Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, the very elegant, very private widow of philanthropist, art collector and Pittsburgh native Paul Mellon, died at her home Monday in Upperville, Va.
She was 103.
A close friend of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and later, more controversially, a strong supporter of 2008 Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, Mrs. Mellon was married for more than half a century to the heir to one of Pittsburgh's greatest fortunes. She became known in her own right as the designer of the White House Rose Garden, as well as an expert on landscape design, architecture and the history of gardens. Her collection of rare garden books, manuscripts and botanical prints was the envy of horticultural scholars.
Despite her marriage to Mellon, who grew up in Shadyside on Howe Street after his parents were divorced, her connections with Pittsburgh were sparse. One photograph of Mrs. Mellon, taken before her marriage in 1946, places her at the Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier, but that seems to be as close as she ever came to this city, at least for very long.
"There wasn't a huge relationship there," said her grandson, Thomas Lloyd of Washington, D.C. "To be honest with you, my grandparents made a life of their own in Virginia," where Mellon had lived since the mid-1930s, out of the public eye, but fully in the world -- breeding horses, befriending artists, collecting art and donating it to museums that Mellon and his family built. Mrs. Mellon's close friendships ranged from actor Frank Langella to Mrs. Kennedy, who was introduced to her in the mid-1950s by Adele Douglas, Fred Astaire's sister, who lived next door to Mrs. Mellon in Fauquier County.
Mrs. Mellon proved indispensable when Mrs. Kennedy took on the huge task of restoring the White House, and in later years, she designed the gardens at the Kennedy Library in Boston.
An heir to the Listerine fortune, Mrs. Mellon was born to great wealth and married more of it, but never lost herself in it.
She grew up in Princeton, N.J., attending Miss Fine's School and Foxcroft, and then married Stacy B. Lloyd Jr., a Princeton graduate who roomed with Paul Mellon in London during World War II when both were assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.
After the war, in 1946, Paul Mellon's first wife, Mary, died after a severe asthma attack. He married Bunny Mellon in 1948 after her divorce from Lloyd. Both had two children from their first marriages. Mellon died in 1999, at 91.
Her grandson described a "fiercely loyal, wonderfully kind" woman devoted to family, friends and more than 100 employees who staffed her seven homes, especially Oak Spring, her edenic 4,000-acre estate in Virginia's horse country, an hour from Washington, D.C.
While his grandmother's activities were confined "to a small select group of close friends over the years, if you were fortunate enough to get to know her, there was not a more loyal friend out there," Mr. Lloyd added. As for family, "My children and I couldn't have been more lucky to have a relationship with her.
Possessed with a strong mind and strong opinions, Mrs. Mellon had unerring taste in designing small herb gardens, sweeping landscapes or exquisite houses that was accompanied by a complete lack of pretension.
To be sure, Mrs. Mellon gardened in smocks designed by the French couturier Hubert de Givenchy, a great friend, but everyone who worked for her "regarded her as a mother of sorts, the kind of person who would get up on the ladder and prune the trees herself or straighten the rocks on the wall. She was a worker."
It was very important that those rocks and trees were placed just so, as if they'd been there all along, even if they'd been flown onto the estate's landing strip, as Washington writer Sally Bedell Smith noted, in a private jet that was hung with art by Braque, Klee and Dufy.
Ms. Bedell Smith, author of "Grace and Power," a book about the Kennedys' White House years, recalled being told by the duchess of Devonshire that Mrs. Mellon "lived in her own realm of beauty and perfection"
"Nothing should be noticed. Nothing should be noticed," she told New York Times reporter Sarah Booth Conroy in 1969, saying it twice for emphasis.
That penchant for discretion made it all the more jarring when, at 101, Mrs. Mellon's name surfaced in a controversial legal battle involving Mr. Edwards, the former U.S. senator, who was charged with using nearly $1 million in illegal campaign contributions -- $700,000 from Mrs. Mellon -- to resettle his mistress Rielle Hunter in California and hide her from public scrutiny during the campaign.
The media dubbed Mrs. Mellon, who was not accused of any wrongdoing, "Sugar Mama," but she emerged unscathed. Mr. Edwards was acquitted of one charge, and a judge declared a mistrial on the remaining charges.
The Justice Department decided not to retry the case.
In his 2012 memoir "Dropped Names," actor Frank Langella, a close friend, said Mrs. Mellon blamed herself for the Edwards debacle: " 'Well, I suppose it's my own damn fault,' she told me, 'he was so attractive. White shirt, white pants, sleeves rolled up. And you know I'm weak on good looks.' "
In 2010, her name surfaced again in the media, as one of a group -- also including Uma Thurman and Sylvester Stallone -- that was bilked in a $59 million Ponzi scheme by a Wall Street investment adviser, Kenneth Ira Starr.
Her passing marks a sea change in American upper-class culture, said David Patrick Columbia, founder of NewYorkSocialDiary.com, a blog which chronicles the lives of the rich and social.
"She was all about taste. Faultless good taste. That's what made her, essentially, an artist. She only became famous because of her friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis," Mr. Columbia said.
"She was one of those people who would rather pay attention to others," said Mr. Lloyd, who added that at age 103, Mrs. Mellon remained resilient and alert "even up to the end, when my daughter would jump on the bed to be with her great-grandmother."
Mrs. Mellon's survivors include a son from her first marriage, Stacy B. Lloyd III of Washington; two stepchildren, Timothy Mellon of Saratoga, Wyo., and Catherine Mellon Conover of Washington; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A daughter from her first marriage, Eliza Lloyd Moore, died in 2008. A memorial service will be held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville on March 28.
Mackenzie Carpenter, firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.