Today would have marked the 109th birthday of horticulturist, philanthropist, legendary tastemaker, avid art collector, and one-time Princeton resident Bunny Mellon. In the New York Times best-selling biography Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend, the author Meryl Gordon extensively researched the doyenne’s personal history, including Princeton’s impact on Mellon’s life which lead to what many consider her crowning achievement: the redesign of the White House Rose Garden.
“In 2011, I was asked by Newsweek magazine to write a story about Bunny Mellon, who was long known for being press-shy,” Gordon says. “And much to my amazement, she [agreed to speak] with me. She was about to turn 101, but had extraordinary recall. I spoke to her three times on the phone and began work on the biography after she died, with the encouragement of her grandsons and son. I interviewed more than 175 people, [and] read thousands of letters, journals, and essays she wrote when she had contemplated writing her own autobiography, which she never finished.”
Born Rachel Lowe Lambert to Rachel and Gerard Lambert, in 1910 (and nicknamed “Bunny” by her nanny, a moniker that stuck throughout her long life), Mellon lived at her parents’ 400-acre Princeton estate, Albemarle, and attended Miss Fine’s School, now Princeton Day School. Then located at 19 Lambert Drive (formerly known as Province Line Road), Albemarle was most recently home to the American Boychoir School and is now the site of the Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science. “She loved her parents’ estate and loved the small-town feeling and intellectual life in Princeton,” Gordon says.
Her husband of 50 years, Paul Mellon, said his wife was obsessed with the study of horticulture at a very young age, after her father hired the famous Olmsted Brothersto install a new garden at Albemarle. “Bunny said her formative education on landscape architecture came from following them around,” Gordon says. “She looked at where they planted trees and how they shaped the vistas.” The landscape-design rm of Frederick Law Olmsted (and later his sons, Frederick Jr. and John) was the genius behind New York’s Central Park, the U.S. Capitol, The Lawrenceville School campus, and other Princeton-area estates. “Despite her enormous wealth, Bunny took tremendous joy in nature and the simple pleasures of life,” Gordon adds. “She wrote wonderful letters to family and friends describing seeing the deer at dusk, the dew in the morning, or the glory of a snowstorm.”
With her solid Princeton roots, Mellon blossomed into one of the world’s least-public cultural icons as she enjoyed lifelong friendships with notables such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and couture designers Hubert de Givenchy and Cristóbal Balenciaga, among many others. Her greatest legacy was forged when then-president John F. Kennedy visited Mellon at her Cape Cod home, and made a personal request for her to redesign the White House Rose Garden. This now-historic locale is used to greet visiting dignitaries and deliver public statements, and has provided presidents with an intimate spot for private contemplation.
Mellon’s legacy also lives on at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., where she and Paul Mellon donated hundreds of works of art from their collection. In 2014, Sotheby’s held the auction of the decade: The Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon, which included more than 2,000 of Mellon’s personal possessions. In 2017, Sotheby’s was honored with the opportunity to present the fine art Mellon had acquired over her lifetime, including seminal works by Claude Monet, Winslow Homer, and Camille Pissarro.
“I was fascinated by her life experiences both as a style legend and witness to American history. Bunny was a very resilient woman,” Gordon says. “She faced many family tragedies, and yet she always found a way to keep going. I found her attitude inspiring.”