The Secret-Keeper

Article excerpt

Byline: Meryl Gordon

On the eve of her 101st birthday, reclusive philanthropist Bunny Mellon, the wealthy zelig who cavorted with Kennedys and stood by John Edwards, talks exclusively to Meryl Gordon about life with Paul, her famous friends, and the secrets buried in her gardens.

The voice on the phone was frail but clear, with a hint of Southern gentility. "I have to tell you, my dear, I hate publicity," said Rachel "Bunny" Mellon. "I don't know what I've done that has made people so interested in me, more than anyone else." Mellon, now blind, lives in luxurious seclusion on her 2,000-acre Virginia farm, cosseted by a staff of 120 loyal retainers. She had not given an extended interview in more than a quarter century.

Until recently the philanthropist, whose net worth exceeds $400 million, was primarily known as a passionate gardener and discreet woman with a discerning eye. As Jackie Kennedy's closest confidante, she helped decorate the White House, redesigned the Rose Garden, presided over the floral arrangements for JFK's bier, and remained an intimate to the first lady until Jackie's death. As the second wife of financier Paul Mellon, she helped him amass a renowned art collection, hundreds of works ranging from Cezannes to Rothkos, either donated to the National Gallery in Washington or still hanging on her walls.

Yet now the private Mellon, who turns 101 on Aug. 9, has become front-page news for her unwitting involvement in two unrelated criminal cases. Prosecutors have charged that she gave $725,000 to former presidential candidate John Edwards in 2007 and 2008, which he used to conceal his extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter and the existence of their child. Mellon has not been accused of wrongdoing (she even paid gift taxes), but Edwards was indicted in June for violating campaign-finance laws. He pleaded not guilty and is preparing for trial this fall. A key issue: did Edwards solicit the money to salvage his presidential campaign, or was this an attempt to prevent is cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, from learning of the romance?

Through it all, she remains an enthusiastic defender of the former North Carolina senator. "He would have been a great president," insists Mellon, who has been interviewed by the FBI but is not expected to testify. "He and I were great friends. Every time he'd go on a debate against Hillary, he'd call and we'd talk--I was so surprised when this thing came up." Stressing that her sympathies have always been with Edwards rather than his wife, who died last year from cancer, she confides, "You know that John had a hard time with Elizabeth." Mellon's lawyer Alex Forger elaborates further on his client's attitude: "She was not enamored of his wife and didn't want his wife to know that he was getting money."

The Edwards episode has baffled and upset Mellon's family. "I wish I could have 10 minutes in a room with John Edwards to explain that he's doing nothing but tarnish her legacy and really taking advantage of her," says Thomas Lloyd, her grandson, who testified before the grand jury. His view of his grandmother's relationship with Edwards? "It's a crush." The 35-year-old Lloyd, a Washington investment adviser, adds, "As I explained to the jury, imagine a very handsome man who is well liked and respected, and there are two women vying for his affections."

Lloyd reiterates that John Edwards remains in his grandmother's good graces. "He's done a very good job of maintaining the sense that 'Bunny, I want to be your friend; Bunny, feel sorry for me in this predicament, we'll get through this together,'" says Lloyd. "I think it's awful." After prosecutors learned that Edwards had visited Mellon on May 26--even as his lawyers were conducting unsuccessful plea-bargain negotiations prior to the indictment--he was banned from contacting his benefactor.

Mellon comes across as a woman with her faculties fully intact. "If you are 100 years old, you get to like who you like," says gardening writer Mac Griswold, Mellon's friend for a half century. …