Old Yale  
spacer spacer spacer
yalealumnimagazine.com   about the Yale Alumni Magazine   classified & display advertising   back issues 1992-present   our blogs   The Yale Classifieds   yam@yale.edu   support us


The Yale Alumni Magazine is owned and operated by Yale Alumni Publications, Inc., a nonprofit corporation independent of Yale University.

The content of the magazine and its website is the responsibility of the editors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Yale or its officers.


The Man Who Helped Build Yale

Paul Mellon '29, born 100 years ago this June, reshaped Yale through philanthropy. The Center for British Art, Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges, Directed Studies, the residential college deans: these are only a few of the Yale institutions he created or helped to endow. Mellon was so fond of Yale that he often gave his horses Yale-inspired names, such as Blue Banner, Arts and Letters, and Chapel Street. Yet little on the campus bears his own name, and that was precisely how Mellon wanted it. In a statement following Mellon’s death in 1999, Yale president Richard Levin characterized him as “wise, generous, and strikingly modest.”


When Paul entered Yale, his father was Secretary of the Treasury.

Paul Mellon was the son of Andrew Mellon, one of the four richest men in the United States. (The others were Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew’s brother Richard.) Through the bank established by his father, Andrew Mellon had developed some of the leading American industries, including Gulf Oil, Standard Steel Car Company, and the Aluminum Company of America. When Paul entered Yale in the fall of 1925 after graduating from Choate, his father was Secretary of the Treasury.

In college, Paul earned appointments as vice-chair of the Yale Daily News and to the board of the Yale Literary Magazine. He was also the first man to be tapped by both Skull and Bones and Scroll and Key; he turned down Bones for Keys. One of his closest friends was classmate A. Whitney Griswold, who also wrote for the News (and would serve as Yale’s president from 1950 to 1963). It was the era of Prohibition, and Mellon enjoyed visiting the speakeasies frequented by undergraduates in New Haven and New York. In one illegal establishment, he spent time at the bar with gangster Legs Diamond. These visits had “an irony some of us thought amusing,” Mellon recalled in his autobiography, Reflections in a Silver Spoon. “My father, as Secretary of the Treasury, had overall responsibility for the enforcement of Prohibition. And there was the Secretary’s son, lapping it up in speakeasies.”

Paul Mellon attended Clare College at Cambridge for two years after his graduation. Already an Anglophile—as a child he had spent several summers in England—he so enjoyed the experience that when he returned to the United States in 1932, he arranged for the A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust to establish the Yale-Clare Fellowships (now the Paul Mellon Fellowships). One was for a Yale student to study for two years at Clare College with a summer of travel in the British Isles; the other was for a graduating member of Clare College to study at Yale with a summer of U.S. travel.

With the appointment of Whitney Griswold as president in 1950, Mellon became more closely involved in supporting Yale education. He wrote in his autobiography, “Whit had strong feelings, which I shared, about trying to preserve liberal arts education in the face of the postwar tide of mass education.” This led to his support for Yale’s program in theater studies, its humanities major, and Directed Studies—which enables a select group of freshmen to undertake an intensive, year-long study of Western civilization. Other Mellon gifts helped young faculty and endowed professorships in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the schools of medicine, divinity, and forestry. In 1948 he established the university library’s Bollingen Prize for poetry; Ezra Pound was the first recipient.


At Yale, Mellon is best known for the buildings he funded.

Mellon gave Yale many items from his own collections, along with the funds to purchase other important material; in this way Yale acquired the Boswell Papers, the Vinland Map, and the Mellon Collection of Alchemy and the Occult. But at Yale, Mellon is best known for the buildings he funded. Griswold brought the best modern architects to design for Yale, and with Mellon’s support selected Eero Saarinen '34BArch to design Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges. President Kingman Brewster '41 continued this policy and selected Louis Kahn to design the Mellon Center for British Art. Four years before the center opened in 1977, Mellon requested that his name be removed, writing to Brewster: “It is my firm belief that prospective future donors to the Center for British Art and British Studies will be much more eager to make donations to an institution to which a University name is attached rather than to a personal or family name.”

Of course, Mellon’s generosity extended far beyond Yale. He gave a large collection to the National Gallery of Art founded by his father. The two of them also gave the building, and Paul, along with his sister, funded the National Gallery’s East Wing. He also established the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and London’s Paul Mellon Centre for British Art.

Paul Mellon received both the National Medal of Arts and the National Medal of Humanities. Yale awarded him a Yale Medal in 1953 and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 1967. The degree citation reads in part: “The sophistication of your taste in life and learning, as well as your collections and benefactions, has spread a civilizing light through the lives of your fellow men. To the burdens of your trusteeship of a family fortune, you have brought a modesty and grace which are the highest marks of liberal learning.”  


©1992–2012, Yale Alumni Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Yale Alumni Magazine, P.O. Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, USA. yam@yale.edu