Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the heiress to one of America’s great business fortunes whose support of presidential candidate John Edwards had attracted her, at 100, the type of public scrutiny she had spent a lifetime avoiding, has died. She was 103.
She died today at her estate in Upperville, Virginia, 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.
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’s 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, 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.
Mellon wasn’t accused of wrongdoing and wasn’t summoned to testify at Edwards’s trial in Greensboro, North Carolina, in April and May 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.
Mellon’s lawyer, Alex D. Forger, 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’s 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.” That, she added, would be “a way to help our friend without government restrictions.”
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.”
Rachel Lowe Lambert was born on Aug. 9, 1910, and raised in Princeton, New Jersey, 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. Their company, St. Louis-based Lambert Pharmacal, became part of Warner-Lambert Co., and later part of Pfizer Inc.
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. Paul Mellon also had two children from his first marriage, to the former Mary Conover Brown, which ended with her death. Bunny and Paul Mellon were married on May 1, 1948, in New York City.
“Possessed of a fine aesthetic sense, and also a talented amateur gardener, Bunny Mellon designed and decorated the homes she and her husband shared in Virginia, Washington, New York, Antigua and Cape Cod,” David Cannadine wrote in “Mellon: An American Life,” his 2006 biography of Andrew Mellon. She also helped her husband become a leading collector of artists including British masters Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner.
During the Kennedy administration, Mellon worked with her close friend, the first lady, to redesign the White House Rose Garden. At her Virginia estate, she maintained a library of 10,000 modern horticulture books and 3,500 historical documents in a great room dominated by a Mark Rothko painting, “Yellow Expanse,” that was worth an estimated $125 million, Vanity Fair’s James Reginato wrote in 2010 after receiving a rare invitation to visit.
Mellon told Reginato that her longevity was due in part to Pilates exercises she had learned decades earlier from their inventor, Joseph Pilates.
Paul Mellon’s fortune, estimated by Forbes magazine at $1.4 billion in 1998, went partly to his wife, partly to charities, following his death at age 91.
Bunny Mellon’s first late-in-life brush with scandal came in 2010, when Kenneth I. 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.