Schoolchildren flood into Washington's National Gallery in haphazard lines of fifth-grade enthusiasm. Ooooo-Ooo, the floors, the polished marble. Boys and girls take surreptitious slides. Such is a 10-year-old's first brush with culture. Throughout the galleries, groups of children sit on the floors, listening intently to art teachers. In front of Seurat's The Lighthouse at Honfleur, a lady is explaining small points of Impressionist technique. Hands are raised.... How?...Why?...
Unobserved, Paul Mellon is watching with satisfaction. The Seurat painting happens to be his, and the museum, a stately treasury of art that ranks just behind the Louvre and the Prado, was his father's legacy to the nation. Paul Mellon is president of the National Gallery, its guardian and its angel. He is, as well, owner of probably the world's finest private art collection.
But shift to another scene now, to a hot-dog stand at New York's Aqueduct racetrack. Mellon is waiting in line and, here also, goes unnoticed. The Saturday bettors around him are students of another sort of fine art, and a million-dollar Mellon entry suits their discriminating taste. Minutes later his chestnut colt, Arts and Letters, a 1-to-3 favorite, eases through the homestretch to win the $100,000 stake and the title of Horse of the Year.
It is only following such racetrack victories that Paul Mellon, a modest and private individual, steps forward, that the public sees this man of fabled wealth ($500 million or is it $1 billion? people in the crowd ask). On one such occasion last year as Mellon stood in a hushed winner's circle accepting an Arts and Letters trophy, a bettor looked him over closely. "Hey, Mellon," the man shouted. "With all your money, why don't you get your nose fixed?" Mellon took no apparent notice but his trainer, who tells the story, was obviously shocked by such irreverence.
Mellon's thoroughbreds—both stud and racing stable—are a distinguished collection in their own right. Perhaps because Mellon knows the applause of a race crowd is for a horse, not its owner, he does not shun such triumphs. "Of course, I suppose I get a certain amount of reflected glory," he says.
Ever discreet about his wealth and philanthropy, Mellon finds it convenient to be traveling abroad when public announcements are made of his gifts. His alma mater, Yale, has received more than $40 million (and he has promised it another $35 million in paintings and books). Sometimes forwarded along with a grant is a three-sentence statement for the press. Multimillion-dollar Mellon donations for conservation—to help preserve wildlife sanctuaries and establish the Cape Hatteras national park—are memorialized by nothing but dune grass, scrub oak and holly. That is good enough. He dislikes public show and finds it unnecessary to impress himself or anyone else. Quite obviously, he believes in the responsibility and utility of great wealth—"Giving large sums of money away nowadays," he has said, "is a soul-searching problem. You can cause as much damage with it as you may do good." Along with his boards of trustees, he administers two foundations that combined have assets of $270 million and administers them purposefully.
Though his fortune and propensity for anonymity seem to make Mellon an aloof figure, he does not insulate himself with a staff of retainers. One dark evening last fall in New York, he arrived at his East Side house by subway. He let himself in. "If it is very late, I find myself putting the collar of my coat up and kicking open the front gate like they do in the movies," he said with a smile. "I think it's sort of sissy to ring the doorbell and wait for the guard." He moved through the house to a room that he uses as an office. A John Singer Sargent portrait of a young girl faced his desk. English paintings of harbors, horses and a cricket match—studies that bore looking at—hung on other walls. Their beauty was in the unobvious, a figure or face in the background. The subtle, the understated appeals to Mellon. Ashtray or inkwell, every object in the room reflected charm and personal selection. But what spoke even more of the man were his books. Volumes on art were stacked on desk and table, slips of paper marking passages. Bookshelves lined a wall from floor to ceiling, but only one section was filled. He had lived in this house for five years but Mellon was obviously in no hurry to add books to the shelves simply to please a decorator's eye. A scholarly man with hornrims and a penchant for books, he knows someday there will be more than enough. On an empty shelf he had propped a photograph of Arts and Letters. Resting against floorboards were unhung pictures. Already he had run out of space for those. But the desire to collect, to enjoy and to savor persists. Mellon carries paintings around streets and airline terminals as anyone else might a book or a newspaper, arriving at a frame-maker's with a Van Gogh or at an exhibition with the Degas he has promised under his arm.
However, it is on a 4,000-acre estate that rolls out of the Blue Ridge Mountains across the foxhunting country of Virginia that all the facets of Mellon are evident in one magnificent setting—the Anglophile in his own parkland with his private gallery of British sporting paintings, the bibliophile with 20,000 rare volumes (some date from the time of Joan of Arc and Machiavelli), the horseman with enough enthusiasm and skill at 62 to compete in and win 100-mile endurance events, the thoroughbred owner with a practiced eye for conformation, and the countryman, concerned about his pastures and his animals. Like an artist, he is sensitive to the beauty of topography and landscape, building his houses and barns in the folds of the land. And like a conservationist, he respects the art of nature and knows it cannot be restored once it is destroyed. Mellon worries that he has perhaps done too much in carving out his stud farm. The honeysuckle deliberately has been left to climb the stone walls and split-rail fences.
At twilight on a winter evening, sycamore trees standing like sculptures against the sky, Mellon will set out for a walk. His Norwich terriers disappear across the fields in front of him as he heads for his hunter barn. The wind is from the southeast—rain, he thinks. Above a swale sits the red plank barn. At each stall Mellon turns the light on and looks in. It is a ritual, a moment of pleasure. The horses are in heavy blankets, PM stitched in the corners. There are five of them. The gray has his best days behind him.
"What we often really need is an hour alone, to dream, to contemplate or simply to feel the sun," Mellon once said. "What this country needs is a good five-cent reverie." He is a man with a sense of value and proportion about living, and about his life. That is Paul Mellon, sportsman: owner of the Horse of the Year, buyer of the finest collection of sporting paintings ever assembled, unpublicized conservationist, a man who wishes everybody knew the value of a good five-cent reverie.