This story of two women begins in 1961. That was the year Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the daughter of the founder of Warner-Lambert and the Gillette Safety Razor Company and wife of banking heir Paul Mellon, hosted an August picnic for some close friends at her home on Cape Cod. Two of the guests were President and Mrs. Kennedy.
America’s Camelot couple had just returned from a State tour of Europe, where the young President had been impressed with the formal gardens he saw there. Inspired, he considered an area at the White House, close to his office, which he thought needed a redesign. He turned to Mrs. Mellon, his dear friend and an avid gardener and self-taught horticulturist. Ignoring her amateur gardening abilities, President Kennedy pressed Mrs. Mellon to take on the task.
She did — and that garden became The Rose Garden.
Shortly after its completion, Linda Jane Holden, a young girl with the heart of a gardener, became obsessed with the Rose Garden. She would spend hours clipping photos of it from her grandmother’s issues of Life magazine, and then pasting those photos in a scrapbook.
Decades passed, and during that time Mrs. Mellon went on to design more gardens. Her friend, Jacqueline Kennedy, asked her to landscape JFK’s burial site at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as the grounds of his Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. At the same time, Mrs. Mellon added more volumes to her library of rare horticultural books, accumulating one of the world’s largest private collections.
Meanwhile, the young girl, now a college graduate, found herself working in the Reagan White House, steps away from the object of her childhood passion: The Rose Garden.
“This is where I met the head gardener, Irvin Williams,” said Ms. Holden during a recent interview to promote her stunning new book, The Gardens of Bunny Mellon (Vendome). “A gardener with the National Park Service, Mr. Williams began working at the White House in 1961, when he came to help Mrs. Mellon redesign the Rose Garden. Being a gardener at heart, I wanted to know everything about the gardens and peppered Mr. Williams with lots of questions. He is a gem of a man — patient, too — and he answered every single one!”
In addition, Mr. Williams’ answers helped put the gardens in a design, horticultural, and historical context. “While standing in the Rose Garden,” Ms. Holden recollected, “he would point in one direction and say, ‘The stables were over there.’ Then he’d point in another direction and add, ‘John Quincy Adams swam in the river every morning and then walked back and tended his garden that had been right here.’”
Eventually, after Ms. Holden commented on the enormous spring blossoms of the Magnolia soulangeanas, their conversation turned to Mrs. Mellon. “He reminded me that Mrs. Mellon did not choose these trees for their blossoms, but for their shape, form, and appearance. She also liked the way they softened the white buildings and how the sunlight filtered through their branches. We never discussed political parties — only garden parties. Above all, Mr. Williams always maintained that the gardens were the work of Mrs. Paul Mellon.”
NGDM: I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. What is it about Bunny Mellon as a gardener that inspired you to write this book? What about her as a person?
Linda Jane Holden: Working in the West Wing provided an easy, every day access to the Rose Garden that I enjoyed. There was always something new to see. I delighted in the mix of seasonal plantings, the diamond-shaped patterns of the santolina and the way the boxwood wound like a shiny green ribbon through the tapestry of flowers. As those gardens grew, so did my admiration for Mrs. Mellon.
Many years later, I wrote to the librarian at [Mrs. Mellon’s] Oak Spring Library to ask permission to research the Rose Garden archives. He telephoned and said, yes, I could see the archives but that more importantly, Mrs. Mellon wanted to see me.
That visit with her became the first of many visits to her library — a magical place filled with her hand-chosen collection of rare books, manuscripts, paintings, and many other objects of art. It seemed incredible to me that she had no formal training, that she was self-taught. Those books of hers didn’t gather dust on the shelf. She read them, and then applied what she learned. I like to think of her working in the garden, holding a how-to manual in one hand and pruning shears in the other.
Then there was that summer afternoon when I stepped into her garden for the first time. I felt like Mary Lennox opening the gate to The Secret Garden — this garden was a secret. Mrs. Mellon was an extremely private person and not many people crossed the threshold. Also, at that time, no photography was allowed and this meant I had to sharpen my powers of observation — quickly!
Mrs. Mellon was a gifted gardener and her home, Oak Spring, is a place of unequaled beauty. After I read where she had written in a garden journal that she wanted to write a gardening book but didn’t have the time, I knew this was the thing to do — and this endeavor is what became The Gardens of Bunny Mellon.
NGDM: Mrs. Mellon experienced hardships in her life, the death of a child, for example, and many gardeners often go into the garden to cope. How do you think gardening helped her through difficult times, if at all?
LJH: Mrs. Mellon noted in her journal that, “Gardening is a way of life. As long as I can remember, I have never been without a plant or something growing. Seeds were a wonderment.” She found both comfort and joy in her gardens. Gardening was her language of love, how she expressed herself. She filled the rooms of her homes with garden flowers: small stems were placed in little glass bottles, large floral arrangements were created for the dining room table, potted plants were placed here and there. There was light, beauty, and fragrance all around. For as long as she could, she was in the gardens and out and about around the farm — every day — in all times of weather.
