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 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.
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 would ratchet the family's reputation to 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. I didn't know that his sister Cordelia's well-intentioned environmental concerns likewise masked support of ardent nativist organizations over the decades -- but then again, that wouldn't become public knowledge for years.
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 kinds of lives those were -- not simply in terms of material possessions, but about how the world must seem to such people.
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.
I soon recognized that these Mellons were omnipresent. You couldn't live in Pittsburgh without knowing that. Whenever I encountered something fancy in my hometown, be it a staggeringly grand bank, college, building, or parks, it more often than not 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 admittedly seen spongier 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 central fountains that I flicked water from. Those basins were considered the largest single bronze castings made at that time.
|Mellon Square, Pittsburgh|
My Mellon progression: from dollhouses, amusement parks and fruit to later childhood associations 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 poor and uncultured, and had never skipped class in my life. So I didn't understand why Rolling Rock was a Thing. It certainly wasn't a Thing for this truck-driver's daughter to attend, so woe is me, I never went.
I occasionally took myself to Mellon Park in Shadyside. The park is all that's left of Richard B. Mellon's 65 room mansion, built in 1909. His family had it demolished in 1941.
By then the mansion had passed its period of usefulness, desirability, and chic (that 1927 Mellon-Scaife society wedding reception notwithstanding). Now 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. It's come a long way under careful stewardship; 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 old 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. Silly me, it was more than just Mellon parks and dollhouses. This family dramatically shaped Pittsburgh's economic and civic character, and its 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.
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, rarified social sphere. Because of this insularity, even the most famous Mellon individuals don't signify in the collective Pittsburgh consciousness. They are not instantly recognizable the way other local tycoons like Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie are.
|Andrew W. Mellon, c. 1920|
There are stand-out Mellons, to be sure.
Take the wealthiest Mellon, Andrew, a Gilded Age venture capitalist who became the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury and eventually President Hoover's economic scapegoat in the lead-up to the Great Depression (rightly or wrongly depending upon your read of history). Andrew also built, designed, gifted and endowed the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC to which he donated much of his personal art collection (as would his two children).
But because Andrew Mellon deliberately disassociated his name from that institution he created (unlike Frick and Carnegie, who kept their names connected to their philanthropic cultural efforts), the nation's 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 former Newseum. It's in plain sight but bland and usually overlooked.. Rather like Andrew Mellon, actually.
What Pittsburghers do remember about the Mellons are the salacious details. There are...a lot of them.
- Andrew Mellon's cuckolding, and his subsequent very public divorce from Nora McMullen, 24 years his junior, rocked the gossip columns 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.
|Nora McMullen Mellon by James Jebusa Shannon, 1910|
National Gallery of Art
- 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 $100,000 to build and decorate a pavilion at his East End mansion for the wedding feast and ball. R.B. 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. Let's 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 Cordelia Mellon Scaife, 1940
Gerald L. Brockhurst, Carnegie Museum of Art
- 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 there was all that fuss about her then-boyfriend former Allegheny County District Attorney Robert W. Duggan: his political scandals, their hasty marriage likely orchestrated to legally avoid being compelled to testify against him during a federal corruption investigation, and questions surrounding his sudden death (accident? suicide? murder?). Cordelia characterized her mother as "just a gutter drunk" but also noted that she and her brother Dick were no better. 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 recognized hate groups) through her Colcom Foundation are her legacy.
- 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 upon their daughters (who were first abducted by their troubled mother after she left a treatment program, 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, Pross Mellon and his second wife were able to keep custody of and raise his daughters. 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. The Mellons, they don't do divorce quietly.
- 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 Richard M Scaife's son David in 2000. David Scaife had been storing his multi-million dollar collection of luxury automobiles in the adjacent car boutique. He ultimately decided it was time 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, the obsession of Sarah's son Richard Mellon Scaife with the Clinton family, which went on for decades. Or consider how the mental competency of Rachel Lambert "Bunny" Mellon (a Mellon by marriage, she was 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 are 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. Matthew Mellon died at age 54 in 2018 in Cancun, Mexico, where he'd gone to check into a rehabilitation clinic to address his long history of substance abuse. It's not known if the fee was paid with cryptocurrency.
|Matthew Mellon II in 2018. Ethan Pine for Forbes Magazine|
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).
Judge Mellon would be dismayed by it all. Then again, Judge Mellon was no prize.
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 marvel at how this one family has disseminated its reputed $12 billion wealth and influence.
But for all that this 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. It had been 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.
Put aside 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 in debt. 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, though only eight 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 by her father in 1819, near today's East Liberty Presbyterian Church. 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 collections:
Thomas Mellon came a'courting in 1841.
|Photograph of Thomas Mellon, circa 1840s.|
Looking back on the day they met in her parents' parlor, Mellon would later write a dry, clinical appraisal of Sarah Jane's charms and their courtship in his memoirs:
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" because 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 which appears to have been based on mutually calculated, 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 would "do."
