A reclusive 'Bunny' Mellon celebrates 100th birthday

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There's an old photograph of her, taken in 1946 in a vast field at the Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier, dressed in good tweeds and a girlish hat, her hand at her throat, looking questioningly at a man at the left.

You can't see her face -- just the curve of her jaw and a strong nose -- but it's perhaps fitting that in one of the few photographs placing Rachel Lambert "Bunny" Mellon anywhere near Pittsburgh, she is turning away from the camera.

Intensely private, immensely rich and, Monday, celebrating her 100th birthday, Mrs. Mellon, widow of the late philanthropist and art collector Paul Mellon (the man at the left in the 1946 picture) has led a remarkable life, if one determinedly lived out of the public eye.

There was a brief flurry of publicity earlier this year when, in a tell-all book, a former staffer to former Sen. John Edwards said the campaign used money provided by Mrs. Mellon -- a staunch Democrat and admirer of Mr. Edwards -- to resettle his mistress, Rielle Hunter, in California, prompting the media to dub her Edwards' "Sugar Mama."

Mrs. Mellon's lawyers have said she had no idea that the money was to be used for that purpose.

Then, earlier this year, it was revealed that she was among a group -- including Uma Thurman and Sylvester Stallone -- who were bilked by a Wall Street investor named Kenneth Ira Starr (not to be confused with the Clinton prosecutor) in a $59 million Ponzi scheme.

Whether she was horrified or amused by this media attention is not known.

Friend of Jackie Kennedy

What is known is that Mrs. Mellon, who lives on a vast, beautifully landscaped estate spanning 4,000 acres -- Oak Spring Farms, in Upperville, Va., complete with mile-long landing strip for the family's private jet -- dwells far from the madding crowd, yet remains engaged and active, overseeing her gardens and having friends over for drinks in the evening.

"I find her to be fascinating," said Sally Bedell Smith, a Washington, D.C-based writer. "She is one of those few famous people like [Greta] Garbo, who magnified her allure in a way, by being so elusive and so private. There are so few like that anymore, but she has been that way for as long as I can think of."

Author of a well-reviewed 2007 social history about the Kennedys in the White House, "Grace and Power," Ms. Bedell Smith described Mrs. Mellon's close friendship with the first lady and her active role in helping to restore the White House, indoors and out.

When Mrs. Kennedy asked her good friend "Bunny" (the nickname dates from childhood, its origins apparently long forgotten by its owner) to redesign the White House Rose Garden, Mrs. Mellon created an outdoor ceremonial space which remains fresh and enduring today.

Lined with crab apple trees and flower beds laid out in the French style, with low thyme bordering hedges, "It has this formal feel which is softened by the beauty of the plants," said Holly Shimizu, director of the U.S. Botanical Garden. "Her design talent to me is the power of simplicity."

After President Kennedy's assassination, Lady Bird Johnson asked Mrs. Mellon to finish her work on the Rose Garden and to design a smaller garden to be named for Mrs. Kennedy. In a diary entry dating to 1964 Mrs. Johnson described Mrs. Mellon as "an easy, unassuming person. I liked her very much."Despite her private nature, Mrs. Mellon shared her own gardens with many people over the years -- from groups of veterinarians to Queen Elizabeth. Indeed, otherwise sensible gardeners start to sound like giddy teenagers when describing their visits to Oak Spring Farms -- at one 1969 lunch for 200 members of the Herb Society of America, there was a big white tent, recalled the society's then chairperson, Betty Rea, "and an omelet man brought down from New York, and round tables and garden chairs and each table had a myrtle topiary, a tiny little-leafed plant, and there was lemon thyme in little pots. It was very simple and very elegant, and she was so gracious."

Who in America in 1969, besides dedicated herbalists like Mrs. Rea, even knew what lemon thyme or basil was, anyway? Or sustainable gardening? Back before anyone could pronounce the word "artisanal cheese" Mrs. Mellon's farm was producing its own well-crafted Colby, Gouda, cottage cheese, butter and milk at its own creamery.

Heir to Listerine fortune

Daughter of Listerine king Gerard Lambert and an heir to the Warner-Lambert fortune (a company now part of Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant) Rachel Lambert was raised in Princeton, N.J., finishing her studies at Foxcroft School in Virginia. There, young women were taught to ride horses, sleep on outdoor porches -- even in winter -- to build their constitutions, and, most important, make good marriages.

She succeeded. While her first marriage ended in divorce, her second lasted for more than half a century.

Indeed, the Mellons, Ms. Bedell Smith would write in her book, "were the 20th century equivalent of Edith Wharton's van der Luydens, who stood 'above all of them' and 'faded into a kind of super-terrestrial twilight': shy and gentle, the ultimate in discernment, seldom seen on the party circuit," because they didn't need to be -- the world came to them, not the other way around.

