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New book honors life, style of Bunny Mellon, the heiress who designed the White House Rose Garden

New book honors life, style of Bunny Mellon, the heiress who designed the White House Rose Garden

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

Her paternal grandfather was the chemist who invented Listerine; her father marketed it and was 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 was handed a list of six eligible potential husbands and told by her father that she would marry one of them.

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

Mellon hated the spotlight, shunning publicity and interviews throughout her life, even as she maintained a reputation for hosting incredible events in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

Texas Design Week

When: April 25-29

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

Highlights: 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


At each home Mellon had throughout the world she had a garden and spent hours tending to it herself. Her closet was filled with grand jewels and haute couture, evening gowns to the clothes she wore for gardening. The famed 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 her devotion to gardening. The new book broadens the scope, from childhood to her later years, examining her relationships, homes and gardens.

Huffman and Lloyd will be in Houston April 26 for Texas Design Week, when they’ll talk about and sign copies of the book.

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

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

As a young child, it was intimidating to go to (her) Oak Spring Farm estate in Virginia. 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 children, I brought my daughter over and she bolted in the house and ran upstairs. I did 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 I 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 of her letters. I started reading that 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 utilize her talent, imagination and creativity. It inspired me to write the book.

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

Lloyd: My grandmother — I called her Granbunny — never sought out attention, and that almost made her more famous. People saw the things she would do, but she didn’t talk about them much, so when she did talk, people listened.

She was very privileged but there weren’t a lot of options for her. She wanted to study stage design and her father said “no.” She couldn’t do that but was given the opportunity to use her wealth to build spaces, gardens and houses, she could derive a sense of purpose through creating things on her own.

It was all self-taught. She collected books on gardening and landscape 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 might have accomplished if she’d been educated?

Lloyd: She’d be a CEO of a very successful architecture and design firm. That’s ultimately what she would have done. On a napkin, she could draw out a room and how big the furniture should be. She could create, in her mind, something from nothing.

Huffman: She felt like she was deprived of what she wanted, an education in design, stage design, but if you look at the pictures, she was always setting a stage. The National Gallery of Art became her stage, and she would do all of the dinners there, the tables and flowers. With her, nothing could be ordinary. She was born under that star.

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

Huffman: You could, really, regardless of whether it was in the country or the city, see an overlapping style. You knew you were in a Bunny environment. The farm at Oak Springs was relaxed but formal. There might have been slipcovers on the furniture but there was a uniformed butler answering the door and the silver was polished.

In Washington, D.C., and New York, her homes were more formal and a little grander in scale but she always had to have a garden. They all had painted floors and fresh flowers and the art was staggering. At Oak Springs there’s a Van Gogh over the fireplace, tucked up on the wall like “here’s a little something I have.” Never was anything made to feel too precious.

Lloyd: She designed each house for the environment it was in. And she was the best hostess — unparalleled. On each bed for each person you’re greeted with fresh flowers and a basket of little gifts.

Q: Bunny’s life seems 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 to meet Bunny was interesting. Bunny was a lover of men, not women, but Jackie was Numero Uno. To hear all that Bunny did to make the modern White House what it is today, putting historic pieces back in. She and Jackie spent so much time getting people to donate things. Bunny was behind the scenes person but also was a true powerhouse at making and doing things and not wanting attention for it. Bunny completely designed the White House Rose Garden but pushed Jackie out and retreated. She thought Jackie needed to take credit. Jackie was smart enough to appreciate that.

Everything she did at the White House was done for historical significance. She wanted people to appreciate the history and what was there while being able to adapt to a modern way of life.

Q: Thomas, you said that you read your grandmother’s correspondence to learn more about her. So what did you glean from all of that?

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 would correct them.

She was not the favorite child in her family. Her sister Lily was more attractive and she was the ugly duckling … so she made her own path. 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 with people at White House and explained her background. She had to earn every bit of their respect.

diane.cowen

@houstonchronicle.com