Commentary Magazine

Bollingen, by William McGuire

Money & Mysticism

by William McGuire.
Princeton University Press. 361 pp. $18.50.

In the summer of 1938, as Hitler was mobilizing Germany, a wealthy American couple attended a small seminar in the village of Ascona, Switzerland, held in honor of another charismatic figure, C.G. Jung, the psychologist of the collective unconscious. They listened to lectures on visions and enigmas, ancient Mithraic rituals, syncretistic symbols, and other timely issues, at the annual Eranos (Gr.: “shared feast”) meetings of an elite group of Jungian devotees.

Paul and Mary Mellon had been drawn into the Jungian orbit a few years earlier. The visit to Ascona heightened their belief in Jung’s wisdom, and the value of his work. Before returning home to New York, Mary put her question: “Dr. Jung, we have too much money. What can we do with it?”

Thus the Bollingen Foundation came into being, named for the Swiss village near which Jung kept his “tower,” a retreat where he could be alone to ruminate on myths and archetypes. Thanks to the Mellon fortune, Bollingen developed into an imposing American institution, a costly and elegant monument to the esoteric interests of Mary’s idol. It was also a monument to the innocence and isolation of a powerful American family.

The Bollingen story is a fascinating episode in the history of private philanthropy in America. This book, by William McGuire, Bollingen’s editorial director for many years, and published under its auspices, is in effect an authorized account of the lavish spending enterprise of the Mellons. In its pages, colorful characters pursue exotic interests in fashionable settings—an “adventure in collecting the past.”

Mary Conover, born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1904, was introduced to Jungian concepts soon after coming to New York in the mid-1930’s, after four years at Vassar and a short sojourn at the Sorbonne. Married briefly, and divorced, she worked in a gallery of modern art on Madison Avenue and moved in a sophisticated set whose members kept up with the latest fads in art, photography, ideas, and parlor games. From some of her friends, who were captivated by them, she heard about the mystical and occult elements in Jung’s writings.

Without any other explanation than that a few “spirited” women whom she knew were doing it, McGuire reports that in this period Mary began seeing a Jungian therapist. He passes over the possibility that the young divorcee wanted help, perhaps unwittingly, with an emotional problem. Since childhood she had suffered from severe attacks of asthma; her father, a physician, was interested in psychosomatic medicine, and she may have suspected an underlying cause. But whatever her reasons, Mary Conover got caught up in methodology more abstract than clinical. Although she brought a real symptom to her Jungian therapist, she came away mainly with speculations about the collective unconscious. Instead of stressing the role of individual biography in character formation, and the resolution of symptoms through the acknowledgment of individual responsibility, the Jungians promised her “psychic wholeness” through some mysterious, transcendental process: an “adventure.”

Her asthma, by the way, was never cured, and when she died, in 1946, it was from a heart attack, in the aftermath of a severe asthma seizure which she suffered while on the way home from a fox hunt.

It was at the time of her immersion in Jungian doctrines that she met Paul Mellon, on a sleigh ride in Central Park. He was as attracted to her as she was to the collective unconscious. Before long, they were married, and Paul joined her in Jungian therapy. Their transferences to the husband-and-wife team who saw them must have been strong, for they commuted a long way to their sessions in New York, first from Pittsburgh, while Paul’s powerful father was alive, and then from Virginia, once Andrew W. died and they were free to move to an estate in Paul’s beloved horse country.

In New York, the young couple, at the top of American society, “obtained entree,” in McGuire’s words, to a private talk by Jung on symbols and medieval alchemy, a favorite and typically far-out topic of the sometime recluse of Bollingen. McGuire’s straight-faced report of Jung’s effects on the Mellons is revealing: Paul was “staggered” when the renowned psychologist described the Tao symbol, for he had seen it in his dream the previous night. Mary was equally overcome. Later she wrote to Jung: “I was sitting directly beneath the platform under a large black hat. You began to talk, and I understood not one word, but I thought. ‘though I don’t know what he means, this has something very much to do with me.’”



Ingenuous, and admittedly entranced, the Mellons evidently made their own impression; they were ushered, rather swiftly, into the inner circle of Jung’s admirers, with an invitation to the private meetings in Ascona. Not long afterward, along with Paul’s other, more conventional philanthropies, they began picking up the tab for certain Eranos activities (both the Rockefeller Foundation and the Index of Christian Art at Princeton had turned down requests for funds) and doling out payments to devotees of the psychologist of transformation.

The Bollingen Foundation, Mary’s dream project, was incorporated in January 1942. It was devoted to the support and perpetuation of the Jungian mystique, and for more than twenty years published books and financed projects meant to show “how the archetypes and the collective unconscious manifested themselves in dreams, fantasies, art, and literature.” Bollingen commissioned and published translations of Jung’s collected works (with his close participation) and numerous writings by his followers. A few highly regarded works of literary scholarship, only vaguely related to Jungian themes, were also published, and the reputation of Bollingen books was similarly enhanced by the inclusion of the A. W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Arts, a more sober family philanthropy.