If Mrs. Kennedy was a 20th-century style icon, surely Mrs. Mellon was her teacher: educating her about discreet, exquisite, impeccable taste, and like so many women of her class and generation, including Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Mellon was schooled in the art of pleasing men. Once, she surprised her husband after a formal dinner at the National Gallery of Art -- founded by Mr. Mellon's father Andrew W. Mellon, and which Paul Mellon chaired for years -- by bringing in a jazz ensemble.

When one elegant, elderly gentleman started assembling his clarinet, the normally imperturbable Paul Mellon gasped: "I don't believe it! It's Benny Goodman! I just don't believe it!"

This private gesture, documented in the Washington Post, was by a woman who, as a gardener, didn't mind digging in the dirt -- but her gardening smocks were made by Givenchy, who dressed her after the great couturier Cristobal Balenciaga retired.

"Nothing should be noticed. Nothing should be noticed," Mrs. Mellon said -- saying it twice for emphasis -- in one of her rare interviews, to Sarah Booth Conroy of The New York Times in 1969. She may have been referring to the soft sand color of her stone house, but it was obviously a dictum carefully followed in every aspect of her life.

Which is why her recent mentions in the tabloids were so jarring -- especially the Edwards debacle, since Mrs. Mellon reportedly hasn't been actively involved in a presidential campaign since the Kennedy administration.

The Edwards controversy may explain why she agreed to an interview in the August issue of Vanity Fair -- to talk about her gardens, which are displayed in lavish photographs, down to the spiderwort growing underneath the antique stone garden chairs.

Horticulture and art

Mrs. Mellon has mostly remained focused on her own gardening interests and, when he was alive, her husband's -- art collecting, philanthropy and raising thoroughbred race horses.

Not, however, anywhere near Pittsburgh.

While her husband grew up here, he moved to Upperville in the mid-1930s, and the Pittsburgh Mellons -- many of whom live in Ligonier -- were not known to maintain close relations with Mr. Mellon or his descendants in Virginia.

"She had other interests besides the Pittsburgh Mellons," noted Sandy Mellon, wife of Seward Prosser Mellon. She recalls meeting Mrs. Mellon only once, at a Washington, D.C., reception.

For a reporter, doing due diligence on Mrs. Mellon's connections in Pittsburgh or elsewhere is like being helicoptered into Dante's dark wood and getting hopelessly lost while being assailed by the three beasts of "No comment," "I don't remember" and "I'll call you back."

Arthur Scully Jr., who managed Rolling Rock Club and knew the Mellons, recalled meeting Mrs. Mellon in Antigua, where the Mellons had a house (in addition to other residences in Paris, New York, Washington, D.C., and Cape Cod).

What was she like?

"I just don't remember," he said politely.

After Mr. Mellon died in 1999, Mrs. Mellon continued to surround herself with people who shared her interests in the decorative arts and gardening, said David Patrick Columbia, who chronicles Manhattan society online at Newyorksocialdiary.com.

If she were to show up at a glitzy New York party, "most people wouldn't know who the hell she is," he said, but "In what passes for society in New York today, Bunny Mellon stands apart and alone. Actually, when you look at her life, you see that it's the life of an artist, very rich in that respect, with an aesthetic at a very high level."

In recent years her closest companion was Robert Isabell, a New York party planner whom she met when he was advising Mrs. Onassis on her daughter Caroline's wedding in 1986. When Mr. Isabell died of a heart attack at age 57 last year, Mrs. Mellon buried him near her Oak Spring Farms estate.

Besides the White House, she designed the gardens at Mrs. Onassis' summer home on Martha's Vineyard, the Kennedy Library in Boston and Hubert de Givenchy's French country estate, which, the fashion designer told the Washington Post, reminded him of "a delicate piece of embroidery."

"The thing I envy about Bunny," Mr. Mellon told Washington Post writer Paul Richard in 1985, "is that from the age of 5 or 6, her whole life has been occupied by horticulture, by one consuming thing. She had a garden when she was 5. That led her into all kinds of other things -- to trees, to landscape gardening. Everything she does in life -- her reading, her architecture, her love of pictures -- is related in one way or another to this one main interest."

In his own memoir, "Reflections in a Silver Spoon," Mr. Mellon writes affectionately about his wife, whom he credits with "providing my life with a stability and security it had not known before" and notes they met during the war when her first husband, Stacy Lloyd, served with him in the Office of Strategic Services.

After the war, in 1946, Mr. Mellon's first wife Mary died after a severe asthma attack, and in 1948 he married Bunny Mellon after her divorce from Mr. Lloyd. Both had two children from their first marriages.

That marriage was two years after they were photographed standing in a field at Rolling Rock, in the fall of 1946.

She, in the demure cap, is looking past another unidentified woman at him, the man on the left, her face partially obscured.

What was she thinking?

We'll never know, which is exactly the way she wants it to be.

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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