sarah Jane. Photos published from family collections reveal that she possessed as steely and arresting a stare as that of her legendary husband Thomas. While the Judge would lose his sight in old age, Sarah Jane's gaze remained steady and appraising.

Sarah's position in the growing East End community is interesting. Her grandson recalled
Many a night I was awakened by hearing someone pounding on a door or calling out to arouse my mother or grandmother. Paddy Clark or Tommy Thompson had been kicked by a mule! Invariably the excuse for such a uproar was: "We are afraid he's going to die." The women would dress, and prepare poultices and the victim would get a drink of whiskey. Many a laborer got a drink to compensate him for a kick; and no kick was ever fatal.
Did Sarah recognize that her kind nursing was probably secondary to her patients' desire for a wee dram?

She may have understood how her husband's sentimentality about their deceased children left him vulnerable to the Victorian charlatans who practiced Spiritualism, but there was probably little she could do to stem his exploration of the supernatural. Upon retiring, the Judge essentially separated from her for five years and headed West at the age of 77 to explore new business opportunities. One family member or another spent time with the aged Judge during this sojourn in Kansas and Missouri, and several witnessed how Judge Mellon consorted with mediums and attended séances. His interest may have been sparked by a former servant of Sarah's, whom grandson William Larimer described as
....a young girl named McLean who had been brought into the home in 401 Negley Avenue (who) came under the influence of this mania which was then sweeping the country. She began to be associated with strange noises. Mysterious rappings were heard in the house but only in the presence of this girl. Whether she was a victim of someone else or whether she was a conscious or unconscious fraud, her supposed powers excited a number of people in Pittsburgh, and there were repeated tests with the result that the child came to be regarded as a "natural medium." The effect on the girl was far from wholesome and, on medical advice, she moved eventually to a new environment.
What did Sarah Jane think of this girl's supposed affinity for the otherworldly? William Larimer's parents were not believers, and he wrote sympathetically but scathingly in his memoirs about his grandfather's adventures in Spiritualism. He believed the old man's sentimentality was taken advantage of. Eventually even Judge Mellon himself concluded "There's nothing to it" and then returned home. Was Sarah Jane curious about the mysteries that the Spiritualist world purported to reveal? Did she sympathise with the Judge's quest to connect with their lost children?  If not, would she have dared to scoff at him? Did she want to say "told you so" when all was said and done? And perhaps mot intriguing of all, did she miss the Judge while he was gone those five years?

The Mellon family archives contain private written material and memorabilia which no doubt shed more light on Sarah Jane's personality -- including the scrapbooks which so infuriated her husband when they were courting! It would be lovely to curl up with those books to see what she collected in them, perhaps to discern what held her interests and curiosity. We know from published family accounts that one scrapbook contained images of presidential log cabins, while others were filled with religious and inspirational maxims. In the absence of access to such cherished family material, Sarah Jane must remain aloof and ultimately unknowable to history while her husband Thomas commands center stage. We can only guess at her inner life...but perhaps that's as she would have liked it.

In The Judge, grandson William is quoted from another interview in which he describes how the Mellon marriage evolved...or rather, how it bobbed placidly in place on the surface for decades:
The wedded union of Thomas and Sarah was exemplary in its sense and practice of loyalty and duty, in the perfect old-fashioned way; but...it was not a case of tender love and sentiment....They roomed and slept together and never were separated...[but] they were not lovers, not even company for each other, just good domestic partners...

