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Bunny Mellon, the great garden designer, philanthropist and WASP society icon, died Monday at age 103.
This story first appeared in the March 18, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Born Rachel Lambert, she was the granddaughter of Jordan W. Lambert, who developed Listerine, and the eldest child of Gerard Barnes Lambert, a founder of Warner-Lambert, and the former Rachel Lowe. Mellon was the widow of the billionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon, who, at the time of their marriage in 1948, was said to be the richest man in the world.
Mellon, a close friend of Jacqueline Kennedy, designed the Rose Garden and East Garden at the White House and also arranged the White House flowers after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and those for Caroline Kennedy’s wedding. The Mellons’ houses were known for their combination of utterly comfortable, extremely understated decoration and world-class art, from 15 Gainsboroughs to some of the 13 Rothkos that Bunny purchased during one visit to the artist’s studio decades ago.
Aileen Mehle, who wrote the “Suzy” column for WWD and W, said of Mellon, “She was a darling, wonderful, magnificent woman in every single way.
“She was a lovely woman who was very concerned with charity, helping people out and doing everything she could to help the needy. She was very much a patron of the arts, she was very interested in the ballet because she viewed that this was what Jackie [Kennedy] loved,” she said.
“She was more than a lovely woman. She was an outstanding woman. Tall and stately. Even if she was Mrs. Nobody, you would have to look at her because she was striking and carried herself very well. There was no side to her, as the British say. She wasn’t stuck up, to use a dumb phrase. She was very good with everybody.”
Mellon was a resolutely private person. In their dwellings in Upperville, Va., and on Antigua, she and her husband had their own sequestered worlds, which was also the case with their house on Cape Cod, Mass., and town houses in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. “Nothing should be noticed,” Bunny said to The New York Times in 1969, describing her decorating style. “Nothing should stand out. It all should give the feeling of calm. When you go away, you should remember only the peace.”
Her designs for living, in fact, were those of the traditional WASP. Her marvelous taste, charm and kindness made her a valued friend and a natural social leader.
During her long life, Mellon gave only two full-scale interviews — one to the Times in 1969, and the second, when she turned 100, to James Reginato in Vanity Fair.
In the Fifties, Jackie Kennedy had visited Oak Spring Farm, Mellon’s 4,000-acre Virginia estate. Before long, Jackie phoned Bunny to let her know that she didn’t like her own house, but that she admired Bunny’s. Soon Mellon was helping Kennedy with her decorating problems, and a long friendship developed.
Paul Mellon wrote in his autobiography, “Reflections in a Silver Spoon,” of their Little Oak Spring farmhouse, designed by H. Page Cross, “The furnishings may be loosely described as French provincial. Bunny’s touch is everywhere, and throughout the house there are flowers, from tiny plants in little pots and jars to large informal arrangements. In fact, informality and lightness are the keynotes which may be seen in everything from the bright printed fabrics and colorful rugs to the softly painted walls and woodwork.…Major works of art live side-by-side with small objects of art, children’s drawings and bronzes of favorite horses. Bunny’s quest for comfort and informality has been nurtured with care; a little natural shabbiness in an old chair cover is sometimes purposely overlooked. The result, I think, is that the houses felt lived in and loved.”
One of Bunny Mellon’s key inspirations as a gardener was the 17th-century gardener Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, who created Louis XIV’s Potager du Roi at Versailles.
The Mellons were both important art collectors. “We are just beginning to see abstract painting,” Bunny told the Times in 1969. “This summer, I called my husband from Europe and I said, ‘Don’t be mad, but I’m bringing home two abstractions.’ Mr. Mellon said, ‘Don’t be crazy; I’d like to see them.’ So we bought two, one a Mondrian. When we were first married, I specialized in the French Impressionists and my husband concentrated on the English painters. But now we both buy both.”
Mellon’s father, Andrew, a banker, Secretary of the Treasury and an ambassador to Great Britain, had helped launch the National Gallery of Art, while Paul underwrote much of the expense of a new, I.M. Pei-designed building for the gallery built in the Seventies. Paul also helped create the Yale Center for British Art at his alma mater, giving $18 million to endow it and providing everything originally in it, from paintings and drawings to rare books, prints and photographs.
Bunny Mellon originally wore Balenciaga exclusively; when legendary couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga retired, she turned to his protégé, Hubert de Givenchy. At Givenchy, she had her own atelier for fittings, and the designer made her everything, down to her gardening hats. She also had a significant collection of Schlumberger jewelry. Her Oak Spring Garden Library is a world-class collection of horticultural books going back to the 15th century, with 3,500 rare books and manuscripts and 10,000 modern tomes.
Paul Mellon died at the age of 91 in 1999. For 10 years after that, Bunny Mellon spent much of her time with a new companion, party planner extraordinaire Robert Isabell, whose presence in her life raised a few eyebrows. When he died unexpectedly from a heart attack at 57 in 2009, she buried him at Oak Spring. In 2006, she reportedly gave $6 million to the presidential campaign of John Edwards, angered after the candidate was criticized for spending $400 on haircuts. Mellon instructed those bills and others subsequently be sent to her, but instead the money allegedly was funneled to Rielle Hunter, the mother of one of Edwards’ children.
In 2010, Mellon was reportedly the victim of Ponzi schemer Kenneth Starr, who was said to have used $5.75 million of hers to buy a condo.
None of these brushes with scandal seemed to faze her.
“Bernard Berenson spoke of ‘living life as a work of art,’” National Gallery director Carter Brown told Time magazine in 1978. “Paul Mellon comes as close [as] anyone I’ve ever known to doing that.”
The same, of course, could be said of his wife — at times literally. “I keep a sketch pad with me at all times at airports and train stations,” she once said. “I’m never lonesome without [it].”