Life style

New book pays tribute to the life and style of Bunny Mellon, the heiress who designed the White House Rose Garden

The cover of “Bunny Mellon Style” features a watercolor of the late heiress’s Paris apartment, decorated in the late 1970s or early 1980s. With spare French country furniture, painted floor and paint orange and yellow by Mark Rothko hanging on the wall is perfect even today, said his friend Bryan Huffman – co-author of the book with Mellon’s grandson, wealth manager Thomas Lloyd and expert in garden Linda Jane Holden.

The book is one more tribute to Mellon, a horticulturist, art collector and philanthropist who lived a long and unusual life. She was 103 when she died in 2014.

His paternal grandfather was the chemist who invented Listerine; his father marketed it and served as president of the Gillette Safety Razor Company. She wasn’t allowed to go to college – “What man wants an educated woman?” her father asked – and instead she was given a list of six eligible potential husbands and her father told her she would marry one of them.

Her roommate in boarding school was famed designer Sister Parish, and that’s the same direction Bunny wanted to go. She called it “stage design” and although she never studied it, she practiced it all her life, creating homes and diners, helping her friend Jackie Kennedy restore the House’s elegant history. White and almost single-handedly designing the Rose Garden, which she later returned to beautify during the Reagan administration.

Mellon hated the spotlight, avoiding publicity and interviews throughout her life, even though she had a reputation for hosting amazing events in Washington, DC and elsewhere.

Texas Design Week

When: April 25-29

Where: Various locations including Roche Bobois, Decorative Center Houston, Christopher Martin Gallery, Sarofim House, Longoria Collection, Elegant Additions, Moxie, Found, and OKA

Strong points: Peter Pennoyer, author of “Rowdy Meadow”; India Hicks, author of “An Entertaining Story”; Thomas Lloyd and Bryan Huffman, authors of “Bunny Mellon Style”; Matthew Patrick Smyth, author of “Through a Designer’s Eye”; Aldous Bertram, author of “Dragons & Pagodas”; and Madeline Stuart, author of “No Place Like Home”

Tickets: $100 general admission, $250 VIP; texasdesignweek.com


In every house Mellon had around the world, she had a garden and spent hours tending to it herself. Her closet was filled with great jewelry and haute couture, from evening dresses to the clothes she wore for gardening. Famous French designer Hubert de Givenchy even designed a gardening hat that she wore regularly.

In 2020 Holden, Huffman and Lloyd published “Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon” as well as the “Bunny Mellon Garden Journal”, focusing on his dedication to gardening. The new book expands the scope, from childhood to his later years, examining his relationships, homes and gardens.

Huffman and Lloyd will be in Houston on April 26 for Texas Design Week, where they will speak and sign copies of the book.

Q: Why was it time to write another Bunny Mellon book?

Lloyd: In my younger years, we would visit my grandparents for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the holidays, and see them at their Cape Cod home during the summers. But he was a private person, so there was always a distance. Once I had kids, I got to see another side of her before she died. I didn’t really know her until the end of her life.

As a young child, going to (his) Oak Spring Farm estate in Virginia was intimidating. We would arrive and be greeted by a butler, then sit in the living room waiting for her to come down. It was a formal process. As an adult with kids, I brought my daughter and she fled into the house and ran upstairs. I made the sign of the cross and thought, “This will be the last time we come here. After about 20 minutes I asked if I could go upstairs and found my daughter sitting on the bed with my grandmother and laughing.

My grandmother wrote three to four letters a day and was a pack rat, saving all her letters. I started reading this correspondence, and it was amazing to see her world through the letters and to see the influence of her grandfather, who introduced her to the outdoors and encouraged her to use her talent, imagination and creativity. It inspired me to write the book.

Q: As well known as your grandmother’s name is, isn’t it strange that most people know very little about her?

Lloyd: My grandmother – I called her Granbunny – never sought attention, and it almost did. After famous. People saw the things she would do, but she didn’t talk about it much, so when she did talk, people listened.

She was very privileged but there weren’t many options for her. She wanted to study stage design and her father said “no”. She couldn’t do that, but was able to use her wealth to build spaces, gardens and houses, she was able to find purpose by creating things on her own.

Everything was self-taught. She collected gardening and landscape books and was close friends with designers such as Jean Schlumberger and Billy Baldwin. Her style was things she liked – she didn’t need a certain look.

Q: Can you imagine what she could have accomplished if she had been educated?

Lloyd: She would be CEO of a very successful architecture and design company. In the end, that’s what she would have done. On a napkin, she could draw a room and the size of the furniture. She could create, in her mind, something out of nothing.

Huffman: She felt like she was being deprived of what she wanted, training in design, set design, but if you look at the pictures, she was still directing. The National Gallery of Art became her stage, and she would do all the dinners, tables, and flowers there. With her, nothing could be ordinary. She was born under this star.

Q: How did Bunny’s style change from house to house?

Huffman: You could, really, whether in the countryside or in the city, see an overlapping style. You knew you were in a Bunny environment. The Oak Springs farmhouse was relaxed yet formal. There may have been slipcovers on the furniture, but a uniformed butler opened the door and the silverware was polished.

In Washington, DC and New York, her homes were more formal and somewhat larger, but she still had to have a garden. They had all painted floors and fresh flowers and the art was stunning. In Oak Springs, there’s a Van Gogh above the fireplace, hanging on the wall like “here’s a little something I have”. Nothing was ever done to feel too precious.

Lloyd: She designed each house according to the environment in which it was located. And she was the best hostess – unparalleled. On each bed for each person you are welcomed with fresh flowers and a basket of small gifts.

Q: Bunny’s life is like something out of “Downton Abbey” or “The Gilded Age,” intertwined with American history. She had her own quiet impact on American culture, didn’t she?

Huffman: I’ve always been fascinated by the Kennedys, so meeting Bunny was interesting. Bunny was a lover of men, not women, but Jackie was Numero Uno. To hear everything Bunny did to make the modern White House what it is today, putting historic pieces back into it. She and Jackie have spent so much time encouraging people to donate. Bunny was a behind-the-scenes person, but was also a real powerhouse for doing and doing things and not wanting attention for it. Bunny completely designed the White House Rose Garden but pushed Jackie and backed out. She thought Jackie should take credit. Jackie was smart enough to appreciate that.

Everything she did in the White House was done for historical significance. She wanted people to appreciate the story and what was in it while being able to adapt to a modern lifestyle.

Q: Thomas, you said you read your grandmother’s correspondence to find out more about her. So what did you take away from all of this?

Lloyd: I learned that she was a human being like all of us, with flaws and talents. For years people thought she was a certain type of person, really stern and aloof, and I corrected them.

She was not her family’s favorite child. Her sister Lily was more attractive and she was the ugly duckling…so she went her own way. When she finished the White House Rose Garden, there were men in landscape architecture who couldn’t believe she could design this garden on her own. She met people at the White House and explained her background. She had to earn their respect.

diane.cowen

@houstonchronicle.com


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