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I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise

A Life of Bunny Mellon

Mac Griswold


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ISBN10: 1250872626
ISBN13: 9781250872623

Trade Paperback

560 Pages



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Bunny Mellon, whose life was marked by astonishing good fortune as well as tragedy and scandal, remains a singular figure in the annals of American design. She had her finger on the pulse of American culture and possessed a rare, once-in-a-generation sense of style and grace. Her most celebrated work—the White House Rose Garden, designed during the presidency of John F. Kennedy—demonstrated how formal restraint and the sparing use of color could be deployed to maximal effect. Later, her understated landscape design for the Kennedy gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery changed the face of American public memorials.

A famously private person, many of Mellon’s greatest achievements remained concealed from public view. Her rarely seen gardens and domestic interiors at eight different properties on three continents became legends and models. At Oak Spring Farm in Virginia, the bibliographic riches of her Garden Library were twinned with the expansive flowering gardens lying below the Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed building. At her home on Nantucket, she pruned back the landscape to reveal the elemental forms of nature. Mellon also ranked as one of the great art collectors of her era, encouraging her husband Paul to use his family’s vast wealth to acquire hundreds of nineteenth century French paintings, many of which were donated to the National Gallery of Art. Her own tastes ranged from Mark Rothko to Richard Diebenkorn—in quantity.

In I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise, Mac Griswold—who knew Mellon personally—delves into her subject’s closely-guarded personal archives to construct an unrivaled portrait of a woman as complex and multifaceted as the gardens and homes on which she left her mark. This book explores the tension between Mellon’s idea of herself as a “poor little rich girl” and her own enterprising spirit. Mellon tested the anodyne 1950s model of woman as-wife-as-mother by getting a divorce, admitting candidly to her first husband that she wanted a richer one. She imperiously traded old friends for new, and ultimately used her reputation, her connections, and above all her money to help fund John Edwards’s short-lived presidential campaign. She led an American version of a royal court that, over the years, included Jackie Kennedy, Hubert de Givenchy, and I.M. Pei.

How Mellon’s character, style, and taste developed together to produce her greatest accomplishments—private and public—is the real subject of this biography.


Praise for I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise

"Meticulously researched and engaging . . . Like an expert tour guide Ms. Griswold takes you around the Mellons’ 'self-sufficient universe [where] acquiring the best became expected, ingrained,' commenting with scholarly detail on the gardens and the décor of the houses . . . [Bunny] was a gifted horticulturalist, and this book is certain to inspire gardeners, even if they don’t have Mellon millions to spend on topiary.”—Moira Hodgson, The Wall Street Journal

"[An] exhaustively researched and elegantly written biography . . . Griswold sees Mellon ultimately as an impresario and a showman who theatrically created one spectacular work of fantasy after another. She sure had quite a run."—James Reginato, Air Mail

"[An] impressive portrait . . . From Tuxedo Park to Virginia to the White House, Griswold escorts us through Mellon’s life as we meet icons of culture, fashion, and politics . . . [The book] shows how Mellon became a tastemaker.”—Lily Lopate, Avenue

"I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise is like an exquisite string of pearls: the perfect balance of elegance, style, design, and beauty. This book is inspiring, spirited, and totally absorbing."—Diane von Furstenberg

"Mac Griswold’s I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise is unlike anything written about Bunny Mellon. With grace, rigor, and an in-depth knowledge of Mellon’s world, Griswold summons compassion for this immensely gifted and complicated woman."Michael Shnayerson, author of Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art

“Mac Griswold has written a deeply-researched and revealing biography of a woman whose vast wealth gave her the opportunity to test the limits of human contentment.”—Phyllis Rose, author of Parallel Lives

"Fortunately, Bunny Mellon really lived. No novelist could have invented her or her life. Mac Griswold brilliantly follows the triumphs and disasters of that storied life to a finale, Bunny’s agony and funeral—told with sensitivity and depth of feeling that brought tears to my eyes."—Louis Begley, author of Wartime Lies and About Schmidt

"If Bunny Mellon lived by the credo that 'nothing should be noticed,' she failed to reckon with a biographer like Mac Griswold who—like a butterfly collector tracking a rare specimen—is undeceived by the ostentatious simplicity of her complex subject's camouflage."—Guy Trebay, styles reporter at The New York Times

"Mac Griswold has produced a fabulous biography of the style icon Bunny Mellon that is a must for all those who are passionate about gardens and interiors."Bunny Williams, interior designer

"Griswold's rich narrative highlights Mellon's extravagance, but avoids mythologizing . . . A fast-paced charmer for design enthusiasts and art mavens."Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


My first encounter with Bunny Mellon was in the 1950s; she was the mother of a school friend. At the time Mrs. Mellon was not yet famous, as she would later become, for her art and book collections, for her gardens and...

About the author

Mac Griswold

Mac Griswold is the author of The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island and Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon, and the coauthor, with Eleanor Weller, of The Golden Age of American Gardens. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Travel + Leisure. She lives in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

© Sigrid Estrada