IN MY CLOSET is a black gabardine raincoat with a mink collar that flips up like Garbo’s in Queen Christina. When I sorted through my mother’s possessions after her death, I decided to keep this coat. Unlike the furs that had come and gone over the years, so sensuous in their softness they felt sinful, the raincoat was understated. 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. But I have worn it only once. 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. I felt like a woman of substance, and at the same time, an animal in a cage. I never wore it again. 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. I know the coat’s history, so much larger than one woman’s, and I can give it a proper send-off.
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. 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 differently about my mother and the women of her generation. Their relentless emphasis on good taste reveals, in an anthropological way, a culture that hasn’t changed as much as we once believed. But first, the coat, which my mother clearly appropriated from Bunny. “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. Initially, it wasn’t clear to me why Mellon merited a biography of 460 pages with a copious index. Certainly, Bunny Mellon had good taste, but the striking thing about Mellon, cruel as it sounds, is that she wasn’t particularly interesting. Mellon’s biographer, Meryl Gordon, director of magazine writing at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, has made a cottage industry out of writing impeccable biographies of rich women with constricted emotional lives. 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. 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.
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 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. 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.
One of Bunny’s neighbors in Virginia hunt country was Paul Mellon, the moody, intellectual heir to one of the country’s great fortunes. Mellon’s first wife Mary had been educated at Vassar, Columbia, and the Sorbonne. The couple lived in Europe, where they were analyzed by Carl Jung and, at Mary’s insistence, founded the Bollingen Foundation. After Mary’s death, Bunny swooped in to comfort Mellon, who had been assuaging his grief with the time-honored methods of drinking and smoking.
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. One imagines that Bunny’s pursuit was neither purely romantic nor purely calculating, but the bottom line was clear. 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.
Sadly, that was my mother’s story, too.
Bunny Mellon was born into wealth in 1910 and made her way into the super-rich. My mother was born into a boom-and-bust Jewish family in 1931. My grandfather was a gambler and a womanizer and at the height of the Depression, my grandmother found the gumption to divorce him. 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.
After her marriage, my grandmother stopped working. She supported the New York Philharmonic. She traveled to France on the Cunard Line. In Europe, she bought paintings and antiques. She claimed to be related to the Rothschilds and told us her father was a Boston calculus professor instead of a Jewish garmento. At her urging, my grandparents bought a farm in Westchester. She took up golf. Like Bunny Mellon, she gardened.
My mother rebelled by marrying my father, a smart but penniless boy from the Bronx. (“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. Unmoored from her role as wife, burdened by a drinking problem that would eventually kill her, my mother settled for second-best. She became a mistress. As I later discovered, it was the family business.
After her divorce, my mother’s older sister took her in hand. My aunt owned Balenciaga gowns and was, in my father’s words, a social climber, serving on the board of the American Ballet Theater. 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. Following her divorce, she became the mistress of one of the richest men in the United States. My aunt was upwardly mobile, in the way of that time. She kept the fact of her Jewishness secret and her lover was a Mayflower WASP whose family owned several major corporations. Like Paul Mellon, who played a formative role at the National Gallery, her lover left his stamp on a major museum. I remember seeing his name on a plaque when he was president of the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The relationship had the trappings of marriage, including Christmas stockings with the names of my aunt, her daughter, and her lover. 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. Only women with nicknames like Bunny married men named Mellon in those days. No great beauty and certainly no intellect, Bunny had the unimpeachable credential of being a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
In 1966, my aunt developed cancer. I remember visiting her in New York Hospital, where she was undergoing surgery and radiation treatments. It was summer and her lover was cruising the Mediterranean on a yacht with his wife. 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. My mother and grandmother were convinced her illness was caused by birth control pills, which still had high levels of estrogen in those days. Her pale, elegant martyrdom, the subtext of their belief, remained unspoken. I would have two abortions after my mother urged me to stop taking birth control pills “because they killed Enid.”
After my aunt’s death, my mother took her place for two years. 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 the launch of her business. I learned later that the term for this arrangement is levirate marriage, and it is common in many cultures. Often it is a widow marrying her dead husband’s brother, but among the Kurds and presumably other cultures, it can be a younger sister handed over to the widower, usually at a reduced bride price. Did my mother know this? Did my grandmother, who tacitly approved of the arrangement? Not consciously, I am certain. But my grandmother was born in another country amid the remnants of feudal aristocracy. 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 economies of the past.
Unlike Bunny Mellon, my mother had gone to college, but her interests never fully developed. She always assumed she would marry, and never thought much about a career. 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. After my parents’ divorce, she landed a job with society bandleader Meyer Davis. With the money she was earning on her back, plus her assistant’s wages, she and a colleague formed their own company, organizing corporate retreats featuring stars like Bob Hope, George Burns, Dionne Warwick. The shows were called industrials, and they were the bread and butter for Broadway actors. 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.
Before she became a mistress, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment on East End Avenue. 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. After her levirate marriage, we moved to a three-bedroom apartment with a pool on the roof.
She seen her opportunities. They were not as grand as Bunny Mellon’s, but they provided a reasonable facsimile. And she took ’em.
I never forgave her.
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. By either measure, Bunny Mellon got a good deal. When her husband fell in love and asked her for a divorce, she refused, and eventually they settled into a cordial relationship. She and her husband often, but not always, lived separate lives. He encouraged her taste in art, and spoke of her in respectful terms. The decorative arts are a woman’s province and within that domestic environment she created an aesthetic of informal elegance. 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. If she couldn’t control what happened outside her homes, she was damn well going to control the world inside their gates.
