Frank Langella was a young actor in 1961 when Bunny Mellon walked into a Cape Cod, Mass., summer playhouse looking for her daughter, Eliza. The two chatted briefly and a few days later he was invited to a small lunch at her home. There were eight people: Bunny and her husband, Paul; Langella; Eliza; Noel Coward; Adele Astaire and . . . old friends of the hosts President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
It was, Langella said, the beginning of an extraordinary 53-year friendship with the woman who changed his life. The actor gave one of the many tributes to Mellon, who died last week at 103 and was laid to rest Friday in the Mellon family plot in Upperville, Va.
An overflowing crowd streamed to the Trinity Episcopal Church. Four generations of her family, longtime friends, dozens of the employees who worked for her, members of the community and just a few famous faces: Langella, singer Bette Midler, former senator John Warner (who was once married to Mellon’s stepdaughter, Catherine), and — perhaps the most surprising of all — former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), who dragged the then-100-year-old heiress into the headlines with his failed 2008 presidential campaign and his extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter.
One advantage of a long life is the ability to plan every detail of your funeral; for Mellon, it was rare peek under the veil of privacy she so closely guarded. Renowned for her attention to detail, she set the understated service at her beloved Trinity, a gift from the Mellons to Upperville. Completed in 1960, it was inspired by 12th-century French churches, and all the stone and woodwork was handmade by local artisans in the tradition of medieval craftsmen. Normally, no flowers are displayed during Lent: Given Mellon’s great love of gardening, church officials made an exception and there were two modest bouquets from her greenhouse.
“Like the flowers she so loved to tame, she brought me into bloom,” Langella explained. Mellon, he said, taught a rough Jersey kid how to listen, dress, never be vulgar, respect all people, be humble, avoid hubris, write thank-you notes, never boast, be curious and “above all, be loyal.” She never walked red carpets, never gave self-promoting interviews, never sought the spotlight in any way.
“Can you think of anyone in her position — anyone at all — whose face has appeared so rarely in newspapers?” he asked. “In a world that has become so loud, so obvious, so unappreciative of reflection and silence, your quiet, gentle, simple, loving voice must stay alive in each and every one of us.”
Rachel Lambert Mellon — she could never shake her childhood nickname “Bunny” — was shy, rarely photographed publicly and never willingly the center of attention. She preferred the aristocratic discretion of old money, and there was always money: Her grandfather invented Listerine; her father ran Gillette. Her first husband was a wealthy businessman and horse breeder; her second, Paul Mellon, was one of the richest men in the world. They lived the quiet life of the very, very rich in Virginia’s horse country: collecting art, horse racing and flying between Oak Spring Farms, their 4,000-acre estate in Upperville, and their other properties around the world.
But her greatest passion was horticulture — flowers, trees, anything that grew. That led to one of the world’s great collections of rare landscape design and gardening books and an invitation from her dear friend Jacqueline Kennedy to redesign the White House Rose Garden.
“Granbunny” had the gift, said her grandson Stacy Lloyd IV, of finding the best in the simplest things: the smell of grass, the sound of water against a wood boat, the feel of the wind on her face. “She has taught me how to find beauty in everything,” Lloyd told the congregation. Jackie once teased her: “Bunny, you think all your ducks are swans.”
At the end of the tributes, Midler — wearing a black dress and a “Bunny Blue” scarf, performed “The Rose.” The singer’s presence at the service was a surprise to many, who never realized that Midler and Mellon were friends. The two women met through event planner Robert Isabell, one of Mellon’s closest friends, but — as was her style — kept their friendship private and out of the media.
If it was a treat to see Midler sing, it was shocking for many Mellon loyalists to see Edwards stroll across the cobblestones toward the church. During his 2008 presidential campaign, he charmed the aging heiress into donating more than $700,000 (“Bunny Money”) that is believed to have gone to personal expenses for mistress Hunter. The money wasn’t the real outrage; it was drawing her into a messy, public scandal. (It was, she later told Langella, as he recounts in his memoir, “my own damn fault . . . you know I’m weak on good looks.”)
It’s unclear whether the disgraced politician was forgiven by his benefactor: The service was open to the public, so it was impossible to determine if he was welcome or if this was another stop on the Edwards Redemption Tour. Edwards and his eldest daughter, Cate, arrived too late to be seated in the church and were directed to a side building, where they joined the overflow crowd. After the service ended, Edwards stood near the gravesite, then worked the crowd.
By then, the cold rain of the morning had given way to sun and blue skies. A tenor sang “Shenandoah” at Mellon’s grave, and the foxhounds from the annual hunt on her estate gave a final tribute in her honor for an era ended.