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Reveal of fortune: Here comes 'The Judge'

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Sunday, May 29, 2011
 

Today's Pittsburghers associate the Mellon name with wealth and banking, but few know the story — or the man — behind its enduring prominence. Filling that void is "The Judge: A Life of Thomas Mellon, Founder of a Fortune" (Yale University Press) — the first biography of author James Mellon's great-great-grandfather.

The book even feels rich — slick, heavy stock, with period images throughout — and is rich with insights about Thomas Mellon and the interrelated roles played in Pittsburgh's history by other families, such as the Negleys and Winebiddles, that made them worthy namesakes for city streets.

Its title taken from what his friends called him long after Thomas Mellon's 10 years on the Common Pleas bench ended, "The Judge" follows him from his Scotch-Irish origins in Ulster to Pittsburgh and beyond. An autodidact who taught classics to collegians yet was suspicious of higher education, an immigrant who looked down on those who reached America after he did, he emerges as a seminal, titanic figure -- and a man with flaws.

James Mellon, also author of books on African big-game hunting and photo portraits of Lincoln and editor of a compilation of former slaves' oral histories, began "The Judge" as a project for Mellon family eyes only. Its transition to bookstore shelves was the starting point for the Trib's phone conversation with him. Following are excerpts.

On how the book changed for public consumption:

Yale (University Press) ... got me an editor to advise me on what family things ought to be removed, which the public just wouldn't be interested in. ... I did not defer to anybody's possible sense of outrage as to what was in the book. I simply wanted to and had to eliminate things which were only of family interest ... and then also, Yale asked me to amplify on certain things and say more ... because we had to adjust the book to an audience that's out there instead of an internal audience.

On how writing the book changed his views about Thomas Mellon:

He was always an honored figure in our family. He was the founder of our fortune. All this was told to us. My father actually knew the Judge. My father was 10 when he died and he could remember him very well, talking to him. ... My Aunt Rachel also remembered him. ... (B)ut these people were children at the time and they couldn't really take any measure of his business ability and things like this. ... (H)is own memoirs are the main key to the man, I think. And of course that has to be adjusted for certain distortions -- he was a person with immense prejudices and all of this. ... I didn't know the particularities of it all. I didn't know how he got where he got. His whole struggle through life was something which was never related to me. I only found this out when I read his own memoirs. ... As I discovered more and more about him, my opinion of him was not diminished -- quite to the contrary, I would say. Even so, there's a great deal about him which nowadays you would call extremely harsh and sort of uncharitable and so forth, and all of this I acknowledge. I don't try to hide any of that in my book. I put it all right in the open. But still, in the end, I'm a person who admires the winners in life tremendously, and he sure was a winner.

On Pittsburgh:

I was born in Philadelphia and I followed my family around the world wherever they were, but I never actually lived in Pittsburgh. ... Almost everything I know about the Pittsburgh of the Judge's time is stuff that I've gotten out of books ... about the industrial development of the city and all that in his time and the time of Carnegie and Frick and all those things. But contemporary Pittsburgh is such a different world from that that it's almost like a different universe, sort of. ... (The rivers and the Point are) about all he'd recognize.

GLENN GARVIN: TIMES' THIN SKIN SHOWS

I'm pretty confident that Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times' book review section, hasn't been reading its editorial page. Or, at least, paying any attention to it.

That's where Arthur S. Brisbane, Times public editor (ombudsman), not long ago wrote that key among newspaper ethics must be willingness to accept, even welcome, outside criticism.

Yet Tanenhaus has refused to run a review of "Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means for America" (Encounter Books) by veteran journalist and press critic William McGowan (whose last book, on political correctness's insidious creep into journalism, won a National Press Club award). It's a tough-minded but judicious critique of The Times under publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s baby-boom leadership.

Sulzberger, the book argues, has replaced The Times' historical pledge "to give the news impartially, without fear or favor" with his own promise to "enhance society," particularly by doing away with the "white, straight male vision of events."

His embrace of multiculturalism (and, often, counterculturalism) has eroded news coverage in myriad ways, according to "Gray Lady Down," from refusal to acknowledge Islamic fundamentalism's role in terrorist crimes to a full-bore holy war against the Duke lacrosse team over a stripper's now-discredited rape accusations.