We can't even guess 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 and 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 coquettish 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. In it he mentions his wife twice, book-ending the chapter with comments about her at beginning and end.
It's not that Sarah 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 unnerved or impressed him. Perhaps it did 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'd 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 in fact 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 new wife, whom he described as taking "....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."
|Heinz History Center Detre Library and Archives|
Thomas got back to work quickly after their honeymoon. He recalled that "....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, or 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.
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. We don't know if she longed for a daughter to replace her lost baby girls.
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.|
Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, 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 described his grandmother, our Sarah Jane:
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 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.
|Portrait of Mrs. Thomas Mellon (Sarah Negley), 1896|
Théobald Chartran, Carnegie Museum of Art
Sarah eventually acquired a sizable staff to supervise. By necessity she would have become removed from day-today housework once she and Thomas became pillars of their community and she gravitated to a prominent social role outside the home.
But Sarah 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
|Circa 1887 at the latest. From Judge Mellon's Sons by William Larimer Mellon|
How did she feel 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 even a bit proud of their ambition? Or did she make sure the boys got 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. Although 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 was as much matronly as mannered. 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 nursing was probably secondary to Paddy's or Tommy's desires for a wee dram?
Did she understand how her husband's grief for their deceased children left him vulnerable to the Victorian charlatans who practiced Spiritualism? If so, there was probably little she could do to stem his exploration of the supernatural. Upon retiring, the 77 year old Judge essentially separated from her for five years and headed West 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 actually 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 doty adventures with Spiritualism. He believed the old man's sentimentality had been taken advantage of. Did Sarah? Eventually even Judge Mellon himself concluded "There's nothing to it" and returned home.
Was Sarah Jane curious about the mysteries that the Spiritualist world purported to reveal? Did she sympathize with the Judge's quest to connect with their lost children? If not, would she have dared to tell him, to scoff at him? Did she want to say "told you so" when all was said and done?
And, really, did she miss the Judge while he was gone those five years?
The Mellon private 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, to learn what held her interest and curiosity. We know from published family accounts that one scrapbook contained images of presidential log cabins. 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 that's probably as she would have liked it. Sarah was a woman of her times. Being quiet, pleasant, and self-possessed would do.
In The Judge, another quote from grandson William described 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...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 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
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.
....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 hand-written letters from Sarah Jane, plus the title pages from school books that once belonged to each of his parents (see above for Sarah's).
In May 1864, in separate letters both the Judge and Sarah Jane responded to their then-18 year old son's desire to join the Union Army for a 100 day enlistment. James was away at college. Stirred on by patriotism and inspired by a recruitment lecture, the impressionable young man assumed that parental consent for his enlistment would be a given.
Sarah Jane piled on to the scolding that James received from his father. Such effrontery, to even consider 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! Except this love your devoted mother S.J. Mellon
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. And to the Mellon parents, enlistment in May 1864 was indeed a very 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.
Despite admonishments from his parents, James didn't come home. But neither did he join the Union Army.
Other than these glimpses, the public is left with only the name and 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 Mellon 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!
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 Mellon men. This isn't an unusual circumstance
for women throughout history, of course.
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. It 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
|Stone from the Mellon gatehouse on 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.
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 1909And 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 stories exist as to where Sarah Jane's grandparents Alexander and his wife were buried. There are some claims that they were re-interred on the spot beneath the marker in Highland Park, having been moved there. One story claims 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. When the downtown burial ground, then called Smithfield Street Cemetery, was closed, remains were removed to Troy Hill and not a Highland Park burial ground.
From Troy Hill, 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. Still, 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 in fact, it's not unusual for rural communities like old Negleytown to have had their own burial grounds. The modern urban landscape grew up to surround it, but the graveyard was there first. Somewhere in Highland Park lie the Negleys with their many friends and neighbors. The memorial stone indicates that the remains of some 50 other East End pioneer families are interred therebaouts, although I have not been able to find a comprehensive list.
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 this era when a woman was most known by her husband's name, as Mrs. So-and-so, it's hard not to make too much of the fact that Sarah used her own names on this marker.
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. She devoted herself to church and community. She didn't seem to collect much beyond platitudes, trivia and memories in her scrapbooks -- nothing like the grand homes or art that 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.
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 checkered reputations of her descendants, but I certainly think she was proud of her own past. Her legacy remains forever entwined and eclipsed by that of the men in her life, just as Judge Mellon's actions and desires shaped the core of her adult experiences.
As to the rest, we must imagine and wonder, for we have no miniature dollhouses to prompt imagination. Sarah might have been the dullest of them all, but we'll never know for sure. The grand too 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.
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.
As a lifelong Pittsburgher there are many elements of the Mellon saga that I never knew, including Sara Jane's story. (I certainly remember the unfortunate eviction of Graffiti and the obsessive muckraking and embarrassing divorces of Dickie Scaife). I have to suspect that the Mellons' history is not well known because they like it that way.ReplyDelete
Wonderfull fotos parks, interesting article. Best regard from BelgiumReplyDelete
Great Research on my favorite subjectReplyDelete