Be Loyal to the Royal in Yourself

I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise: A Life of Bunny Mellon by Mac Griswold. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 560 pages. $40.

The cover of I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise: A Life of Bunny Mellon

WHO WAS BUNNY MELLON? A photo caption in the opening pages of the new book I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise: A Life of Bunny Mellon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40), by her erstwhile ghostwriter-cum-biographer Mac Griswold, describes her simply as “icon and woman.” More specifically, Mellon was a lifestyle pioneer, for whom the domestic space—the garden and home, with its antiques and art, but also its mood, energy, and ambience—was a Gesamtkunstwerk. She didn’t simply throw parties, she transported guests into ephemeral realms. As a mentor and bestie to First Lady Jackie Kennedy, she helped mold the aesthetic of Camelot. Perhaps her most famous effort was redesigning the White House Rose Garden, a monumental task for a self-trained, amateur horticulturalist. While many of Mellon’s accomplishments can still be seen or at least appreciated—after her death, her Virginia home, Oak Spring Farm, was transformed into the country’s most significant library of gardening books—in the summer of 2020, Melania Trump controversially removed Mellon’s colorful tulips and perennials, inspired by Mellon’s research into Thomas Jefferson’s gardens, and replaced them with muted roses. Woof.

As Griswold baldly puts it, “Bunny Lambert Lloyd used Paul Mellon’s fortune to create a private universe, one that she would control.” Divorcing a “perfectly nice” husband, the agreeably wasp-y Stacy Lloyd Jr., Bunny teamed up with the widower Mellon and created an American way of living, brimming with graceful contradictions: understated and lavish, royal and democratic, greedy and generous. (As Miss Charlotte, the headmistress of her horsey boarding school, Foxcroft, always put it, “Be loyal to the royal in yourself.” Amen!) Everything the light touched—across a four-hundred-acre expanse of a Virginia horse country farm, a Paris apartment, an Antigua compound, and houses in both Cape Cod’s elusive enclave Osterville and neighboring Nantucket—was indeed hers. And everything was also imbued with her special touch. She saw houses not as places to live, Griswold writes, but “as symbols of self.” She would trim hedges with nail scissors and rip the seams of freshly upholstered chairs to ensure they didn’t look too new. She developed a completely singular sense of domestic style that was immortalized in a postmortem Sotheby’s auction, where her penchant for combining high and low, along with her astounding collection of art, brought in $218 million. A five-dollar basket from a Cape Cod thrift store could sit nestled against a priceless Shaker antique. She had a fascinating animating maxim: “Nothing should be noticed.”

Even by today’s Bezos bozo standards, Mellon was the keeper of unfathomable wealth. (As of 2020, the Mellon family still ranks twenty-eighth on Forbes’s list of the richest American families.) She was an heiress in her own right; her grandfather invented Listerine, and her enterprising father popularized it through slick ads as a cure for “halitosis,” making millions. (Nothing should be noticed, indeed!) Her marriage to Paul Mellon went south relatively quickly, and she spent her personal life pursuing friendships with stylish queer men—jewelry genius Jean Schlumberger, couturier Hubert de Givenchy, celebutante florist Robert Isabell. Early in the marriage, she asked her second husband whether he wanted a divorce. “He said, ‘No, you take care of the children, and you’ll have all the money you want,’” Griswold recalls Bunny telling her. “You will be Mrs. Paul Mellon.” That, too, Bunny made into an art form. She has already been the subject of a beefy biography: Meryl Gordon tracked her ascent and its tragic tumult in a 2017 book, Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend. Gordon came to Mellon through her coverage of then-presidential candidate John Edwards’s cheating scandal; it was Mellon who secretly provided $750,000 to Edwards through checks made out to interior designer and pastel enthusiast Bryan Huffman, with playfully fictive memos like “an antique table from Charleston” that covered up their real purpose: to fund the new life of Edwards, his mistress Rielle Hunter, and their child. 

Griswold comes to her subject through a more apropos pedigree: not only is she a scholar of horticulture, but she was also, figuratively speaking, to a neighboring country estate born. A childhood friend of Mellon’s daughter Eliza at Foxcroft, Griswold observed the stunning and often painful effects of la vie en Mellon at close range—she even lined the Mellons’ driveway with other classmates to watch when the Queen and Prince Philip came for tea—and later became a confidant of Mellon’s as she sought to help her write an autobiography that was never finished. Griswold writes with close enough range that she quotes from a number of Mellon’s private writings, many of which were drafted with a memoir in mind, but enough distance to tell us, for example, that Mellon’s wardrobe was “sometimes admirable, sometimes perilously close to dowdy.” (On the other hand, Gerard Lambert’s disgusting foray into Arkansas sharecropping is probably underanalyzed.) And she recounts with a friend’s empathy how Mellon’s, ah, domestic auteurship affected Eliza, who was embarrassed by her mother’s mania for lavish parties, Givenchy couture, and Kenneth bouffants. When she came out, she was readily accepted by her mother, though her romantic partners were . . . not so much.

