By Leon Pascucci
August 30, 2016: “Mrs. Kennedy didn’t entertain her own friends in the White House. She put them to work,” wrote J.B. West. Foremost among those friends was Rachel Lambert Mellon, or Bunny, (1910-2014) who had an enormous influence on Jacqueline Kennedy and was a lifelong friend. An heiress in her own right, Mrs. Mellon was a famed horticulturalist who maintained exceptional gardens at her many homes. Picture above: Bunny Mellon (left in hat) and Jackie (right in white hat).
She surrounded herself with beautiful French furniture and fine art, all put together in an amazingly understated style. “Nothing should be noticed” was one of her design principles. Dressed in couture by Givenchy, who also designed the uniforms of her staff, Mrs. Mellon exacted a kind of perfection in everything she did. She lent her expertise and generosity to the Kennedy White House in many areas.
The White House Gardens
Perhaps Mrs. Mellon’s signature and most lasting influence is the Rose Garden which she completely redesigned at the invitation of President Kennedy in 1962.
He was actively involved in its renovation as well. Bunny designed planting beds along the sides in the 18th century style, adding mature magnolia trees at each corner and leaving a large open lawn in the center, suitable for gatherings. Broad stairs and a landing outside the Cabinet Room provided a place for presentations and press conferences, as it is used to this day.
In the 1980’s Mrs. Reagan called back Bunny to review the Rose Garden and she oversaw some heavy pruning and installed new plantings.
A superb piece on the garden’s development may be found in an issue of White House History.
In 1965 Lady Bird Johnson dedicated the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, the former East Garden, in the former First Lady’s honor, and it followed a design of Mrs. Mellon’s begun before the Kennedy assassination. A more intimate garden than the Rose Garden it features a trellised arbor and small reflecting pool as well as planting beds and topiary holly trees. It serves as a lovely setting for smaller receptions and outdoor gatherings.
Flowers in the White House
Mrs. Mellon helped Jacqueline Kennedy implement her vision of the White House as “the prettiest house in the country” through directing a new style of flower arranging, increasing the cut flowers displayed throughout the house, and reorganizing the Flower Room. She trained the White House staff in crafting soft arrangements of many different flowers in a casual style reminiscent of flowers in Dutch still life paintings. Seasonal flowers as well as lilies and other tropical blooms were integrated into arrangements as were flowering branches. Fine containers from the Biddle Vermeil Collection and other White House pieces were used. It was a revolutionary new look, consistent with Mrs. Kennedy’s taste, and a change from the previous formal glass vases of gladioli or carnations in one color often used before.
Mr. and Mrs. Mellon saw to it that 24 vermeil flower bowls were designed by Van Day Truex and made by Tiffany, which they donated and were used as centerpiece vessels at the round dining tables Mrs. Kennedy had introduced into White House use. It is believed that the hundreds of gilt Napoleon III ballroom chairs acquired under the Kennedys and in use ever since were donated by the Mellons as well.
The two Kennedy White House Christmas trees were decorated by “ two young men” in Bunny’s employ, at Mrs. Kennedy’s request.
The Mellons also provided assistance for the first State Dinner held at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home.
Art in the White House
The Mellon family had donated the building and much of the collection of the National Gallery of Art as a gift to the nation, and Mr. and Mrs. Mellon were serious collectors of fine art. They donated a life portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800, to the White House in 1962. It was hung in the Blue Room and has been displayed there ever since.
It’s not known if Mrs. Kennedy consulted with Mrs. Mellon on the decor of the White House itself, outside of the gardens and flowers, but Jackie embraced much of Bunny’s aesthetic as her own. Billy Baldwin was one of the designers Mrs. Mellon worked with, and it was to Billy that Jackie turned for the decor of their new country house, Wexford. It was not to be, however, as she sold the house after the assassination. Billy did go on to decorate Jackie’s Washington, D.C. house post-White House and later, her house on Skorpios.
Images courtesy: RR Auction (first image) and JFK Library (remaining images).