The most horrifying part is the huge number of hoaxes by which The Times has been taken in over the past decade. Some were amusing — a laudatory profile of a transgendered, meth-head, truck-stop-hooker-turned-novelist who, as it later developed, was none of those things and hadn't written his own book. Others were appalling, including character assassination of Caroline Kennedy falsely attributed to the mayor of Paris.

You'd think "Gray Lady Down" would qualify as "the light of scrutiny on the powerful" that Brisbane invited in his column. Not so, says Tanenhaus. He has not permitted a single word about it to appear in his section. The purported reason: The review copy was hand-delivered by the author, and The Times "doesn't accept books from importuning authors," Tanenhaus told the website Gawker. "We deal exclusively with publishers ..."

It's true that Encounter, a conservative publisher, stopped sending copies to Tanenhaus three years ago — because his section never reviewed them. Or virtually any other books from the right. Even if they're intellectual blockbusters, sales blockbusters on The Times' own best-seller list or fiercely topical, to The Times, they're unbooks that simply don't exist.

To be fair, there's a lot of competition for book-review space. And probably it's too much to expect Tanenhaus to make space when he's got an elegant piece on Jenna Jameson's "How To Make Love Like A Porn Star." Hey, Sam, how many copies of that did you need for fact-checking?

Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

SHELF LIFE: MONUMENTAL, MEMORIAL READS

Memorial Day is a most appropriate time to do so, but Americans need not wait for Monday's holiday to visit veterans' graves -- or the multitude of monuments and memorials that bear silent witness to the ultimate sacrifices made by so many in uniform.

Look to the following titles, selected especially for A Page of Books readers by Karen Rossi and her staff at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Downtown & Business branch, to learn about monuments and memorials from Pittsburgh to Gettysburg to Washington, D.C., and beyond -- including many too often overlooked -- and the stories of American heroism that inspired them.

Pennsylvania's Forbes Trail: Gateways and Getaways along the Legendary Route from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh

by Burton K. Kummerow, Christine H. O'Toole and R. Scott Stephenson (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2008)

Pennsylvania Battlefields & Military Landmarks

by Arthur P. Miller Jr. and Marjorie L. Miller (Stackpole Books, 2000)

Pennsylvania Civil War Trails: The Guide to Battle Sites, Monuments, Museums and Towns

by Tom Huntington (Stackpole Books, 2007)

Their Silent Vigil: A Complete Guide to the Monuments of the Gettysburg National Military Park

by Robert J. Nixon (Tate Publishing, 2009)

The Vietnam War in American Memory: Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing

by Patrick Hagopian (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009)

Sacred Ground: A Tribute to America's Veterans

by Tom Ruck (Regnery, 2007)

America's Battlegrounds: Walk in the Footsteps of America's Bravest

by Richard Sauers (Reader's Digest, 2005)

The Mighty Fallen: Our Nation's Greatest War Memorials

by Larry Bond and F-Stop Fitzgerald (Smithsonian, 2007)

NEW PAGES TO TURN

The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust

by Diana B. Henriques (Times Books)

The reporter who led The New York Times' coverage of the now-fallen financier and his decades-long $65 billion Ponzi scheme — history's biggest, which swindled friends, relatives and others -— explains Bernie Madoff and how he pulled it off for so long. Citing "Madoff's first interviews for publication since his arrest" among more than 100 done by the author, the publisher calls this "the definitive book on the man and his scheme." Hopefully, Wall Street investors, regulators and other journalists will read "The Wizard of Lies" as a cautionary tale — one that helps them avoid a repeat of the Madoff scandal.

Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World

by Maya Jasanoff (Knopf)

Helping correct the short shrift that winner-written history long has given supporters of the losing side in the American Revolution, Maya Jasanoff, an associate professor of history at Harvard, details the stiff prices paid by British loyalists -- white, black (the British pledged to free slaves who fought on their side) and Indian. Hounded by winning Americans bent on retribution, tens of thousands of loyalists fled to the safety of the British Empire -- Canada, England, the Caribbean, Africa, India, even Australia -- to start over. Loyalists faced much bigger challenges than tar and feathers; Jasanoff brings their diaspora's magnitude and implications into focus.

A Page of Books, written and compiled by Alan Wallace, appears on the last Sunday of each month.

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