Tom Prideaux
June 05, 1978 12:00 PM

Paul Mellon’s attitude toward his gray hunter, Christmas Goose, is a clue to what keeps him one of the richest men in America today and makes him, as multimillionaires go, an uncommonly happy one. Mellon faces facts—then does what he wants to.

“Maybe we’re a little long in the tooth for racing,” Mellon said recently. He was talking both of himself, 70, and of Goose, 13.

A year ago Mellon rode Christmas Goose to victory in the annual 100-mile ride in Hot Springs, Va. And in April he rode him again in the same event—and won again. The Goose, he says, is “a miserable horse,” who shies at shadows and, worse, is hard to ride. But he has stamina in the long pull. So? All things considered, Mellon rides Goose.

The 100-mile competition appeals particularly to Mellon. Spread over three days—40 miles the first two days, 20 the last—the race calls for thought, strategy, maybe even philosophy. Scoring is complicated. Points are lost if the horse takes more than seven hours or less than six and a half to cover the 40 miles. The condition of the horse is crucial and counts in the scoring. Veterinarians bob up along the steep and rocky trails to examine each horse with stethoscopes, look for strains and bruises and disbar any animal who is unfit. “It’s better,” says Mellon dryly, “if you can avoid falling down a mountain.”

Managing a lot of things at once is a Mellon specialty. This week, along with horses, he is intent on the year’s grandest event in the American art world: the opening of the new $95 million National Gallery annex in Washington, D.C., Paul’s gift to the nation. The original museum came from his famous father, Andrew Mellon, who died in 1937. As further proof that this is a big Mellon season, two large books of family history have just been published, introducing a multitude of Mellons. Paul, in his quiet way, outshines them all.

Measuring up to a father who was a legendary banker, a Secretary of the Treasury under three Presidents and an ambassador to Great Britain presented an awesome challenge to his only son. How could Paul avoid being his father’s echo? Or find his own identity, and yet do his family duty?

Paul takes easily to duty now, but on his own terms. While the annex, called the East Building, was under construction, he held some 50 meetings with his building committee. It discussed and voted on problems of design, efficiency, materials and expense, and by so doing kept the work snag-free and on schedule. “Our sessions helped sharpen my own ideas,” said architect I. M. Pei, who added with astonishment, “Paul never missed a meeting or raised his voice.”

Over lunch with three guests at his Virginia estate, Mellon loses every trace of official patronage. Offered a drink, the guests follow his suggestion of a special martini combining gin and vodka with an innuendo of vermouth, which he mixes himself in a closet-bar off the living room. In the rambling stone house, the rooms are low-ceilinged and seem to grow like branches on a tree. Sunlight wanders in, spilling over comfortable furniture and pots of giant daffodils set on the floor to welcome Mellon’s wife, Bunny. She is due from Paris at nearby Dulles Airport later in the day. An expert gardener specializing in kitchen herbs, she counseled her old friend Jackie Kennedy on fancy planting around the White House.

Mellon provides his guests a simple lunch of fish and fresh asparagus. The arrival of the dessert—scoops of ice cream drowning in chocolate sauce—brings a hint of little-boy loneliness into his face, suddenly brightened by delicious sweets. When he was only 4, his young English mother was divorced by his father (he was twice her age), and Paul was apart from her for many months at a time. He adored his older sister, Ailsa, but she could not assuage his early sense of loss.

As a boy, he often felt more at home in schools than in his father’s Pittsburgh mansion. After prep school he planned dutifully to go to Princeton on the heels of two cousins. But in a last-minute burst of spunk he switched to Yale because he felt its brilliant English department could better foster his devotion to books and writing. There he became an editor of two student publications and joined several elite clubs. “But he never tried to awe us by his family’s prominence,” said one of his classmates. “He was more interested in being himself than in being a Mellon.”

For quieter diversion Paul wrote sonnets, possibly because their strict 14-line form gratified his need for order. His youthful dream of classic serenity found expression in such lines as, “I built a temple in my inmost mind of pure white marble.”

After graduating from Yale with honors, he coaxed his father into letting him study history for a year at Cambridge. Paul had often summered in England as a child. Then, as a young man, he became excited by the horse races and fox hunts. He wangled a second year in England by promising to return to Pittsburgh and join the family banking empire. Gamely, he did—for three years.

In 1933 a New York paper reported that Paul Mellon had won a sleigh race in Central Park, celebrating the season’s first heavy snowfall. One of his sleighmates was Mary Conover Brown of Kansas City. She had studied at Vassar and the Sorbonne in Paris. They married in 1935 and, after Andrew’s death, moved to a new Georgian-style brick house at Rokeby, a horse-breeding farm near Upperville, Va., where Paul’s mother had lived. The only shadow on their life was Mary’s severe asthma, which worsened in the vicinity of Paul’s horses. Mary felt that the attacks might be partly psychological.

