Wrapped in Furs: On Bunny Mellon, My Mother, and Women as Currency

Raised by governesses and a mother who preferred her younger, prettier sister, Mellon would grow up to ignore her own children. I never forgave her. In 1966, my aunt developed cancer. ¤
Rachel Lambert Mellon, known by her nickname, Bunny, perfected an understated style emulated by an entire generation of Jews, including Ralph Lauren, and less famously, my mother. Her pale, elegant martyrdom, the underlying message of their belief, remained unspoken. Like many magazine writers, Gordon eschews big ideas. At the height of the Depression, my grandmother found the gumption to divorce him. But I had reached a similar impasse with Gordon’s biography of Bunny Mellon: it’s hard to feel sorry for the rich, but the airless lives of some of them, particularly children, deserve consideration. I was largely absent during that time, but I remember excoriating my mother for moving into my grandmother’s apartment on Sutton Place. When I studied anthropology in my freshman year of college, I was struck by the separation between men and women in their day-to-day lives, and even, in some cases, their sleeping quarters. Tellingly, she advised Kennedy to marry Aristotle Onassis, thinking that Onassis was both strong and rich enough to ensure her friend’s status in life. Opponents of female genital mutilation have realized that it’s not men standing in the way of eradicating the practice: it’s women hell-bent on making their daughters marriageable. The shows were called industrials, and they were the bread and butter for Broadway actors. When I was younger and still angry, I met a woman from eastern Europe who had been in a concentration camp. She and her husband often, but not always, lived separate lives. The $50,000 a year this man gave my mother in unmarked white envelopes paid for my private school, my mother’s first mink coat, and launched her business. Thirty-six years old, foreseeing the dissolution of her own marriage and her waning value on the market, Bunny seen her opportunities and took ’em, as the old Tammany Hall phrase goes. Our identity is formed by our decisions, and, too often, the decisions made for us when we are too young to stand up for ourselves. The relationship had the trappings of marriage, including Christmas stockings with the names of my aunt, her lover, and her daughter. Carter Journalism Institute, has made a cottage industry out of writing impeccable biographies of rich women with constricted emotional lives. Was it love? I remember visiting her in New York Hospital, where she was undergoing surgery and radiation treatments. One of Bunny’s neighbors in Virginia hunt country was Paul Mellon, the moody, intellectual heir to one of the country’s great fortunes. In The Duchess, the vastly misunderstood 2008 film about the Duchess of Devonshire. In the classic text Women of the Forest, written by Robert and Yolanda Murphy, I remember being startled by the idea that the Mundurucú people had the equivalent of boys’ and girls’ dorms. Unmoored from her role as wife, burdened by a drinking problem that would eventually kill her, my mother settled for second-best. For Bunny Mellon, and, clearly, for Melania Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s Restylaned wife, the solution was obvious. They were not as grand as Bunny Mellon’s, but they provided a reasonable facsimile. ¤
Cynics see every relationship as transactional while romantics wish to know the value of everything and the price of nothing, to turn the phrase on its head. One has to wonder if the problem with understanding these women is not simply class rage, but the moral ambiguity inherent in a woman’s choice to sell herself. She had Eliza wheeled in to meals, often telling her that, “Mommy loves you,” a simple statement one imagines she felt less comfortable expressing before the accident. In a biography out this week, Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend, I found the genesis of my mother’s coat, and, as I read the book, I began to think of my mother and the women of her generation. The couple lived in Europe, where they were analyzed by Carl Jung and, at Mary’s insistence, founded the Bollingen Foundation. Sadly, that was my mother’s story, too. Simon and his co-producers George Pelecanos and Maggie Gyllenhaal won’t just change the way we look at the 1970s; they may change the way we look at relationships between men and women. The idea that the bonds between women are stronger than any others may be less unusual than we think. Even the exceedingly careful Gordon, whose access to the rich depends on a neutral, just the facts, ma’am, narrative voice, quotes a friend who recalls: “She pursued Paul at the outset.” Like anyone who’s already focused on an object of affection, Bunny Mellon ignored the warning signs: Paul Mellon wasn’t exactly the faithful type and his upper-class politesse evaporated when he was in his cups. ¤
Susan Zakin was born in New York City, where she attended the Brearley School and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Not consciously, I am certain. She took up golf. Not at all shocked by Edwards’s peccadillo, which seemed perfectly normal to her, she continued to think of him as someone who could have been a fine president, especially compared with Hillary Clinton, whom she called “The Old Rag.”