Mati Klarwein, Bunny Mellon, 1964, oil and tempera on canvas, 21 3/4 x 18 1/4". Oak Spring Garden Foundation.
Mati Klarwein, Bunny Mellon, 1964, oil and tempera on canvas, 21 3/4 x 18 1/4". Oak Spring Garden Foundation.

Gordon seems to have had access to at least some of these personal writings, but not all—and certainly did not sit at Bunny’s foot, as Griswold did, to hear her divulge the bizarre secret arrangements of the Mellon marriage. Paul, a lifelong analysis devotee who worked with Carl Jung before defecting to the Freudian school, was told by his Washington analyst only five years into his marriage to stop sleeping with his wife. (The reasons were, per Bunny, a “mishmash about his early childhood, a governess, neglect, and an unloving mother.”) Instead, he spent much of his marriage to Bunny publicly entranced with Georgetown society dresser Dorcas Hardin. Sounds terrible—and so glamorous.

And yet Mellon’s irrational emphasis on understatement is perhaps her most fascinating achievement. The contrast between her stated motives and their effect only heightens the drama. From an early age, it was clear that Mellon felt Americans needed to be taught something about style. Griswold quotes from a letter to Mellon from her first husband (Mellon’s letters are lost to time): “You are perfectly right about people having to learn how to live. They do, you know and most Americans don’t know how. There is an art of living . . . just as there is an art of loving by considering the other person first and trying to understand them first before yourself.” (Oof. Don’t you wish she hadn’t gotten the divorce?) And yet she never made a real effort to tell Americans how to live, through the kinds of books or fashion statements or even name-making publicity stunts that were popular among other wealthy American women at the time; she moved alongside Truman Capote’s more public-facing swans but was never really among them.

That her philosophy is so impossible to grasp makes it all the more special; indeed, a set of unspoken rules and standards impenetrable to outsiders is what has defined the American wasp for nearly two centuries. (The wealthy grande dame grandmother of a friend of mine, for example, once explained to me that she was selling a few Picassos “to make room.”) How to square Mellon’s obsession with discretion with her outsize displays of wealth? The seemingly dowdy raincoats that then reveal themselves to be lined with sable. The serene, connoisseur’s appreciation for Schlumberger jewelry that is undone by the sickening size of her collection. Even those closest to Bunny were at a loss to comprehend her philosophy. “Paul appeared to be tickled and amazed by what Bunny accomplished” throughout her life, Griswold writes, though she also says that spending time among flashy café society types could cause “Bunny to float away in one of her ‘magic balloons,’” as Paul put it. It was the source of her troubles with Eliza, who, Griswold writes, experienced “the struggle of the ‘ancient child’ to deal with the uncomfortable double quality of the gauzy life her mother insisted on creating—both artfully simple and grand.”

The sublime balancing act that made sense only, really, to Mellon and Mellon alone, is her greatest achievement. How many other women can say they made so much splendor for so much self-satisfaction? The gorgeous but tragic debutante ball she threw for a reluctant Eliza in 1961, which cost $1 million, articulates it best. Inspired by the Alain-Fournier novel Le Grand Meaulnes, it was intended to be private, but that of course was not to be:

Dorothy McCardle, The Washington Post’s society reporter, was spied crawling behind farm hedges and through the Rosa multiflora thorns to get a glimpse of the “village”—fifty multicolored canvas pavilions straight out of the Field of the Cloth of Gold—that was erected in a pasture for all the young men. Shower and toilet facilities were housed in still other tents, along with valet services to press dinner jackets and shine evening pumps. Oak Spring’s internal roads were asphalted for the evening and then quickly returned to their country gravel surfaces once the party was over.

In attendance were seven hundred members of the Washington elite and society movers, including Adele Astaire and the Vogue editor Baron Nicolas “Niki”de Gunzburg. The next day, a neighbor and friend wrote to Mellon in rhapsody: “Darling Bunny—I only today remembered that the Meaulnes was the inspiration for the party . . . you made it just that, the furthest-from-reality evening there ever was. The beautiful groves and mysterious buildings did filter through to one’s consciousness, but nothing was insistent—surely the most successful kind of planning and bearing your stamp.” In contrast to the current landscape of David Geffen yacht-hopping in Prada slides and the unsightly floral designs that populated the wedding of Bill and Melinda Gates’s daughter, one can’t help but think of Bunny’s spending habits: how creative! It was all noticed, in other words, but in just the right sort of way.

Rachel Tashjian is the fashion news director for Harper’s Bazaar and the creator of the newsletter “Opulent Tips.”