Book Reviews

Have Trowel, Will Travel

A new biography of 20th-century America’s greatest landscape architect

By Penelope Rowlands | December 19, 2022
Oak Spring Garden, designed by Bunny Mellon, in Upperville, Virginia (Flickr/ugardener)
Oak Spring Garden, designed by Bunny Mellon, in Upperville, Virginia (Flickr/ugardener)

I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise: A Life of Bunny Mellon by Mac Griswold; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 560 pp., $40

It began with a tiny patch of land—a sandbox, actually—measuring just one square foot. Rachel Lambert, known as “Bunny,” was a small child when she received this gift from her adored maternal grandfather during a summer visit to his New Hampshire home. For her, the sandbox became a studio of sorts that she used to decode the natural world, creating one fantasy garden after another.

Born in 1910, the daughter of Rachel and Gerald Barnes Lambert, founder of Lambert Pharmaceuticals, Bunny was raised on Albemarle, an 18-acre estate in Princeton, New Jersey, with grounds designed by the exalted firm of Olmsted Brothers. Schooled by family gardeners, she grew up to become, as architect I. M. Pei once called her, “the greatest landscape gardener and architect in this country.” Her exquisite gardens, often incorporating her signature roses, boxwoods, and allées of apple trees, rose up from Antigua to Manhattan. Of these, perhaps the most widely admired was her work, at Jackie Kennedy’s request, on the 1961 restoration of the White House Rose Garden, anchored by four flowering magnolias, with striking diamond-patterned sections in each bed. (It was radically altered, amid controversy, during a 2020 renovation.)

The story of Bunny’s rise to horticultural prominence is the subject of writer and landscape historian Mac Griswold’s new biography, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise. As a classmate of Bunny’s daughter, Erika, Griswold grew up in close proximity to her friend’s family. At one point, Bunny even asked for Griswold’s help in writing her memoir, which forms part of the foundation of this book.

As a teenager, Bunny attended Foxcroft, the Virginia boarding school for girls, where some of her wealthy classmates stabled their own horses on the school grounds. Few of these young women went to college; most, including Bunny, were groomed to make “good” marriages—that is, ones that were financially advantageous. “More money means more power,” Griswold points out. Bunny married Stacy Barcroft Lloyd Jr. in 1932. Like the other old-line WASPs who figure in this book, the young Lloyd had “a breeziness that comes from an utter confidence in what wealth can—and should—provide.” The couple settled briefly in Philadelphia before moving to an 18th-century mansion in Virginia called Carter Hall, which she helped to restore. By 1940, through this and other projects, Bunny had become widely recognized as a superbly gifted gardener and fine horticulturist with an uncanny ability to shape a landscape.

In Virginia, the couple befriended the equestrian, huntsman, and art collector Paul Mellon and his wife, Mary. Paul had been deeply traumatized by the cruelty he experienced as a boy at the hands of his father, Andrew Mellon, the eminent industrialist, former Treasury secretary, and founder of the National Gallery of Art. Griswold movingly describes the struggle of this young man of unimaginable wealth—at one point, the fifth-richest person in the world—to come to terms with his complicated background, a process that included trips to Zurich for psychoanalysis with Carl Jung.

During World War II, both Paul and Bunny’s husband were posted to London with the OSS, at a time when that city “lay defenseless against the buzz bombs screaming in.” The war also had a powerful effect on those who stayed at home. It “rocked women,” Griswold writes, giving them “space and time to consider their lives … and what they could be and do.” In this way, “almost surreptitiously,” Bunny became “that rare thing for a woman of her class and station—a working woman.”

After Mary Mellon died of an asthma attack in 1946, when she was in her early 40s, Paul turned toward Bunny, then still married to Stacy Lloyd. His courtship was relentless. “He’s drowning me in diamonds!” she told a friend. In 1948, she divorced Stacy and married Paul. The couple eventually moved to the vast estate of Oak Spring, a veritable French village in Upperville, Virginia, with a weathered, stone-walled main house, numerous outbuildings, and gloriously conceived gardens and outdoor spaces, each one unfolding into the next.

Within five years, the Mellons’ marriage stalled. According to Bunny, their problems were such that, by 1957, another of Paul’s psychoanalysts, this one trained by Freud, instructed him to stop having sexual relations with his wife. “You’ll have all the money you want,” Paul reassured her. “You will be Mrs. Paul Mellon.” At which point, Bunny claimed, she set out “to find a girl” for her husband. The one she steered him toward—Dorcas Hardin, charismatic owner of an uber-chic Georgetown boutique—was his mistress for the next 40 years.

We can’t really know if Bunny really did handpick her husband’s lover: Griswold gently warns the reader of “startling variations” in her subject’s versions of key events. What’s inescapably true is that the Mellons’ marriage—which the couple came to describe as a “partnership”—continued in significant ways, long after their sexual relationship ended. For the rest of their lives, Bunny and Paul orbited among their many residences, sometimes living in the same one at the same time. They were in constant touch, exchanging affectionate notes. (Mellon invariably signed his with a hand-drawn heart.)

A crucial part of the Mellons’ lasting relationship involved art. They were avid collectors. Bunny opened Paul’s eyes to impressionism; he fell hard for these painters who, as he put it, “applied pigment in fragmented dabs.” They ultimately donated more than 1,000 impressionist and postimpressionist works to the National Gallery, along with much of the funding for the I. M. Pei–designed East Wing that housed the collection.

After Bunny’s arrangement with Paul was established, she went on to flower artistically. Partly schooled by John Fowler, of the London interior design firm of Colefax & Fowler, she cast a spell on all seven of her residences—including ones in Nantucket, Washington, D.C., and New York City. In this phase, too, she championed and collaborated with a long line of gay visual artists. These relationships took the form of “violent crushes”; each of them, for her, was a kind of romance. And one, the gifted French jewelry designer Jean Schlumberger—”the black cat,” she called him—is rumored to have been her lover in the early 1950s. He escorted her to Paris, where she attended the haute couture collections for the first time. Once “perilously close to dowdy,” Griswold writes, Bunny was transformed. She became a style icon, seemingly overnight, thanks to her new, romance-tinged friendships with two famed fashion designers, Cristóbal Balenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy. The latter brought Bunny into Paris’s haut monde. She purchased an apartment on the Avenue Foch and basked in the attention of a chic new crowd she called her “French family.” The courtly Givenchy steered Bunny toward one of her most celebrated projects—her impeccable restoration of the 1678 Potager de Roi, Louis XIV’s kitchen garden at Versailles, which had long fallen into desuetude.

Griswold is a deft and charming writer; the first chapters of her book move at a rapid clip. But the pace slows in later chapters after she deviates from a chronological recounting of Bunny’s life, focusing on particular people or projects instead. Some of these harken back to events covered earlier in the narrative. The results can be confusing. Although Jacqueline Kennedy, for example—Bunny’s “best friend and soulmate”—is mentioned glancingly early on, we don’t learn much about their long and deeply affectionate friendship for another 200 pages.

Yet there’s so much here to applaud. Griswold’s thoughtful portrait brings new depth to her complex subject. While Bunny could be warm and, at times, touchingly kind, she also had a ruthless, imperious side. She was notorious for dropping even longtime friends, seemingly at random and without regret. Servants whose work was less than perfect were quickly shown the door. “Bunny was in some ways grotesque,” Griswold writes, rather startlingly, at one point. “I had feared her as much as I loved and admired her.” Readers of this deeply absorbing biography will likely share her ambivalence.

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