WASHINGTON Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the heiress to one of America’s great business fortunes whose support of presidential candidate John Edwards attracted her, at 100, the type of public scrutiny she had spent a lifetime avoiding, has died. She was 103.
She died Monday at her estate in Upperville, Va., her longtime lawyer, Alexander D. Forger, said.
The granddaughter of the inventor of Listerine, Mellon was well-off even before her 1948 marriage to Paul Mellon, the son of Andrew W. Mellon, the Pittsburgh industrialist turned financier who was one of the richest men of his time and served as U.S. Treasury secretary from 1921 to 1932. Together, the couple continued Andrew Mellon’s philanthropic support of arts and education, while preferring to avoid the public spotlight.
During the Kennedy administration, Mellon worked with her close friend, the first lady, to redesign the White House Rose Garden.
At Oak Spring Farms, the 4,000-acre runway-equipped estate in Virginia horse country that she shared with her husband until his death in 1999, Mellon hosted upper-crust visitors over the decades including Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, John and Jacqueline Kennedy and, fatefully, Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and presidential hopeful.
In June 2011, a federal grand jury indicted Edwards on charges of violating campaign finance laws. At the heart of the case was $725,000 paid by Mellon – referred to as “Person C” in the indictment – starting in 2007 for the benefit of Rielle Hunter, Edwards’ pregnant mistress. Edwards was trying to keep that relationship secret from the public during his run for the 2008 Democratic nomination.
Mellon wrote the checks to an interior-decorator friend, Bryan Huffman of Monroe, who acted as an intermediary between her and the Edwards camp. In the memo lines of the checks, Mellon wrote notations such as “antique Charleston table” and “bookcase,” even though the funds weren’t going to buy furniture.
Huffman, who befriended Mellon a decade ago, said that Mellon never bore any grudges over the matter.
“She found the whole thing terribly amusing,” said Huffman, who testified at the 2012 trial. “For her it was kind of a lark.”
Crucial figure in Edwards case
Mellon wasn’t accused of wrongdoing and wasn’t summoned to testify at Edwards’ trial in Greensboro in 2012. She still was a crucial figure in the case, as prosecutors sought to establish that her checks – along with $200,000 donated by Texas lawyer Fred Baron – constituted an effort by Edwards to circumvent laws limiting campaign donations.
On their ninth day of deliberations, the jury acquitted Edwards on one count based on a $200,000 check that Mellon had written in January 2008, the month he dropped out of the presidential race. The jury deadlocked on the five other counts, and prosecutors decided not to retry him on those charges.
Forger, Mellon’s lawyer, had testified during the trial that Mellon considered the $725,000 a gift, not a campaign contribution. Among the evidence to the contrary cited by prosecutors: a note that Mellon wrote to Andrew Young, Edwards’ campaign aide, in 2007, as Edwards was handling fallout from two $400 haircuts charged to his campaign committee.
“I was sitting alone in a grim mood – furious that the press attacked Senator Edwards on the price of a haircut,” Mellon wrote. “But it inspired me – from now on, all haircuts, etc., that are necessary and important for his campaign – please send the bills to me.”
Young, who had helped Edwards cover up his affair with Hunter, wrote in his 2010 tell-all book, “The Politician,” that Mellon’s gifts to Edwards included “one of her gold necklaces to carry as a good-luck charm.”
When Edwards first visited to seek her support, “I thought he was very real and very bright,” Mellon told her longtime friend, the actor Frank Langella, according to Langella’s 2012 book, “Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them.”
“Well, I suppose it’s my own damn fault,” Mellon told Langella. “He was so attractive. White shirt, white pants, sleeves rolled up. And you know I’m weak on good looks.”
Bunny Mellon’s first late-in-life brush with scandal came in 2010, when Kenneth Starr, a New York investment adviser, was charged with stealing millions from her and other celebrity clients. Starr pleaded guilty to defrauding $33.3 million from clients and was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison.
White House gardens revived
Rachel Lowe Lambert was born on Aug. 9, 1910, and raised in Princeton, N.J., the daughter of Gerard Lambert and the former Rachel Lowe. Her father had become an internationally renowned yachtsman with the fortune he had earned marketing the oral antiseptic – Listerine – that his father had invented.
Bunny Mellon’s first marriage, in 1932 to Stacy B. Lloyd Jr., ended in divorce. That marriage produced a son, Stacy III, and a daughter, Eliza, who died in 2008.
In 1961, after reading about Thomas Jefferson’s gardening exploits, President John F. Kennedy asked her to redesign and improve the existing rose garden, which had been essentially untouched since 1913.
Working with the landscape architect Perry Wheeler, she designed the new West Garden, or Rose Garden, as a rectangular lawn framed by broad garden beds containing crab apple and magnolia trees, boxwood hedging, flower beds and rose bushes.
After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Mellon carried out a redesign of the Rose Garden’s counterpart on the southeast side of the White House. At her insistence, the East Garden was dedicated to and named for Jacqueline Kennedy. Charlotte Observer staff writer Jim Morrill and the Washington Post contributed.
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