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Giants of the Gilded Age

Biographies of Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon offer complex portraits of the two philanthropists.

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Between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, the American economy was transformed. Huge new industries – petroleum, railroads, iron and steel, natural gas, and aluminum – emerged and a rural, agrarian nation became urban and industrial.

One aspect of this transformation that has long fascinated Americans is the role that a small band of men – collectively known as "the Robber Barons" – played in this revolution. The names are well known: Morgan, Carnegie, Frick, Gould, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Mellon. But we tend to view them as stereotypes – greedy, rapacious individuals who accumulated vast fortunes by buying politicians and exploiting employees.

The truth is, of course, far more complex as two superb new biographies reveal. David Cannadine's Mellon: An American Life and David Nasaw's Andrew Carnegie bring these important men to life and, taken together create a vivid portrait of the era that Mark Twain labeled "The Gilded Age."

Andrew Mellon is perhaps less well known than his fellow industrial titans because he was a banker who invested in multiple industries rather than focusing on one in particular. But his impact was extraordinary: "He financed and facilitated the massive industrial expansion of Western Pennsylvania" and created, among other firms, Alcoa, Gulf Oil, and National Carborundum.

Late in life, despite personal misgivings, he became Treasury secretary for three US Presidents. He presided over the Roaring '20s and was referred to as the "greatest Treasury secretary since Alexander Hamilton" until the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression shattered his image.

Another US president – Franklin Roosevelt – used Mellon as the personification of a "malefactor of wealth" and indicted him on trumped-up charges of tax fraud. But at the same time that the government was prosecuting him, Mellon created the National Gallery of Art and donated his art collection to the country, instantly creating one of the finest art museums in the world.

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