Today marks what would have been Rachel Lambert Mellon’s 107th birthday. To honor her life, we searched for the legacy she left with the Oak Spring staff in memories, wisdom, and books.
Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon was born on Aug. 9, 1910. Thanks to her unequivocal love and passion for the natural world, she would become one of the most admired figures in America in the 20th century, simultaneously a horticulturalist, gardener, philanthropist, and art collector.
Beginning at the age of 5 or 6, she lived by her own expression: “Gardening is a way of thinking.” As a young girl, she worked on a plot of land at Foxcroft School (where she received the Courtesy Award) and in the greenhouse of Carter Hall, where she resided as a young adult. She received her first rare book as a gift—a second-edition, hand-colored copy of Furber’s The Flower Garden Display’d—at the age of 10. At the age of just 6 years old, she started transplanting wildflowers; she was designing gardens by the time she was 11. Bunny Mellon always had a flower by her side. When seeking solace, she turned to the peace of nature, and she readily shared her knowledge and excitement for plants with whomever she met.
“She had an extraordinary life that she was born into,” Nancy Collins, Mellon’s nurse and companion, recalls. “But she liked homemade things and simple things. She never liked to fuss about herself, but she always liked to make it special for the people who were close to her.”
The great love of Bunny Mellon’s life was horticulture: flowers, trees, and how they brought peace to people. Her passion for learning about plants led to one of the greatest horticultural libraries in the world—not to mention an invitation from President John F. Kennedy to redesign the White House Rose Garden. Despite her compelling effect on others, and her often famous friendships, Mellon preferred privacy over fame.
During her lifetime, she only gave a handful of interviews. Mellon lived by the idea that “nothing should stand out”, a concept that inspired not only her design ingenuity, but the trajectory of her life. She died a modest but charitable philanthropist, constantly giving without expectation that she would receive recognition for her generosity.
Collins remembers one of Mellon’s mantras, “Noblesse oblige,” a French phrase better known as “The more you have, the more you give”. Mellon’s acknowledgement of her privilege and circumstance allowed her to contribute generously to the public in efforts to make art history accessible to the world. Inspired by Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, she acknowledged “the shell [of every human being],” or the set of circumstances into which she was born.
She constantly considered the wealth of resources the Oak Spring Garden Library provided and kept this in mind when founding the Oak Spring Garden Foundation. Before she died, she was aware that her legacy would involve sharing horticulture with the community, and she did so by opening up the Oak Spring Garden Library to scholars, giving her land to conservation efforts, and donating her art to established public institutions.
“To understand the future, you have to go back in the past,” Bunny Mellon would say. She had a keen understanding of her relationship with time. The scope of her collecting was due in part to her inseparability with art and emotions: she and her husband, Paul, would collect works based on how they recalled childhood memories and feelings. Yet she was also a fan of the future: she surrounded herself with young people because she believed their minds were full of potential. Tony Willis, the Oak Spring librarian, recalls that on her 100th birthday, Mrs. Mellon told her family and friends about how fortunate she was to witness rapid technological development during the course of her lifetime.
“She talked about the fact that she was born at the right time. This country was fairly new and fresh, and she was able to witness so many things in that century. From electricity to cars, fax machines, the internet, how quickly you could order something and it’d be here the next day. She couldn’t get over it—she thought it was the most interesting era,” Willis says. “Then she talked about how blessed she was to be able to witness it. Not the fact that she had all of this money and had given opportunities to a lot of people; she shied from that.”
Her late husband Paul Mellon wrote in Reflections in a Silver Spoon about a plot of land Bunny purchased in Nantucket “where she often [went] to oversee wildflowers and where she [loved] to hear the waves beating on the shore with the same rhythm and deep roar that she [remembered] from her early days at Southampton.”
Her love for wildflowers stretched across the world; Bunny’s avid traveling never stopped her from adoring each growing plant, from dinner plate dahlias to lowly weeds. No matter how much she loved the perfection of her garden, she never tired of buttercups and tiger lilies in the wild, and even stopped on the side of the road to pick and bring them home.
As usual, she found a way to share her love for plant life, as Paul wrote: much of her land would belong to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation for guaranteed preservation. “Landscapes must put together things of nature that correspond to the person as well as that place and environment,” she once wrote. “It must inspire calm and please.”
Like Mellon’s storied library collection, what belonged to her would become the world’s lens into a life of devoted horticultural and botanical studies—and a personal connection she had, and encouraged others to have, with anything that grew.
“The world really is a better place because of Mr. and Mrs. Mellon: their philanthropy, their kindness, their sense of community. All of these characteristics, these important things in an individual, the Mellons had,” says Willis. “When they passed away, it really did feel like an era came to an end. But now the foundation is moving forward in a positive light. It’s the legacy of Mr. and Mrs. Mellon that I will always cherish.”