One can’t begrudge Mellon her fun, as one considers what was happening as the Edwards affair became public. With the money she was earning on her back, quadruple her secretary’s wages, she and a colleague formed their own company, organizing corporate retreats featuring stars like Bob Hope, George Burns, Dionne Warwick. My aunt owned Balenciaga gowns and was, in my father’s words, a social climber, serving on the board of the American Ballet Theater. Finally, it is another revealing detail that serves as the story’s Rosebud, evoking all the rage and pathos and frustration blunted by Bunny Mellon’s wealth and WASP reticence. When a man was around, I was invisible, and that was not simply true in a literal sense. (It’s period-lifestyle pornography.)” Usually an able champion for women in film, Dargis is unfeeling and even cruel in her rendering of a film that I found revelatory, and clearly imbued with a feminist perspective. ¤
Bunny Mellon was born into wealth in 1910 and made her way into the super-rich. I learned later that the term for this arrangement is levirate marriage, and it is common in many cultures. Every other day, a tasteful arrangement of apricot-colored tea roses with baby’s breath would be placed on her bedside table and the older arrangement, barely faded, whisked away. In certain ways, the bond between mothers and daughters is closer than any other. In Europe, she bought paintings and antiques. She’s spent more time with him than she is supposed to, and if she doesn’t come back with the cash, she’ll be punished. After her marriage, my grandmother stopped working. When I sorted through my mother’s possessions after her death, I decided to keep this coat. Mellon refused to give up on her daughter, whose brain damage had rendered her speechless and unable to move. Before she became a mistress, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment on East End Avenue. Even though I am married now, my husband and I are often separated, and in that way, my life is not that different from Mellon’s, or my mother’s. When her husband fell in love and asked her for a divorce, she refused, and eventually they settled into a cordial relationship. Like Bunny Mellon, she gardened. Denied the chance to attend college by her haute WASP parents, Mellon was one of a generation of women who knew their place in the world. Her first book, Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! Only women with nicknames like Bunny married men named Mellon in those days. ¤
After my aunt died, my mother, once the rebel of the family, took her place in the affections of my powerful and capricious grandmother. After Mary’s death, Bunny swooped in to comfort Mellon, assuaging his grief with the time-honored methods of drinking and smoking. It was around this time that Mellon grew enthusiastic about presidential hopeful John Edwards. She was not Jewish, but as a teenager she had been involved in some kind of political activity that culminated in her arrest. Rich women and poor women have always known that their value is as a commodity; it’s only the United States’s rapidly diminishing middle class that believed, for a time, that we could exert the power normally reserved for men. One of the girls, watching a movie with a john who doesn’t want sex but just wants to hang out, asks him for extra money to mollify her pimp. It was a gradual process to learn why her sense of her own possibilities was so limited. Unlike the furs that had come and gone over the years, so sensuous in their softness they felt sinful, the raincoat was understated. I know the coat’s history, so much larger than one   woman’s, and I can give it a proper send-off. She became a mistress. In a sense, that became her story, and ultimately, if the tale is valuable, it is as a quietly devastating portrait of women’s roles in the midcentury United States. It’s naïve to think that rich girls are immune; in fact, there is often even more at stake when they are trading stock. What’s more disturbing is that I feel myself giving up the hope that I can ever earn my way into the rewards men take for granted. With three daughters to support, she worked several jobs, demonstrating makeup at one department store and modeling shoes in another, before marrying a wealthy Jewish philanthropist. I never wore it again. Did my mother know this? Unlike her previous books, which dealt with New York power broker Brooke Astor’s descent into dementia or the pathologically reclusive Huguette Clark, Bunny Mellon’s story isn’t particularly dramatic. My mother was born into a boom-and-bust Jewish family in 1931. But I have worn it only once. Her lover was cruising the Mediterranean on a yacht with his wife. One imagines that Bunny’s pursuit was neither purely romantic nor purely calculating, but the bottom line was clear. During my grandmother’s long decline, my mother took charge. Her campaign