His wife was a tender-hearted and capable of full sympathy, but not of grievous suffering. She was motherly and dutiful, but more stoical. It was the way of the Negleys.
The couple took a grand tour of the United States and Mexico in 1886, after the Judge returned from his five year business/séance odyssey out West. No canal boats for them this time -- they traveled in style in a private rail car, with various sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren joining them along the way. James Mellon described a travel journal from the family archives that Sarah Jane kept about this family trip, noting that 
....her lively, articulate travel log gives us our only firsthand encounter with the woman who shared Thomas Mellon's life for sixty-four years. Ma emerges from the page as an uncanny observer and accomplished story-teller. She writes with authority and conviction about landscape, history, the people she encounters, and their customs. Her observations on geology and agriculture reveal a startling command of these subjects, reinforced by a vocabulary that extends even to Latin names. Clearly, some of her schoolbook learning at Edgeworth Seminary had not faded.
Some personal material related to Sarah Jane does exist for public access. The Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh retains the papers of Sarah Jane and Thomas' second son, James R. Mellon, a collection open to researchers. In addition to diaries and valuable historical documents, the collection includes two letters from James' mother Sarah Jane, plus the title pages from school books that once belonged to each of his parents (see above for Sarah's). In one letter dating to May 1864, in separate letter both the Judge and Sarah Jane scold their then-18 year old son for his desire to join the Union Army for a 100 day enlistment. James was away at college, and spurred on by patriotism and inspired by a  recruitment lecture, the impressionable young man assumed that parental consent for his enlistment was a given. It wasn't.

Sarah Jane piled on to the scolding young James received from his father for his effrontery in even considering the idea:
My dear son, look to God and ask directions with no one-sided view of the matter and will guide you aright. I had thought you were a boy of stronger mind and better sense or I never would have allowed you to go from home. You are a poor, misguided boy and that you will find both to you and your parents' sorrow....My dear son, abandon the idea and come home as soon as you can...Come home, come home. Wait not for anything. I can't write any more but the same over and over again. Come home!

 
Sarah Jane's infamous detachment has been thrown to the winds in this passage; she sounds like any other mother lighting into her son for what she thinks is a bad idea. The controversial then-Lieutenant General Grant had been newly appointed as commander of the Union Army and the Battle of the Wilderness had just concluded, resulting in more than 25,000 casualties. In the face of admonishments from his parents, James didn't come home, but neither did he join the Union Army.

Beyond this, the public is left with only the name and a limited understanding of the life of Sarah Jane Negley Mellon as filtered through others' experiences. A gossipy 1888 book entitled The social mirror: a character sketch of the women of Pittsburg and vicinity during the first century of the county's existence alphabetically categorizes the women of the city according to the qualities of beauty, intelligence, musicality and artistry, charity, wealth, moral do-gooding, and positions of social standing that they best exemplify. We find Sarah Jane under the Mellon listing in a chapter entitled "Women of Wealth":
It is quietly whispered among their friends that Judge and Mrs. Mellon, of Negley Avenue, are not worth more than six or eight millions. Mrs. Mellon was a Miss Negley, and their beautiful home and large grounds, full of rare statuary, are part of her father's estate. The pride of the lawn is an immense copper beech tree, under whose spreading branches in the summer time the family and their guests love to gather. Beside the paternal roof Mr. Thomas Mellon has built his home, and just opposite, on Negley Avenue, James Mellon, another son, is established, the three places, all as perfect as wealth can make them, a veritable earthly paradise. Mrs. Judge Mellon is a lovely woman and fairly idolized by her husband and sons...   
There you have it; she was lovely, and her family adored her, and she had a nice big tree and a fancy house. The rest of the entry describes two of her daughters-in-law.

What Remains Behind

Judge Mellon's private memoirs were made public by his family, providing invaluable insights into the private life of this couple. But Sarah Jane's private letters, scrapbooks and travel journal, those few documents we know she left, remain  within the control and interpretation of her descendants. This is not surprising for such a self-contained woman and is to be respected -- despite the regrets it engenders for the curious historian!

Stone from the Mellon gatehouse on Negley Avenue
We are also left with very little in the way of physical artifacts to remember Sarah Jane by. That's a shame considering the century's worth of astounding history she orchestrated by providing a serene life behind-the-scenes for the main Mellon actors. This isn't an unusual circumstance for women throughout history, of course, but it's unfortunate nonetheless.

Negley Mansion, Edgeworth Ladies' Boarding School, and the Mellon "country home" on Negley Avenue are all long gone. A farmhouse built by grandmother Anna Maria Negley following her husband Alexander's death still exists in Highland Park, and likely knew the tread of Sarah Jane's feet when she came to visit, but it was not her home. That "immense copper beech tree" is no more. Only the stone gateposts remain from the Mellon home, half-hidden in the ivy near a split-level cul-de-sac along Negley Avenue.