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. 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. Soon after they married, Onassis went back to Maria Callas, his longtime lover, but insisted that Jackie remain at his beck and call.
By the 1970s, there were limits to female masochism. Jackie Onassis left her relationship, finding a stable protector in Maurice Tempelsman, a married Jew with a shady past exploiting minerals in the Congo. By all accounts, Tempelsman was a decent man in his personal life. He helped Mrs. Onassis manage her investments, transforming her from merely rich to very rich.
Like Bunny Mellon’s daughter, I spent much of my life estranged from my mother. When a man was around, I was invisible, and that was not simply true in a literal sense. I doubt if she gave any thought to how her decisions would affect me. It was a gradual process to learn why her sense of her own possibilities was so limited. On the face of it, she had advantages: a college education, good looks, a lively personality.
When I was younger and still angry, I met a woman from eastern Europe who had been in a concentration camp. She was not Jewish, but as a teenager she had been involved in some kind of political activity that culminated in her arrest. She made the startling, almost tasteless remark that being in the concentration camp was preferable to living with her mother. She talked about her mother and her friends drinking tea laced with belladonna, the scars of their uninhibited speech. “I was six years old, and they told me: ‘The first time, make them pay.’” In other words, virginity is a high-priced commodity.
Women are a commodity in all cultures, but it’s a mistake to call them powerless. Women use their intelligence and will to maximize their position, just like men, only their sphere of influence is narrower. To assure their daughters’ welfare in the world as they understand it, mothers mutilate and cripple them. 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. It’s a matter of survival. All of our mothers do this, physically or psychologically, because all societies are unequal. It’s the rare girl who escapes.
Rich women and poor women have always known that their value is as a commodity; it’s only the women of the United States’s rapidly diminishing middle class who believed, for a time, that we could exert the power normally reserved for men. Only the uninitiated would think that rich girls are immune; in fact, there is often even more at stake when they are trading stock. In The Duchess, the misunderstood 2008 film about the Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana (Keira Knightley) is, essentially, enslaved in a marriage to the older, sadistic Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) that is engineered by her mother (Charlotte Rampling). Tellingly, the film got poor reviews. 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. (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. 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.
As Gordon tells it, Mellon’s life was a series of losses. Raised by governesses and a mother who preferred her younger, prettier sister, Mellon would grow up to ignore her own children. 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.
After my aunt died, my mother, once the rebel of the family, took her place in the affections of my powerful and capricious grandmother. During my grandmother’s long decline, my mother took charge. 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. I was largely absent during that time, but I remember excoriating my mother for moving into my grandmother’s apartment on Sutton Place. The apartment was down the street from the two townhouses that my mother’s one-time patron had turned into a single grand home. Wasn’t she free now? She could live anywhere, make her own home, let go of the past. I didn’t know, then, how difficult it is to deal with loss.
Mellon refused to give up on her daughter, whose brain damage had rendered her speechless and unable to move. 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. 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. It was around this time that Mellon grew enthusiastic about presidential hopeful John Edwards. 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. 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. It was in 2008 that Mellon’s daughter Eliza finally succumbed to her injuries. For eight years, her mother, once too busy to pay attention to her, devoted herself to Eliza’s care, refusing to let her go quietly. Was it love? Control? With mothers and daughters, who can tell? The once-rebellious Eliza’s powerlessness is a metaphor, but that is a cruel interpretation. Certainly it is kinder to recognize that, in certain ways, the bond between mothers and daughters is closer than any other. 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. And the notion that the bonds between women are paramount may be less unusual than we think. 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. 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.
My mother attended girls’ schools, and at her urging, so did I, but in my case, this was a miserable experience. In my adult life, I’ve usually worked with men. I assumed this was because I prefer to write about subjects considered their territory: politics, war, the environment. 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. 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. I encounter a startling number of women, mainly in their 50s, who share my hopelessness. For Bunny Mellon, and, clearly, for Melania Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s Restylaned wife, the solution was obvious. 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.
That ambiguity is dealt with thoughtfully in David Simon’s 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. 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 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. But the women are tough, too. 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. 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. She doesn’t seem particularly sorry to take the cash from her vulnerable john. Similarly, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a prostitute who refuses to get a pimp. She manages her own commodification quite well, thank you. 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.
Like any historical fiction, The Deuce is more of our time than its purported era. With the commodification of everything in American life, questioning our culture’s valorization of wealth has taken on new urgency. Are all relationships transactional? 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 answer, one imagines, is both. I don’t find it coincidental that Melania Trump comes from the same part of the world where, not so long ago, the women drank belladonna and taught their daughters about love’s bottom line.
Gordon does not engage these larger questions in telling the story of Bunny Mellon, as another biographer might have done. Like many magazine writers, Gordon eschews big ideas. Instead, she relies on the novelist’s technique of the revealing detail. 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. I have to wonder if this tells the reader more about Gordon’s heart than Mellon’s. Action is character, as Aristotle said, and none of us remain the romantic girls we were at 20. 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.
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. 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. Her father did not believe that a young woman of her generation was worth sending to college; she would spend eternity proving him wrong.
Gordon’s final sentence is a nice writerly touch, but in the end, Bunny Mellon proved nothing.
Susan Zakin was born in New York City, where she attended the Brearley School and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her first book, Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement, is required reading at a number of universities. Her recent collection is Waiting for Charlie: Mercenary Soldiers, Failed States, and the Love That Means More Than Money.