contributions were misappropriated and used to support Edwards’s mistress, and Gordon’s account provides a glimpse into why Bunny Mellon must have been a great person to have as a friend, someone with discriminating taste and a wicked sense of humor. Following her divorce, she became the mistress of one of the richest men in the United States. My mother and grandmother were convinced her illness was caused by birth control pills, which still had high levels of estrogen in those days. By either measure, Bunny Mellon got a good deal. While married to my father, she threw themed parties, including a black-and-white New Year’s Eve bash that I realize now was modeled after Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. As Gordon writes:
Even though her closets contained racks of magnificent Givenchy and Balenciaga couture, she wanted to be buried wearing the simple college graduation gown that she had worn to receive an honorary degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. I have to wonder if this tells the reader more about Gordon’s heart than Mellon’s. She is, essentially, enslaved in a marriage engineered by her mother (Charlotte Rampling). But our notion that the state will care for us in difficult times is relatively recent, and if the United States’s current direction doesn’t shift dramatically, we are likely to find ourselves scrambling for ways to recreate the informal economies of the past. On a rainy March night in New York the stiff fabric protected me from the oncoming cold, but I was conscious of moving invisibly inside an immovable structure. He helped Mrs. She claimed to be related to the Rothschilds and told us her father was a Boston calculus professor instead of a Jewish garmento. Mellon’s biographer, Meryl Gordon, director of magazine writing at New York University’s Arthur L. Jackie Onassis left her relationship, finding a stable protector in Maurice Tempelsman, a married Jew with a shady past exploiting minerals in the Congo. The answer, one imagines, is both. She traveled to France on the Cunard Line. She always assumed she would marry, and never thought much about a career. “I was six years old, and they told me: ‘The first time, make them pay.’” In other words, virginity is a high-priced commodity. My grandfather was a gambler and a womanizer. My brother and I shared a bedroom, our live-in maid slept in the dining room, and my mother slept on a pull-out couch in the living room. Gyllenhaal is a good actress, but her character is little more than the messenger for a certain feminist argument that I have always found horrifying in its discounting of emotion. It’s the rare girl who escapes. This   was taken for granted among men of Bunny’s generation, particularly rich ones, but it was also a source of pain for which she had not yet developed coping mechanisms. Did my grandmother, who tacitly approved of the arrangement? Gordon does not engage these larger questions in telling the story of Bunny Mellon, as another biographer might have done. Her brief marriage to an appropriate German-Jewish lawyer, a member of the Harmonie Club, had lasted only long enough to result in a daughter. I felt like a   woman of substance, and at the same time,   an animal in a cage. If she couldn’t control what happened outside her homes, she was damn well going to control the world inside their gates. With mothers and daughters, who can tell? I don’t find it coincidental that she comes from the same part of the world where, not so long ago, the women drank belladonna and taught their daughters to be tough negotiators. After her divorce, my mother’s older sister took her in hand. Action is character, as Aristotle said, and none of us remain the romantic girls we were at 20. And she took ’em. She made the startling, almost tasteless remark that being in the concentration camp was preferable to living with her mother. To some extent, every adult life feels burdened by similar losses and incomplete reconciliations, but even the most hard-hearted Marxist cannot fail to be moved by the accident that nearly killed Mellon’s daughter in 2000, just as the two were growing closer. It was in 2008 that Mellon’s daughter Eliza finally succumbed to her injuries. Wasn’t she free now? It’s a matter of survival. Unlike Bunny Mellon, my mother had gone to college, but her interests never fully developed. She doesn’t seem particularly sorry to take the cash from her vulnerable john. Like any historical fiction, The Deuce is more of our time than its purported era. She could live anywhere, make her own home, let go of the past. ¤