Mary was a true believer, and with her husband’s assistance and vast resources they created a structure that glorified her beliefs. No expense was spared on design and production. The most trivial products were packaged in award-winning formats, all bearing the same decorous but obscure emblem—a mandala, in the form of a stylized wheel, based on an ancient Gnostic sign. Paul provided a stately home for Mary’s dream in three brown-stones on New York’s Upper East Side whose uniform façades, meticulously described by McGuire, resembled a “private hotel in London.” In the library of these “unassuming . . . quite unornamented” buildings, hung Mary’s portrait; her costume, a cape designed by Valentina, “could be taken for an academic gown,” for Mary wanted to be “painted as a woman of serious concerns.”



From the beginning, Bollingen’s policies were made by a small circle of friends and acquaintances of the Mellons—including some who had begun on Mary’s private payroll—along with advisers chosen through family or Jungian networks (“the few who are concerned with consciousness”). Only for staff or technical jobs was appointment based on professional rather than social (or mystical) criteria.

Formal declarations of policy, according to McGuire, “were not much in the scheme of things.” Instead, “decisions came . . . by procedures that evade description. There was a prevailing sense, a consensus, of what belonged and what did not.” Bollingen, in its exclusiveness, shunned peer-review procedures or other practices commonly employed in the outside world to encourage competition and the free exchange of ideas. Throughout Bollingen’s history, decisions about publications and awards remained in the same hands; a core group of beneficiaries was carried for many years.

An example: Natacha Rambova, née Winifred Shaughnessy, of Salt Lake City, had as her credentials for her Bollingen grant a “fascination” for museums and myths, and a talent for reading astrological charts and hand prints pressed into sand. She happened to be the niece of a famous interior decorator (Elsie de Wolfe), stepdaughter of a “wealthy perfumer” (Richard Hudnut), once married to Rudolph Valentino, and a sometime actress, dancer, and clothes designer, who also dabbled in theosophy and the occult. Miss Rambova received awards (for an unspecified number of years) for a project “involving the mysteries of initiation of the Atlantean past.”

In 1963, as McGuire tells it, when the retirement of the few members of the original “Bollingen wheel” was on the horizon, Paul announced plans to terminate the foundation and its fellowship program altogether rather than risk diminution at the hands of newcomers. The Bollingen imprint was transferred to Princeton University Press, publishers of McGuire’s book. By the time of the announcement, an average of $1 million was being given away annually, and many millions more, in a spirit of “realistic liberality,” had been spent on overhead.



McGuire’s book is an archetypal offshoot of Bollingen. In it, even major historical events are treated as abstractions, their significance blurred, as though seen in visions. Thus in the early 1930’s Jung, in dealing with the Nazis, was “trying to coexist with all realities.” World War II, Nazism, anti-Semitism are alluded to tactfully, as if to hold them at bay, and not offend “the exalted temper of Mary’s undertaking.” In 1942, when Bollingen abandoned a plan to publish H.W. Hauer’s lectures on “the self in Indo-Aryan mysticism,” it was because the author, leader of the German Faith Movement, “had been drawn into the Nazi net,” and publication might “endanger the . . . purpose of our undertaking and keep us from having any cultural function at all.”1

What was the foundation’s cultural function? Bollingen paid its own bills and existed on its own terms, managing most of the time to insulate itself from competition or scrutiny from the outside world. It could have been an illustrious example of responsible philanthropy, an alternative to the bloated and often meddlesome agencies in the nonprofit and public sectors today. Despite the considerable attention to ornamentation rather than substance, Bollingen never fell prey to the temptation to divert its energies from its initial goals. Unlike so many organizations, philanthropic and otherwise, it eschewed bureaucratization of its functions, and succeeded in maintaining the small scale of its original design.

But Paul and Mary Mellon could meet neither the challenge nor the attendant obligation of their immense resources. When the world was facing tumultuous and tragic change, they retreated into the Great Mother, synchronicity, ancient ceremonies, and primordial symbols. And thus a substantial portion of Andrew W. Mellon’s fortune—amassed, after all, through that shrewd moneymaker’s boundless ambition and his appreciation of the opportunities inherent in free enterprise—was disposed of in service to an ideology that enthroned amorphous collective forces, celebrating mystical rather than rational paths to understanding. To the clear-thinking individualism that had made it possible for Mary’s dream to become a reality, Bollingen was, in effect, a rebuke.


1 Incidentally, Bollingen's bona fides as an affirmative-action patron is painstakingly established by McGuire. In the fastidious biographical sketches of members of the inner circle and various other recipients of support that fill the book, his record-keeping is diligent: Max Raphael “was born in a Polish ghetto,” Paul Radin was the “son of a rabbi,” Hermann Broch was “born in a Jewish industrial family,” and so forth.

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