There is a grave, of course, in Section 19 of Allegheny Cemetery. Sarah Jane lies beside her husband, not far from their three children who died young and another son who died of tuberculosis in early adulthood. The Mellon graves rest just above those of Sarah Jane's parents and other Negley kin.

Grave marker for Sarah Jane Negley Mellon (1817-1909), Allegheny Cemetery

Graves of children Sarah Emma (1847-50), Annie Rebecca (1851-52)
Samuel Selwyn (1851-62) and George Negley Mellon (1860-87).


 


There was an obituary, too. But not surprisingly, it is more about everyone else in her life than Sarah Jane herself:

Mrs. Sarah Jane Mellon, widow of former Judge Thomas Mellon, died at 7:30 o'clock this morning at her home, No. 401 North Negley Avenue. Mrs. Mellon would have been 93 years old on February 3. Her passing was sudden but peaceful. From apparently the best of health, the well-known aged woman dropped into a slumber last evening and quietly slept away her last hours on earth. With the death of Mrs. Mellon, the old East Liberty valley loses the last of its pioneer residents. Her husband, the former jurist, died suddenly on February 3 of last year, while preparations were being made to celebrate the ninety-fifth anniversary of his birth. Mrs. Mellon was born in the district which she had so long called home, on February 3, 1817. Her father was Jacob Negley and her mother had been Anna Barbara Winebiddle. The histories of both families are closely interwoven with that of Pittsburgh. In the early days, while East Liberty still was a separate borough, Mr. Negley conducted a grist mill there and with his brother kept a stall in the old Diamond market, making trips with his grain twice a week. Both families owned much land in the East Liberty Valley, which they used for farm purposes. On August 24, 1843, the dead woman was married to Thomas Mellon, then a rising young lawyer at the Allegheny county bar. On their wedding trip, they journeyed through Canada and this event is chronicled in an entertaining style by the deceased jurist in the history of the Mellon family, which he published a few years before his death. Judge Mellon was the founder of the Mellon National Bank, and as his sons reached maturity, he took them into partnership. There are but three children surviving this union living at this time. They are James R. Mellon, president of the City Deposit Bank, in East End; Andrew W. Mellon, president of the national bank bearing his name, and Richard B. Mellon, vice president of the same institution. Besides these, 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren survive. Mrs. Mellon was an active member of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, the site for the edifice at the corner of Penn and Highland avenues in the East End having been given to the congregation by Judge Mellon. Despite her advanced years, she took great interest in charitable work, the Home for Aged Protestant Couples, of Wilkinsburg, being the special object of her benefactions. 19 Jan 1909
And there is that granite monument in Memorial Grove, smack dab in the middle of Highland Park.

Negley Monument, Memorial Grove, Highland Park Pittsburgh PA

Is this really a burial ground? Conflicting histories lay claim to where Sarah Jane's grandparents Alexander and his wife were buried. There are some claims that they were re-interred on the spot marked in Highland Park, having been moved there. The story goes that they were originally buried downtown Pittsburgh at Smithfield and Sixth Streets at what became the German Evangelical Protestant Church church (just around the corner from today's Mellon Park). The church and a cemetery were established on family property granted by descendants of William Penn in 1792. That cemetery was closed in 1860 when the site was needed for further urban development. But historical records indicate that when the downtown Smithfield Street Cemetery was closed, remains were removed to Troy Hill--not a Highland Park burial ground. (From there, a subsequent closing in 1888 meant the poor souls were re-interred one more time, to the Smithfield East End Cemetery in Squirrel Hill, now maintained by Homewood Cemetery. I suppose what with all this moving about of bodies, it's not surprising that a mistaken reburial to East Liberty got attached to this story. The Negleys are not listed among the burials at Smithfield).

It certainly is startling for modern park-goers to find what may be a grave site in their midst, and someone along the way must have tried to deduce an explanation. But really, it's not unusual for rural communities like old Negleytown to have their own burial grounds. The modern urban landscape grew up to surround it, but the graveyard was likely there first. The Negleys have perhaps always been there, along with their many friends and neighbors. The memorial stone indicates that the remains of some 50 other East End pioneer families are interred on the site, although I have not been able to find a comprehensive list to date.