With this in mind, the couple spent six months in Switzerland with the great psychiatrist Carl Jung, attending his seminars, joining him on long walks and picnics beside Lake Maggiore. Mary found relief from asthma, and Paul, as he studied Jung’s credo of individualism, gained a deeper trust in himself. It was a crucial period in his growth.

Then, in a rush of events, Paul at 33 decided to fill “gaps in his education.” He enrolled in St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md. as a freshman, wrestling with ancient Greek (Euclid got him down), and then chucked it all to enlist in the Army as Hitler began to overrun Western Europe. After serving as a cavalry instructor at Fort Riley (the GIs called him Cantaloupe), Mellon was transferred to the OSS in France. Soon after his homecoming in 1945, his wife died of heart failure, leaving a daughter, Catherine, 9, and a son, Timothy, 4. In her memory Mellon built a lovely little Norman-style Episcopal church a few miles from their home.

His second wife, Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Lloyd, led Mellon into a more elegant social life. The Queen of England and Prince Philip had tea with the Mellons at Rokeby. For the debutante party of Bunny’s daughter Eliza (by a former marriage), the Mellons spent a reported $1 million to make rural Virginia glitter like Versailles for one night.

The Mellons keep five houses: in Washington, D.C., New York, Cape Cod, Antigua in the West Indies and the Virginia estate. Bunny, who often lives apart from Paul now, has an apartment in Paris. She kindled his interest in French impressionism, and they became important collectors of French 19th-century art.

Of all his houses, Mellon favors Rokeby, both as a home for his magnificent stallions, mares and foals and for its gentle mountains and meadows. While Bunny’s crab apple trees are trained to grow flat against the wall at Rokeby, Mellon lets the honeysuckle romp in tousled hedges.

His favorite environment is transplanted from England in the form of paintings, drawings and rare illustrated books, depicting the joys of simple but affluent country life. Perhaps it makes up somehow for what his ancestors suffered as poor Irish potato farmers.

“I don’t know when the idea came to me that I was making a collection,” says Mellon today. It began casually with sporting prints, then with his first important painting, Pumpkin with a Stable-Lad, portraying a racehorse “by Match’em out of Old Squirt Mare.” It was done in 1774 by the then obscure George Stubbs. He is now recognized as England’s finest animal painter, since Paul Mellon set off a Stubbs boom.

Indoors in his picture galleries, or outdoors at stables and racetracks, Mellon enjoys the company of fox hunters, jockeys, horses and dogs. The Mellon colors, yellow and gray, have flown triumphantly for years at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga. In England, his horse Mill Reef won the Epsom Derby in 1971, and Mellon was congratulated by the Queen.

By what seems now an act of fate, Mellon in 1959 was made chairman of a committee charged with rounding up an exhibit called “Sport and the Horse” for the Virginia Museum. With this impetus, he investigated the whole field of 18th-and 19th-century British art and transformed himself from an enlightened dabbler to a budding expert. Luckily, he says, he met an astute London art historian, Basil Taylor, whose guidance was helpful. After the Virginia exhibit had scored a hit, Mellon set out to build and endow the $100-plus million Yale Center for British Art. Stocked with his pictures and rare books, it opened in New Haven last year, free to both students and the public.

Mellon still keeps part of his art collection in the brick house on his Virginia estate, which serves now as a private museum and, once in a while, as a place for parties. He has a grand piano there.

Museums and parties. Rare books and horse races. Paul Mellon fits them all into his life. But most seriously he is a philanthropist, and a wary one. “When you give away large sums of money,” he says, “you can cause as much damage as you may do good.” His aim, then, is to put money into fields where it will be productive—in science, art, humanities, education and, more recently, conservation.

It is unlikely that the world will see the match of Paul Mellon again, with his taste, stubborn sense of responsibility and vast wealth. (It comes from his share of family-dominated businesses—the Mellon Bank, Alcoa, Koppers and Gulf Oil, which is the eighth largest U.S. industrial corporation.)

Mellon has suppressed the playboy in himself but not the playfulness. Once at a British hunt banquet many years ago, wearing his pink jacket, he leaped from his chair and turned cartwheels down the table, then for a grand finale swung from a chandelier. He still perks up a sober speech with quips, puns and verses that he recklessly writes himself.

In a recent poem addressed to the Thoroughbred Club of America, Mellon’s final stanzas express his hope for having, after his earthly life, a good gallop through eternity:

So when old Gabriel’s golden horn

Echoes from cloud to cloud each morn

And “It is post time” rings out clear,

I will be ready with my gear;

My horse and I will not be late

(Though I’ll be slightly overweight)…

Though some may think, and I’ll agree

That only God can make a tree,

Before God thought of trees, it’s said,

His mind was on the Thoroughbred.

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