Like Bunny Mellon’s daughter, I spent much of my life estranged from my mother. In 1970s America, there were limits to female masochism. Bunny Mellon’s day-to-day existence seemed to consist of building houses, shopping on a grand scale, a series of quasi-romantic friendships with gay or bi-sexual men, and a close, almost sisterly friendship with Jackie Kennedy. Their relentless emphasis on good taste reveals, in an anthropological way, that our culture that hasn’t changed as much as we once believed. Gordon’s final sentence is a nice writerly touch, but in the end, Bunny Mellon proved nothing. Georgiana (Keira Knightley) is married off to the older, sadistic Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Tellingly, the film got poor reviews. All of our mothers do this, physically or psychologically, because all societies are unequal. She dealt with my grandmother’s investments so she could remain at home, and spent weekends with her in Pound Ridge, the woodsy Westchester village to which she had repaired after the death of my grandfather. She notes that Mellon, despite a jewelry collection worth millions, chose to be buried wearing a ring from her first husband, the one she married for love and often saw in later years. After the divorce, she landed a job with Meyer Davis, a society bandleader. By all accounts, Tempelsman was a decent man in his personal life. It was so among my grandmother and her daughters, except for the youngest who married a man my grandmother considered beneath her, moved to Miami, and cut all but the most cursory ties to the family. OCTOBER 25, 2017
IN MY CLOSET is a black gabardine raincoat with a mink collar that flips up like Garbo’s in   Queen Christina. (“He’s taller when he stands on his wallet,” my grandmother told her when my mother complained about a blind date arranged with the son of family friends.) When my mother’s love match went south, as Bunny’s had, she didn’t manage the same seamless transition. My mother rebelled by marrying my father, a smart boy from the Bronx. She manages her own commodification quite well, thank you. Her father did not believe that a young woman of her generation was worth sending to college; she would spend eternity proving him wrong. Apart from her impaired daughter, Mellon’s emotional life seemed to consist of phone calls with floral designer Robert Isabell and less frequently, her old friend Hubert de Givenchy. But the women are tough, too. She seen her opportunities. She kept the fact of her Jewishness secret, and her lover was a Mayflower WASP whose family owned several major corporations. I didn’t know, then, how difficult it is to deal with loss. Instead, she relies on the novelist’s technique of the revealing detail. My mother attended girls’ schools, and at her urging, so did I, but in my case, this was a miserable experience. With the commodification of everything in American life, questioning our culture’s valorization of wealth has taken on new urgency. Certainly, Bunny Mellon had good taste, but the striking thing about Mellon, cruel as it sounds, is that she wasn’t particularly interesting. She supported the New York Philharmonic. After her levirate marriage, we moved to a three-bedroom apartment with a pool on the roof. But first, the coat, which my mother clearly appropriated from Bunny. The idea of relationships as both loving and transactional couldn’t be more starkly portrayed than in the seamless alternation between what appears to be genuine affection between the pimps and their girls, and a pimp’s dead-eyed, knife-wielding violence when one of the prostitutes gets out of line. Women use their intelligence and will to maximize their position, just like men, only their sphere of influence is narrower. Women are a commodity in all cultures, but it’s a mistake to call them powerless. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis called The Duchess “an overstuffed, intellectually underbaked portrait of a poor little rich girl,” describing a harrowing scene of marital rape as Ralph Fiennes taking “scissors to Keira Knightley’s unmentionables for some shivery snip-snip.” Dargis argues that the film “wants you to pity Georgiana while also indulging in every luscious detail of her captivity,” including “those verdant landscapes dotted with grazing sheep (no grubbing peasants), the fabulously ornamented gowns, leaning towers of wigs, palatial digs and troops of silent servants. Her first marriage to a socially acceptable but only moderately well-off newspaperman foundered on his absence during World War II, when he took advantage of the female companionship on offer in Paris. Mellon’s first wife Mary had been educated at Vassar, Columbia, and the Sorbonne. No great beauty, and certainly no intellect, Bunny had the unimpeachable credential of being a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. “Described in society columns as a style-setter,” Gordon writes of Mellon, whose claims to fame included designing the White House Rose Garden and being married to Paul Mellon, the fifth-richest man in the United States, “she embraced such discreet I’m-so-rich-I-don’t-have-to-flaunt-it trends as wearing a gabardine coat lined with mink.”
