Hard drugs, shamanic retreats and a billion dollars in crypto currency add up to proof that even the best dynastic planning needs ironclad walls around the family fortune in case things go wrong.
For those who know their way around the Social Register, the late Matthew Mellon never really conformed to his famous family’s buttoned-down profile.
He was never into art, horses, philanthropy, public service or any of the other pursuits that we associate with the heirs of the legendary Pittsburgh bankers.
Instead, his life and now his death feel more like a throwback to dynasties where the patriarch’s founding values fade out after a generation or two, leaving the heirs with too much money and not enough direction.
Granted, Matthew Mellon was still a Mellon to the end. He has plenty of achievements to his name. But other aspects of his trajectory would feel more at home in the obituary of a Getty, maybe a DuPont or a Vanderbilt.
It’s a story of drugs, fringe philosophy, big bets on untested asset classes and old-fashioned paranoia. For some who want their name and wealth to live forever, it’s probably a cautionary tale.
But the original Mellons built their dynasty just well enough that Matthew — born nearly a century after the family bank was chartered — still had everything he needed to succeed or fail.
Down, up and down again
By the time Matthew came of age, Mellon money was already locked up in a maze of interlocking trusts that doled out just enough to keep everyone comfortable without satisfying every ambition, positive or otherwise.
Supposedly he was at least a beneficiary of 14 of those trusts, living on the interest and occasionally a block of principal. The real wealth remained out of reach in order to feed generations of unborn Mellons to come.
His estranged father ended up killing himself, feeding his share of the family fortune down the generational chain a few decades earlier than schedule but also knocking out a crucial link in the transmission of the family’s values.
Matthew wasn’t raised to consider himself a core member of the dynasty. His career goals weren’t on the Mellon menu — he wanted to perform and had to settle for politics and fashion.
He also spent a lot of time either on drugs or trying to get clean. He met his first wife at Narcotics Anonymous. She went on to create Jimmy Choos and ultimately left him, taking the $130 million company with her.
It could’ve gone a lot worse. Matthew didn’t need a piece of the business she clearly built, but if he’d picked someone else from his support group to marry, the trusts would’ve shielded the family money from a hostile divorce decree. Since it wasn’t ever his money, it could never be hers either.
That’s an absolutely essential piece of a great dynastic plan. You can educate your kids and train their character to avoid fortune-destroying mistakes, but it’s a lot harder to pick their romantic partners. Spouses have legal rights. They’re outside your control.
The more of the family’s wealth that remains outside any single member’s direct ownership, the less power a bad match and worse divorce has to divert the money away from blood heirs. The kids will be taken care of either way. The ex-spouse is rarely more than an afterthought.
But Matthew missed the full family education. Maybe he made up for his father’s absence and lived up to the Mellon ideal as well as anyone could. Maybe he stumbled now and then.
The lesson here is that a well-run dynasty doesn’t leave it to chance. If the intermediate heirs can’t or won’t transmit the family’s values to every scion who bears the name, you’re really just handing out cash for winning a lottery ticket of birth.
Real dynasties teach the kids how to act as good stewards for the wealth, preserving it as best they can and maybe even building on it. They cultivate ethical postures that turn into long-term philanthropic, political and commercial enterprises: deeply rooted companies, foundations, cultural legacies.
Other branches of the Mellon family funded universities, publishing houses, sprawling art collections, exquisite gardens. Matthew’s side was a little less focused. He spent most of his life as a spender first and a builder only in passing.
In some circles, he’ll primarily be remembered for the wild parties.
The crypto coda
But while his vision wasn’t always clear, he was ambitious. The fashion companies reflect an urge to create a viable business from the ground up. And when $2 million invested in a then-obscure crypto currency turned into $1 billion, suddenly it was like all his trusts paid out at once.
Taking what more staid family members would probably consider a crazy risk on a speculative asset class made him one of the richest Mellons in generations. It was better than winning the lottery.
Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to have learned how to deal with real success. He managed the windfall well enough, but never found a way to translate that money into a legacy of his own, much less something that reflects on where he came from.
Maybe the estate plan will reveal a grand vision that will keep his name alive for the ages, not to mention taking care of his widow and children.
I’d like to think so, but reports of his paranoia lower the odds. Supposedly he hid cash in endless undocumented accounts, so it’s going to take time and luck just to figure out where all the money is.
He didn’t alway surround himself with great people, either. The drug habit never really ended. When he died it was in full enough bloom that he’d enrolled in experimental therapy to wean himself off 80 oxycontin pills a day.
The pills alone cost $100,000 a month. The program itself was somewhere between experimental and dangerous: eat the psychoactive bark of an African plant administered by gurus, cure addiction.
The therapy has been linked to heart attacks like the one that killed Matthew. We’ll never really know whether he could’ve gotten clean and made something legendary out of his life.
But the family goes on. There will be other Mellons. With just $2 million to put to work, they could become instant billionaires themselves.
Ambition may be the best thing any dynasty can teach. If the heirs can’t do it, the advisors can step up.