When Paul Mellon died last month, at 91, tributes celebrated the vast sweep of his generosity and its influence on American culture, education and ecology. But some remember him for smaller gestures. After the 1989 Rokeby Bowl steeplechase, held near Mellon's 4,000-acre Upperville, Va., estate, the horse-loving philanthropist presented the $30,000 trophy to the mount's owner. Then he turned to Don Yovanovich, the rider. "This doesn't seem quite fair," he said. "What can I do for you?" Yovanovich told him he'd like nothing better than some of Mellon's whiskey, the kind, Yovanovich recalls, "he used to carry in a flask when he went hunting. [Mellon] wrote it on a little pad and said, 'Consider it done.' " Nine months passed. "I figured he had forgotten," says Yovanovich. "Then, on Christmas Eve, a large package is delivered to my door. On it Mr. Mellon had written, 'I didn't forget. Merry Christmas.' It was a case of private label rye, Overholt, 1911."

The gracious act captures Mellon's gentle sense of noblesse oblige. In the words of Rev. Robert Davenport of Upperville's Trinity Episcopal Church, which Mellon had built and where he is buried, "He made generosity a skill and an art form." Art, of course, was the chief beneficiary of the estimated $1 billion disbursed by the Mellon family over the past 60 years. Paul Mellon was the guiding spirit of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which was the brainchild of his financier father, Andrew W. Mellon, who once ranked with Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller as one of the richest Americans. Mellon endowed the Yale Center for British Art and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, among many other institutions, and he established the Bollingen Prize, the nation's most prestigious poetry award. Mellon was also a dedicated environmentalist, supporting parks, shorelines and bird preserves. "He was a lover of beauty," says Dr. Jerry Bertrand, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. "I don't think he drew hard lines between horses, birds, art and architecture."

If he made a life out of largesse, Mellon also knew how to enjoy his $1.4 billion fortune. In addition to his Virginia estate, he had residences in Washington, D.C., Manhattan, Paris, Antigua and Cape Cod. Apart from indulging passions for riding and breeding horses (his colt Sea Hero won the 1993 Kentucky Derby), Mellon collected paintings by the carload. "I remember he bought 700 in one year, and that's just the British works," says his friend Malcolm Cormack, Paul Mellon Curator of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "He carefully selected them—and he never haggled. It was remarkable how courteous and polite he was in this day and age, when rich people can be obnoxious."

Famously private, Mellon nonetheless revealed in his autobiography that he had undergone eight years of intensive Freudian psychotherapy in the 1950s. "There were many days when the [silver] spoon reflected sunlight," he wrote in his 1992 autobiography, Reflections in a Silver Spoon. "But just as often, dark clouds passed over, dulling the luster." Of his father, he added, "I do not know...why [he] was so seemingly devoid of feeling and so tightly contained in his lifeless, hard shell." Born in Pittsburgh in 1907, the young heir was not quite 2 when his English mother, Nora, asked his father for a divorce. Mellon grew up shy and lonely, seeking companionship among servants who "talked to me as one human being to another." The value of those relationships was reflected in the favors Mellon discreetly bestowed on his employees for the rest of his life. One ex-staffer says he regularly helped workers pay for their children's educations, and when employees or their loved ones died, he sat "in the pews like everyone else" at their funerals.

Mellon spent part of his youth with his mother in England, where he began a lifelong affinity for British culture. In the U.S. he attended the tony Choate School (to which he later donated the I.M. Pei-designed Paul Mellon Arts Center). Then it was on to Yale, followed by further study at Cambridge. Paul made a stab at clerking for Pittsburgh's Mellon Bank but quickly realized he hadn't inherited the financier gene. With great dread, shortly before his father's death in 1937, Mellon broke the news that he would not be pursuing the family business. Surprisingly, Andrew simply shrugged and suggested Paul keep "vaguely in touch" with the empire.

By then, Mellon had married Mary Brown, the chronically asthmatic mother of his. children Catherine, 62, and Timothy, 56. In 1946, after Mellon had returned from World War II Army service in Europe, Mary suffered a fatal asthma attack. Two years later the widower married family friend Rachel "Bunny" Lloyd, a Listerine heiress, horticulturist and art lover who would later help design President Kennedy's grave site. Over the years, the Mellons personally donated more than 900 paintings to the National Gallery.

Among some $290 million donated in his will, Mellon left several million to the Baltimore-Washington Institute for Psychoanalysis, where his late analyst had taught. Clearly he felt the "long periods of probing my childhood experiences" had restored some gloss to his silver spoon. Institute director Dr. Harold Wylie Jr. recalls a visit to the philanthropist's Washington office, where Mellon sat surrounded by images of his beloved horses. "He had almost a puckish sense of humor," Wylie says. "Despite his great wealth, he was very gracious—right to the end. Yes, he was at peace with himself."

Richard Jerome
Vicky Moon in Upperville, Susan Gray and Jennifer Zajac in Washington, D.C., and Eric Francis in Vermont

  • Contributors:
  • Vicky Moon,
  • Susan Gray,
  • Jennifer Zajac,
  • Eric Francis.