One side of the monument reads:



Sacred to the memory of those noble Christian pioneers who moulded the character of this community in its struggling and formative period. This monument marks the center of a burial ground located on the former homestead of Alexander Negley, where are interred about fifty early settlers of the East Liberty Valley.



And on the other side:
In memory of Alexander Negley, born in Germany 1734, of Swiss ancestry, came to Eastern Pennsylvania 1739, served in the war of the Revolution, settled on site of Highland Park 1778, died Nov. 3, 1809, and his wife Mary Ann Burkstresser, born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, June 20, 1741, died June 17, 1829, both interred here. Erected by their grand-daughter, Sarah Jane Negley Mellon

In an era when a woman was still most usually known by her husband's name, it's hard not to make too much of the fact that Sarah chose to use her own names, as opposed to the socially acceptable Mrs. Thomas Mellon.

Whither, Sarah?
Sarah Jane didn't make a marriage of passion. She was by all accounts a pleasant, dutiful mother and grandmother, but not a doting one. She traveled little and devoted herself to church and community. She didn't seem to collect much beyond platitudes, trivia and memories in her scrapbooks--certainly not homes or grand works of art like her offspring would acquire. She didn't design or fund the building of mansions or imposing buildings. This was a woman who had the means to do anything she wanted, and then some. But she seems to have remained the same quiet, pleasant, self-possessed, keen-eyed observer of the world whom Thomas Mellon met in 1841.

But perhaps her detachment only went so far. If we are to take the singular monument in the middle of a city park as testimony to anything, it's this: connections mattered to Sarah Jane Negley Mellon. Honoring family and accomplishments mattered. I don't know how Sarah Jane would regard the reputations of her descendants, but I certainly think she was proud of her own past. Her legacy remains forever entwined and eclipsed by her husband's, just as Judge Mellon's story shaped the core of her adult experiences.

As to the rest, we must imagine and wonder, for we have no miniature dollhouses to act as visual prompts. In its own way this is a more appealing challenge. The grand often eclipses the ordinary, usually to the detriment of our historical and human understanding.
_____________________________________________________________

SELECTED SOURCES and SUGGESTED READING
Brown, Abram and Alex Morrell. 175 Years Later, The Mellons Have Never Been Richer. How'd They Do It? Forbes Magazine. July 21, 2014.
Cannadine, David. Mellon: An American Life. New York: Vintage. 2008.
Croushore, Jeffrey S. Images of America: Idlewild. Arcadia Publishing. 2004.
Dietrich, William S. II Andrew Mellon: Son of a judge. Pittsburgh Quarterly. Fall 2007.
Edgeworth Ladies' Boarding School, Braddocksfield near Pittsburgh The Pittsburgh Gazette. August 17, 1832.
Fitzpatrick, Dan. Mellon family's legacy lives on, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 30, 2007
Kaiser, Robert G. Money, Family Name Shaped Scaife, Washington Post, May 3, 1999.
Karakatsanis, Costas G. How Sarah Mellon Scaife and Family Helped Transform the Museum of Art. CMOA Blog. February 19, 2016.
Hersch, Burton. The Mellon Family, The: A Fortune In History. William Morrow & Co; April 1978.
Koskoff, David E. The Mellons: The Chronicle of America's Richest Family. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 1978

Mellon, James. The Judge: A Life of Thomas Mellon, Founder of a Fortune. Yale University Press. May 24, 2011.
Mellon, Paul. Reflections in a Silver Spoon. New York: William Morrow  and Company. 1992.
Mellon, Thomas. Thomas Mellon and His Times. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. 1994.
Mellon, William Larimer. Judge Mellon's Sons. Privately printed 1948.
Mellon Park
Mellon Square
Nevin, Adelaide Mellier. The social mirror: a character sketch of the women of Pittsburg and vicinity during the first century of the county's existence. society of to-day. Pittsburg, Pa: T.W. Nevin, 1888.
Paris, Barry. Song of Haiti. Public Affairs. May 1, 2000.
Paris, Barry. Song of Haiti: The Lives of Dr. Larimer and Gwen Mellon Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sunday Magazine. September 17, 2000.
Potter, Chris and Dan Roth. Pittsburgh's Colcom Foundation plays major role in immigration-control debate. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. February 15, 2015.

