Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, a philanthropist, art patron and self-taught horticulturalist whose generous support of presidential candidate John Edwards drew her into the political scandal that ended his career, died Monday at her estate in Upperville, Va. She was 103.
She died of natural causes, said her longtime friend and attorney, Alexander D. Forger.
Mellon, a Listerine heiress who married banking scion Paul Mellon, lived quietly on a 2,000-acre Virginia farm, where her fabled guests included John and Jacqueline Kennedy and two generations of British royalty. A passionate gardener, she built a botanical library on the property stocked with thousands of rare volumes and an elegant greenhouse that could have been plucked from Versailles.
At the Kennedys’ request, she redesigned the White House Rose Garden, which still bears her imprint. Later, the president’s widow asked Mellon to select flowers for his funeral and trees for his grave.
When Mellon met Edwards in 2005, she thought the former U.S. senator from North Carolina had Kennedy-like appeal and decided to back his bid for the presidency. Over the next few years, she donated more than $3 million to committees supporting his campaign.
She also wrote checks totaling more than $700,000 for his personal expenses. According to her attorney, she did not know her money was used to hide Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter, from his wife, Elizabeth.
The “Bunny money,” as the personal funds were known inside the Edwards campaign, became the focus of a federal investigation into improper campaign donations funneled by a go-between to Edwards aide Andrew Young. Edwards’ 2012 corruption trial ended in an acquittal and mistrial, but not before generating publicity that Mellon had spent her long life avoiding.
“Bunny’s life is privileged beyond the imagination of most people. The wealth enormous and perks extraordinary,” actor Frank Langella, a Mellon family friend, wrote in a recent memoir. “But despite that, she lives by this simple maxim: ‘Nothing should be noticed.’”
What was “noticed” repeatedly in front-page news coverage of the Edwards scandal was how the heiress tried to hide the donations from her accountant by writing the checks to a decorator friend with bogus explanations in the memo line — $100,000 for an “antique Charleston table,” $200,000 for a “bookcase.”
Mellon had decided to provide Edwards with personal cash after media reports drew attention to his $800 bill from a Beverly Hills hairstylist that had been improperly paid with campaign funds.
“I was sitting alone in a grim mood, furious that the press attacked Sen. Edwards on the price of a haircut,” Mellon, then 96, said in a note cited in the Edwards indictment. “But it inspired me: ‘From now on, all haircuts, etc., that are important for his campaign, please send the bills to me. It is a way to help our friend without government restrictions.’ ”
In 2007, Edwards conceived a baby with Hunter and persuaded Young to claim paternity. Mellon’s checks were hidden in boxes of chocolates and delivered to decorator Bryan Huffman, who relayed them to Young. The money was used to cover such expenses as a car and housing for Hunter.
Andrew Young covered for his boss by saying that he was the father of Hunter’s baby.
In June 2011 Edwards was charged with six counts of conspiracy and violating federal campaign finance laws. Defense lawyers argued that Mellon’s funds were gifts, but prosecutors maintained that they were campaign contributions intended to keep Edwards’ presidential bid from collapsing if his affair was discovered.
Mellon was not accused of wrongdoing; nor was she called to testify. She remained friends with Edwards, according to Forger, who said Monday that she “felt sympathy for him for the various charges and allegations” he faced.
She was born Rachel Lambert in New York City on Aug. 9, 1910. Her grandfather was chemist Jordan Lambert, who invented Listerine. Her father, Gerard, was a marketing whiz who turned the product into a top-selling cure for bad breath.
In 1932, after attending the exclusive Foxcroft school, the heiress known to friends as Bunny married Stacy Barcroft Lloyd Jr., a businessman and horse breeder. They divorced in 1944 and in 1948 she married Paul Mellon, whose grandfather, Thomas, and father, Andrew, had amassed fortunes through banking and other shrewd investments.
Paul Mellon died in 1999. Her survivors include a son from her first marriage, Stacy Barcroft Lloyd III, of Washington; two stepchildren, Timothy Mellon of Saratoga, Wyo., and Catherine Mellon Conover of Washington; two grandchildren, three step-grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. A daughter from her first marriage, Eliza Lloyd Moore, died in 2008.
With Paul, Mellon helped build an impressive art collection filled with works by masters ranging from Degas to Rothko.
She was also known for her wardrobe. Vogue editor Diana Vreeland once wrote that Mellon had “the greatest collection of Balenciagas in the world.” After Balenciaga retired, Mellon switched to Givenchy, who designed not only her ball gowns but her gardening smocks and underwear.
She had homes in New York, Paris, Antigua and Cape Cod, but her primary residence was Oak Spring, the vast Mellon family farm that had its own airstrip, fire brigade and carpentry shop. It was the site of many grand affairs, including a party for Mellon’s daughter with a dance area designed to resemble a small French village square. “Someone said an entire vintage year of Dom Perignon was consumed that night,” Washington Post publisher and Mellon friend Katharine Graham wrote in her memoir, “Personal History.”
Mellon met Jacqueline Kennedy in 1957 and became “a very motherly figure” to her, according to Sally Bedell Smith in “Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House.” Mellon helped to oversee a number of important events, including Caroline Kennedy’s wedding as well as the funerals of Jackie and John Jr.
Working in collaboration with landscape designer Perry Hunt Wheeler, Mellon revamped the White House Rose Garden with input from President Kennedy, who requested a refined landscape large enough to hold 1,000 people for a reception. She enlarged the lawn and gave it stronger lines. She also planted magnolia trees, crab-apple trees and, of course, beds of roses.
She used some white roses from the garden for the bouquet she assembled for the president’s grave. She also designed the East Garden, which later was named for Jacqueline Kennedy.