Gardening and her love of nature also provided stability during times of grief and sorrow. [For example], her exacting and careful attention to the design and construction of JFK’s gravesite helped to soothe her pain and cope with the trauma that followed and provided a fitting way for her to say goodbye and remember him.
NGDM: Mrs. Mellon had to give up gardening due to health issues when she was 101. I’m not sure how to respond to that: what a blessing to have been able to garden for so long or what a loss for her? How do you think she looked at it?
LJH: Mrs. Mellon maintained an active lifestyle and worked in her gardens every day. Throughout her senior years, she continued to find ways to garden that suited her situation. For instance, while recovering from an illness, she brought the garden inside when she began to meticulously prune what she called her “little herb trees,” topiaries of myrtle, lavender, and rosemary. She applied the French method of espalier that she had learned from the gardeners at the Potager du Roi [the kitchen garden of Versailles, which Mrs. Mellon restored with her friend, [the designer Hubert de Givenchy] to shape these living sculptures.
The large windows of her homes opened to views of the gardens where she could watch the changing seasons spread across the landscape and smell the fresh air. She also enjoyed watching and listening to the birdsong. The warm and welcoming atmosphere of the rooms were always filled with flowers, candles, and crackling fires on cold evenings.
NGDM: Because she was so private, many famous people often confided in Mrs. Mellon. What would you rather know — one of her people secrets or one of her gardening secrets?
LJH: Mrs. Mellon was good at keeping secrets and she enjoyed the element of surprise. This was a charming part of her mystique. She often suggested to the rare garden visitor to “look for the details.” While writing The Gardens of Bunny Mellon, it was a fantastic challenge to sort through the clues and unravel some of those mysteries. Reading through this book will give our readers the experience of being in her gardens — and they, too, can look for the details — and search for a few elements of surprise!
NGDM: After reading background information on Mrs. Mellon, I started to wonder what sort of gardener she was. Was she someone who gave directions to a team of gardeners, or was she someone who liked to roll up her sleeves and not be afraid to get dirty?
LJH: Bunny had a nurturing spirit and was willing to help her friends learn to garden. Among them was Babe Paley [socialite and wife of CBS founder, William S. Paley], who was creating a garden at Kiluna Farm, the Paley estate on Long Island, and who turned to Mrs. Mellon for advice during one of her visits to Oak Spring. As the story goes, after a few days, Mrs. Mellon told Babe that she didn’t think gardening was for her, “Real gardeners go out in the garden every day.” Babe stuck with it for a couple more days until Mrs. Mellon said she’d have to give up the social life. Babe returned home and sent her gardeners back [to Oak Spring] for instructions.
Bunny kept a basket of tools by the front door, which is located by a small room where she arranged flowers. She had a garden shed built on the middle terrace of the formal garden and called it the Honey House. There was never any honey in it — only garden implements, rulers, and tools. She was a stickler for measuring and enjoyed pruning the fruit trees, espaliered against the stone walls, and spent time with her gardeners. At times during a building project, she waved the architects and contractors away, telling them she was spending the day with her gardeners. A few of those gardeners still tend the gardens at Oak Spring today, and they insist Mrs. Mellon always made them feel like family.
NGDM: Looking back on her life and her passion, what do you think were Mrs. Mellon’s greatest contributions to American design and gardening?
LJH: The Rose Garden at the White House is probably the most widely known of Mrs. Mellon’s gardens. It continues to reflect JFK’s personal taste, and this is a hallmark to her achievement. What is not known is the loving care that went into making that garden and all the gardens she created for President Kennedy and for her family and friends. She believed that a garden should reflect the people who live in them.
NGDM: The Gardens of Bunny Mellon is such a beautiful book. It’s more than 300 pages of your evocative and detailed writing and gorgeous photos by Roger Foley, an award-winning garden and landscape photographer. It’s evident this book is a true labor of love for you.
LJH: The Gardens of Bunny Mellon is a book about Mrs. Mellon’s gardens and a record of her horticultural achievements. It’s also the first time her gardens will be “open” to the public. Just as I was able to get up-close to the Rose Garden so long ago, readers can now get up-close to all of her gardens as they turn the pages of The Gardens of Bunny Mellon.
If you’d like to win your own copy of The Gardens of Bunny Mellon, please leave a comment below explaining your passion for gardening? What inspires you or motivates you to garden? What do you love or loathe about gardening? What is an early gardening memory? How has gardening helped you? This is chance to share.
For a second chance, visit my Facebook page and leave a similar comment under the post for this interview. A winner will be selected on October 31 — a gorgeous treat for your Halloween.