Scaife Miniatures Placed on Display, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. February 14 1969.
Tanfani, Joseph. Late heiress' anti-immigration efforts live on.Los Angeles Times. July 25, 2013.
Trebay, Guy.Inside Bunny Mellon's World. The New York Times. November 19, 2014.
Weiss, Anne. Lavish Splendor Marks Brilliant Mellon Nuptials Pittsburgh Press. November 17 1927.

Your comments are most welcome!

Friday, May 15, 2015

What ho, blog writer? The perils of talking to oneself.


A state-of-the-blog address. Very meta. 

I keep reading that the traditional blog format is dead. Whether that's true or not, I can't say, but I suppose if one looked at the frequency of my posting they'd be inclined to number this blog among those interred in cyber cemeteries.

Reports of my cyber-death have been greatly exaggerated, though, for I do post regularly and eclectically on my eponymous Facebook page. It's the long-form writing on this site that I've not done much -- uhm, at all -- this past year. There are reasons for that.

1. True confession: I don't like to write. Seriously. I usually have multiple topics worthy of exploration in mind. But I enjoy research more than writing, so I read and I read and I read. If pressed, I could say that I enjoy having written. But the process itself is tedious and my thoughts too often are light years ahead of my fingers. I mentally synthesize what I've read and move on without having written a thing. I love words, and words about words, but I don't feel driven to compose in the way that I imagine 'real' writers must.

2. Whine: blogging sometimes feels like an exercise in talking to oneself in cyberspace. It's also lots of work. No matter how appealing your content is to the masses (and mind you, I have no illusions about this for myself), all the promotional bits one has to engage in to find and maintain a readership can be wearying. Also, one's readers aren't always inclined to comment on what they've read (I know this for true facts since I'm guilty of it myself). Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook seemingly offer the assurance of instant gratification vis-a-vis 'likes' or re-blogs and tweets, but such assurance is not consistent given the readership rubrics of those platforms. And while online 'reach' statistics do help combat that feeling of babbling to oneself, stats can be deceptive. For instance, I'm pretty sure the astronomical number of hits I get on my post about Father James Cox have less to do with a groundswell of interest in the Pittsburgh labor leader and more to do with the late priest's vaguely pornographic last name. Plus the dynamics of social media 'following' can be disturbing: I flinch every time I see a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi 'like' one of my WWII German history posts or follow my Facebook page. I don't have control over whom I'm reaching when I put things out there.

3.  Self-reflective interlude: content is problematic for a dilettante like me. Yes, I know that the word 'dilettante' has a superficial, pejorative modern definition and as such may have been a questionable choice for a blog title. (My other choice was "Le Patrimoine Culturel" but even I realized that was way too pretentious).

Seriously, the term 'dilettante' has been debased. I prefer the example of an Enlightenment-era dilettante, someone who possesses a credible competence in multiple subjects. That's me...I'm no idle dabbler! I embraced the now nearly-archaic sense of the word for my blog because I liked the idea of writing a blog from the perspective of an amateur appreciator taking delight in learning much about much. But since my interests are eclectic and seemingly ill-defined (though they make sense to ME), I haven't created a blog that is rooted to any one topic, era, or region. I've had fellow bloggers link to me based upon an article they liked, but who then deleted the linkage once they realized I'm not always "on" about that particular focal area. I don't begrudge them that choice, but I'm also not about to narrow my interests to suit established niche categories (although doing so has been kindly suggested to me more than once).

4.  The tone argument: I'm old enough to acknowledge without apology that how you say something matters. It shouldn't matter as much as your content, to be sure, but tone counts. People who claim otherwise are fooling themselves. 

