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Book Review: Bunny Mellon

By (September 18, 2017) No Comment

Bunny Mellon:

The Life of an American Style Legend

by Meryl Gordon

Grand Central Publishing, 2017

Brooke Astor, the subject of Meryl Gordon’s hugely engaging 2008 book Mrs. Astor Regrets, was a ripe old 105 when she died in 2007. Seven years later, another headline-making, obscenely wealthy American socialite, Bunny Mellon, died at the age of 103. In life, the two women had quite a bit in common: each was intelligent, each could be generous to friends and tyrannical to staff, each married into staggering wealth (Astor on her third marriage, Mellon on her second), each craved the limelight, each tried doggedly throughout the decades to be happy in the day-to-day, both adored dogs (Astor dachshunds, Mellon beagles), both had easy access to the top shelves of American political power, and both were glad-handed philanthropists.

And even in death, they share at least one crucial thing in common: they’re extremely lucky in their biographer. Journalist Meryl Gordon did a wonderful job of teasing out Brooke Astor’s admittedly elusive humanity in Mrs. Astor Regrets, actually giving her more flesh-and-blood believability than she was usually able to simulate in real life. And with Bunny Mellon, Gordon has another tricky subject, a far more vital and relatable figure than Brooke Astor but still very noticeably a space alien visiting from some kind of parallel dimension.

Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend, beautifully produced by Grand Central Publishing, is as thorough, sympathetic, and engaging a biography of this particular space alien as she’s ever likely to get. The book follows her from childhood to debutante prestige to marriage to the super-wealthy marriage that allowed her to buy the notice – and a great many of the possessions – of the entire world, an effulgent plenty that Gordon depicts throughout with a kind of happy fascination:

The paintings just kept coming. Bunny could not resist a Renoir featuring sprightly flowers in a vase, a Cézanne of three shapely green pears, a sumptuous Bonnard of purple plums in a straw basket, a Manet of a humble melon perched on an artist’s wooden table spattered with paints, an early Picasso of a woman sitting in a lush garden, painted in 1901 when the prodigy was only twenty years old. She liked artwork that was sensual without being explicitly sexy. These paintings spoke to her, and thanks to Paul’s inheritance, she did not have to pick out just one – she could have as many as she wanted.

The peak of the story, of course, is the White House Rose Garden. In 1961 Bunny Mellon was asked by Jackie Kennedy to design a garden outside President Kennedy’s office, a space that would have a double purpose: a visual respite for the working president and also a lovely setting for White House business. Bunny had had no formal training in landscaping, but she had a keen visual taste, and her initial sketches revealed an appealingly clean vision, a clearly successful solution. Gordon gives the whole moment its dramatic due, even dutifully pointing out that the final version of the Rose Garden was as much JFK’s idea as Bunny Mellon’s – a collaboration rather than a solitary masterpiece.

Naturally, there comes the sad end-note, with the Rose Garden’s creator returning to its peaceful space in the stunned void after the President’s assassination:

Bunny made a twilight visit to this now-haunted landscape. “I went out in the rose garden with a basket and some scissors. It was really remarkable … dozens of white roses in bloom in November. T was almost pitch dark, and the only light I had was the lights from the house. I picked all I could get and took berries off the hawthorne and crap apple tree … The flowers still in bloom in the garden were blue salvia, a few chrysanthemums, and the roses and berries. From my own greenhouse I took nicotiana, red geranium, blue cornflowers and several colored carnations – all flowers that I knew had been blooming in the rose garden.”

She wrote a note that Monday morning: “Thank you Mr. President, for your confidence and inspiration. Love, Bunny.”

Bunny Mellon lived for half a century after that sad morning, and in some ways this odd third act is the the book’s most fascinating, with the vivid colors of Mellon’s beloved home in Antigua and the caustic wit of her later involvement with American politics (including, hilariously, the John Edwards scandal of 2011). Gordon has combed countless newspaper accounts and conducted new interviews with dozens of people connected with the Bunny Mellon story, people equally willing to censure the woman who would reduce hired help to tears by berating them over trivia and willing to praise the woman who could be a tirelessly uplifting friend in trying times (and, for what it’s worth, whose beagles adored her). This book is both broader and deeper than Mrs. Astor Regrets and deserves that earlier book’s wide readership – and there are plenty more hyper-monied centenarian space aliens in American history, awaiting this author’s attention.