One mystery solved, but another remains. My aunt was upwardly mobile, in the way of that time. The apartment was down the street from the two townhouses that my mother’s one-time patron had turned into a single grand home. At her urging, my grandparents bought a farm in Westchester. The attention to domestic detail verged on obsessive: Mellon instructed her staff to rearrange apples that had fallen on the lawn and remove any broken potato chips when serving at outdoor parties. Often it is a widow marrying her dead husband’s brother, but among the Kurds and presumably other cultures, as well, it can also be the younger sister that is handed over to a widower, usually at a reduced bride price. As I later discovered, it was the family business. Are all relationships transactional? As Gordon tells it, Mellon’s life was a series of losses. Like Paul Mellon, who played a formative role at the National Gallery, her lover supported the arts, and I remember seeing his name on a plaque when he was president of the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. and the Environmental Movement, is required reading at a number of universities. Similarly, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a prostitute who refuses to get a pimp. We live in the age of Trump, a man who reportedly has no real friends, and a trophy wife who inspires tedious debates among progressives about whether she is a gold digger or a victim of abuse. The decorative arts are a woman’s province and within that domestic environment she created an aesthetic of informal elegance. Soon after they married, Onassis went back to Maria Callas, his longtime lover, but insisted that Jackie remain at his beck and call. On the face of it, she had advantages: a college education, good looks, a lively personality. But nostalgia for old money, attractive as it is in these days of oligarchs, allows us to forget that oppression was the dark side of Bunny Mellon’s world. That ambiguity is dealt with thoughtfully in David Simon’s brilliant new series The Deuce, which evokes the ’70s, when the United States blew the lid off sex, but does so with the benefit of hindsight, emphasizing the decade as a time when sex was anything but free: it was, instead, a commodity. He encouraged her taste in art, and spoke of her in respectful terms. Initially, it wasn’t clear to me why Mellon merited a biography of 460 pages with a copious index. Older now, a woman who understands the world, I had grown into the collar’s grandeur, the mink’s flash of luxe, the precise thought behind the coat’s design. To assure their daughters’ welfare in the world as they understand it, mothers mutilate and cripple them. Her recent collection is   Waiting for Charlie: Mercenary Soldiers, Failed States, and the Love That Means More Than Money. After my aunt’s death, my mother took her place for two years. Control? She talked about her mother and her friends drinking tea laced with belladonna, the scars of their uninhibited speech. I doubt if she gave any thought to how her decisions would affect me. You could see these shows as a form of prostitution, too, but the cash kept alive the performers’ hopes of making it in the legitimate theater. Eventually I will get rid of it, if only because the thought of someone else carting it to a secondhand shop after my own death is too depressing. In my adult life, I’ve usually worked with men, because I prefer to write about subjects considered their territory: politics, war, the environment. Onassis manage her investments, transforming her from merely rich to very rich. I encounter a startling number of women, mainly in their 50s, who share my hopelessness. For eight years, her mother, once too busy to pay attention to her, devoted herself to her care, refusing to let her go quietly.