On Sunday, May 7, acclaimed author and landscape historian Mac Griswold commanded a rapt audience of garden and history lovers with a discussion of her newest work, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise: A Life of Bunny Mellon.” Griswold—who knew Rachel “Bunny” Mellon personally—shared her journey combing through Mellon’s archives at the Oak Spring Foundation, crafting a nuanced portrait of a woman as complex and multifaceted as the gardens and homes on which she left her mark. With candor, humor and admiration, Mac described Mellon as a collector of homes, landscapes, art, jewelry, clothes and even men highlighting both her failed marriages and her relationships with luminaries like couturier Hubert de Givenchy. Griswold shared intimate recollections of spending time with Bunny – from viewing the curated artworks in her home, the chintz interiors and magnificent library to remembering Bunny’s unassuming and whispering voice that belied “a current of electrical power.” She even learned how to patiently pluck boxwood with nail scissors from the woman who would popularize the herb topiaries we see everywhere today!
In her book, Griswold tells how Bunny’s longtime confidante Jackie Kennedy compared her friend to Emily Dickinson “You are a poet like Emily Dickinson in your gardens, in your houses, in the way you see nature and all of life. She kept her gift private from the world and so have you. But so great a talent could not remain forever hidden and neither will yours.” In her talk, Griswold illustrated that while Bunny may have used her private wealth and position to attain what she wanted during her lifetime, it was undeniable that Jackie Kennedy’s prediction came true. Mellon’s understated style and vision is still inextricably tied to two of the most iconic places in American memory today – the White House Rose Gardens with their parterre boxwood framework and the Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Mac’s speaking engagement at the Jay Estate was especially meaningful given her early involvement as an advocate for declaring the Jay Estate a threatened landscape in 2010 together with fellow board members of the The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF). Mac returned to see the landmark’s gardens rescued and renewed and filled with blooming roses. Bunny Mellon famously said that “a garden is always hovering in a state of becoming – it sums up its past and its future.” JHC President Suzanne Clary expressed gratitude to Mac Griswold for helping the Jay Estate Gardens evolve into what they have become today – a portal to the past and the future.
A book signing, daquiris (Bunny Mellon’s favorite drink) and a tour of the Jay Estate Gardens followed.
Photos by Kim Crichlow