I perhaps flatter myself in thinking that I have developed a unique "voice."  But I readily (and I suppose proudly) acknowledge that it's not a voice pitched to stand out over the stylistically snappy, flip, hipper-than-thou tone that's favored by many mainstream culture and history bloggers. There's a certain "gee-whiz would you believe what I found, wow, history is so cool" attitude that characterizes popular regional history pieces that I find exhausting. I mean, yes, of course, history is cool. But I weary of wading through the emotional gushes.

I do think the kind of slangy approachability that has come to dominate popular blogging has its place. It can amuse, and it certainly draws in readers who might otherwise not read a piece about history or culture. But it leaves me feeling talked down to. I come away from reading those pieces not with a sense of wonder but instead thinking that their writers have sold themselves cheap into cultural prostitution, choosing to trivialize their topics for fear of alienating readers by seeming too interested or intelligent. It's a kind of hide-your-light-under-a-bushel mentality that my teenager tells me is evident when teens denigrate serious students as "try-hards."

Full disclosure: I'm totally a try-hard. I'd like people to read and comment on my stuff, sure, but not at the expense of disrespecting the content or my own interest in it. I DO take things seriously. Things matter to me.

Why bother to write about them otherwise?

Of course, that's the million-dollar question: why write? I've listed all the reasons why I haven't been writing. Given that I'm not willing to change anything related to my content, tone, or style of blog, logic might dictate that perhaps I ought to quit. But I'm not ready to buy a cyber casket just yet. I've got things to say, sporadically and self-consciously perhaps, and with no illusions of widespread relevance. But they matter to me, and that kind of manifesto ought to count for something.

So, whither blog? It's right here. While it might not be going anywhere in one sense, I promise that I intend to take it somewhere. 

Writing is, I believe, as much about discipline and effort as it creative inspiration and technique. One way of assuring that my decidedly undisciplined writing-self gets down to business would be to force myself to do periodic cultural round-ups. Not reviews, no. I really don't want to maintain a blog that's full of reviews.  I appreciate that the Internet allows us all to be curators of our own content. But I come across a lot of reflective pieces that got conflated with attempts at literary/artistic criticism along the way, criticism which the author had little substantive foundation to build upon. As a result there are too many online pieces that employ critique instead of contemplation, thereby applying subjective preferences in a global, dismissive way. The resulting glut of negative and petty "reviewing" splinters cultural communities rather than strengthens them. I don't want to join the legions of wanna-be Dorothy Parkers (Speaking of tone! I don't need to impress by skewering with rapier wit). And I'm insightful enough to recognize that what I don't know ought not be applied as an objective standard of judgement.

So, no, I'm not here to review. I am here to reflect. There's a distinction to be maintained, damn it, and I'm pedantic enough to maintain it.

Thus, the state of this blog is this: it remains as it is and hopefully more so, long and mentally meandering and mainstream irrelevant though it may be. As a self-avowed cultural contrarian, I'd very much like it if I could set up a social media block that would allow me to avoid coverage saturation of whatever is 'trending' at any given moment. Popular culture generally doesn't appeal to me. I mean, I'll look at red carpet fashion pictures out of sartorial curiosity, but I do so once and move on. I can't be bothered to judge and rip down anyone's personal choices, plus I don't know (or care about) most of the celebrities and am bemused by our cultural obsession with the famous. I'd like to say that I don't care if you, gentle reader, DO care to read 27 gazillion articles about award show fashions. But honestly, I think doing so feeds into a cult of celebrity and joy in criticizing that troubles me...so, I do care. I believe that dumbing-down entertainment to a primal element of mockery harms us culturally and individually. (And I blame the late Joan Rivers for popularizing this nastiness, so there).

I can't change the world, only hope for moderation and forge my own path. Which is why I created this blog and its accompanying Facebook page, so I could reflect on what personally matters to me. You're welcome to come along for the ride, and I hope you'll be a chatty passenger because I welcome feedback on the journey!  But as the chauffeur I intend to arbitrate the directions taken, and the pace.

Perhaps I'll leave it that my interests can be summed up thusly: one part fashion photo spread perusal to 98 parts of Frank Hurley Shackleton expedition photography, and 1 part looking at cat memes on the Internet.

Speaking of which....