Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend, by Meryl Gordon, is an astute and intriguing portrait of a celebrity who wasn’t famous outside her own milieu. Mellon was a gifted gardener with princely means and infallible taste: Her close friend Jacqueline Kennedy asked her to redesign the White House Rose Garden. This well-bred heiress was both shockingly extravagant and studiously understated … Mellon is possibly remembered less for what she did than for what was done to her in her dotage … Bunny Mellon was written with the Mellon family’s cooperation, so it’s not steaming with leering conjecture. Mostly, the biography documents unsettling contradictions.
Initially, it wasn’t clear to me why Mellon merited a biography of 460 pages with a copious index. Certainly, Bunny Mellon had good taste, but the striking thing about Mellon, cruel as it sounds, is that she wasn’t particularly interesting...In a sense, that became her story, and ultimately, if the tale is valuable, it is as a quietly devastating portrait of women’s roles in the midcentury United States … Like many magazine writers, Gordon eschews big ideas. Instead, she relies on the novelist’s technique of the revealing detail. She notes that Mellon, despite a jewelry collection worth millions, chose to be buried wearing a ring from her first husband, the one she married for love and often saw in later years. I have to wonder if this tells the reader more about Gordon’s heart than Mellon’s.
Ms. Gordon interviewed scores of relatives, friends, tradespeople and servants for this biography, and by their testimony Bunny Mellon—despite bursts of generosity and social consciousness—was not a nice person. It isn’t that they tell nasty stories; rather, they admit to such sycophantic behavior as relishing her luxurious presents and then whining at being dropped without explanation (which happened to most of them) and begging in vain to be taken back into favor … Ms. Gordon accounts for all this rudeness and cruelty by making frequent use of the all-purpose excuse that Bunny Mellon ‘felt insecure.’
Journalist Gordon again fascinatingly chronicles the remarkable life of an elite twentieth-century American woman … Readers interested in gardening, art, and interior design will drool over Bunny’s fine tastes, and her ease at fulfilling every one of them, but all lovers of biographies will marvel at Gordon’s portrayal of Bunny’s long life, and the significant figures who buzzed in and out of it.
Gordon vividly details how Mellon, whose paternal grandfather developed Listerine, was raised in an ultrawealthy milieu of fox hunting, posh boarding schools, and debutante balls. She was groomed to become a lady of excellent deportment; as adoringly described by the author, she was a ‘fresh blossom from a prominent family’ … Gordon effectively details how Mellon transformed the ‘forlorn and outdated’ garden into a courtyard showpiece by adding magnolia and an assortment of other trees, but her admiring descriptions are occasionally overwrought. Ultimately, Gordon heeded Mellon's directive that, above all, she produce a ‘friendly, non-gossipy’ memoir and ‘be kind.’
Gordon illuminates the virtues and contradictions of socialite Bunny Mellon in this entertaining tell-all chronicle. Making use of newly available private papers, Gordon paints her subject as an entitled woman with a green thumb and a complex patriotic streak … Gordon peppers the book with interviews with intimates of Mellon’s such as her goddaughter Caroline Kennedy, who recalls that Mellon ‘and Mummy [Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis] were best of friends... with their own special language.’ The result is a juicy behind-the-scenes tale of American aristocracy.