I'll build a stairway to paradise : a life of Bunny Mellon

When she died in 2014, 103 years old, it could be said that Rachel Lambert Mellon had lived a very full life, not only for her longevity but for all that she accomplished. She was born into a family of wealth and property, and she twice married men of wealth and property. Her husband Paul Mellon was one of the richest men in the United States  For a woman of her time, born in 1910, not much was expected of her other than to marry well, produce children, and take care of her husband, their family, and home. However, there was a great deal more to this woman who was known as Bunny.

Most widely known as an icon of style, among others she was known as one of the most accomplished landscape architects in the world, and as a horticulturalist, and gardener who actually got her hands in the soil and used clippers to prune various shrubs into submission. She was also a philanthropist and art collector, and lived and created a life of luxury that was not ostentatious. It was a world of Downton Abbey, Gosford Park, and the novels of Edith Wharton. The author Mac Griswold had access to a large collection of private papers, notably Bunny's meticulous daily notebooks and other personal documentation about her work as a landscapist and gardener. The life that Bunny created sounds as well-thought-out and meticulous as the life that the late Queen Elizabeth II orchestrated, at least as much as we know of her world. Griswold states that Bunny had a belief, " ... in beauty as a practical, working construct, a vehicle to another world ... "  An implicit aspect of this ethos was beauty that did not call attention to itself. It was a harmonious environment that she had the ability and vision to create, whether it included major works of art that she and Paul Mellon collected and had in their homes, or something that was an everyday object. This was one of her paramount innate talents, which can only be observed, but not taught.  Major architects, who worked with her, have remarked that Bunny Mellon had an innate sense of proportion that went beyond measuring spaces and laying out blueprints, because she could visually study a plot of land and then would know what needed to be added or substracted to existing features. Griswold takes us through this process in Bunny's design for the completion of the J.F.K. memorial site in Arlington Cemetery. And she takes us through the documented request from President Kennedy for the White House garden; its design, installation and Bunny’s personal involvement in every aspect of this project. Her expertise often surprised several trained specialists who were involved. All of this came from a woman who had no formal training, but an abundance of curiosity that led to research and study. Among the many things she did throughout her life:  she wrote, created illustrations and drawings. 

Her money enabled her to achieve perfection in everything that she created. There were eight different homes/residences/estates that she designed, created and managed (Antigua, Nantucket, Oyster Harbors, apartments in Paris and New York, and her main home, Oak Springs Farms in Virginia.) At each residence there were full-time staff, as many as 350 people.  At Oak Springs Farms, the staff was comprised of over 100 people who lived on the estate. In addition to the staff who worked and served inside the home, there were full-time painters, iron workers, carpenters, gardeners, arborists and other specialists. This was not an upstairs/downstairs environment. The staff lived in decent homes with wages and benefits to match, and were appreciated for the quality of their work.

Beyond the serious and remarkable, “She falls into a category, deserved or not, of rich and outrageous American women of the twentieth century …” that in her case, “ … must also take into account a certain zaniness."  An example of this was in her later years, when she decided that, "I want to make a President." It was her interest in financially promoting U.S. Senator John Edwards for President. There were numerous complications in how she went about this, which resulted in a scandal that Bunny was able to extricate herself from, along with the help of an excellent lawyer. 

Great financial privilege does not protect anyone from disappointing personal relationships and tragedy. Her relationship with Paul Mellon was highly charged for several years, and then his eye wandered, and eventually so did hers. They had a relationship that at times was wounding, but there was more to this that engaged them with each other. For Bunny there were momentous personal deaths. The worst was of her daughter Eliza who was the victim of a horrendous traffic accident. For eight years Bunny had 24-hour care for her daughter and sought out all types of treatments to help her daughter recover from full-body paralysis and severe brain injury.

Some of her happiest years included a very close friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It began when Jackie was the young wife of Senator John F. Kennedy. The two women had a closer relationship with each other than they had with their immediate and extended families. This lasted until Jackie's death. 
Towards the end of her life, she received a compliment that brought her to tears because she said, "Nobody really notices what I do." This biography is extensive, lengthy and riveting. Mac Griswold, through her considerable research and captivating narrative, brings Bunny Mellon's life and accomplishments more notice and appreciation.