Monday, March 31, 2014

Washington Social Diary

The courtyard of Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville at the funeral service for Bunny Mellon.
Bunny Mellon’s Perfect Funeral
by Carol Joynt

If you believe that our deaths are a reflection of our lives you will understand when I note that Bunny Mellon went out with beauty, grace, order and determination. And perfection. These words define her understated, well-paced and yet rich funeral service at Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville, Virginia, which the locals like to call the “Mellon Church” because it was built by Bunny and Paul Mellon – for them and for everyone else, too, and to be open at all hours. Her funeral was also open to everyone, and by her design.

The many stained glass windows at Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville, Virginia were made by Joep Nicholas of Holland. This one says: "This church is given to the glory of God by Rachel and Paul Mellon, and of Thine own have we given Thee."
“She was the chief architect of this celebration,” announced Rev. Robert Banse Jr., to a congregation of family and friends, neighbors and staff, celebrities and farm hands, and those who felt she’d touched their lives and who wanted to pay respect. According to one of the speakers, the village of Upperville closed for the occasion.

Bunny was in the details, of course. The service was impeccably timed. There was a sense it had been scripted with the clock in mind – speakers would make reference to “going over” their time – but it never felt long, never felt rushed and always felt just right. The order of service program was titled “A Celebration of Life” and on the cover was Dorelia in the Garden by Augustus John, in which Dorelia McNeill – not unlike Bunny Mellon – is posed wearing blue and leaning on a garden tool. The picture was painted in 1911, a year after Bunny’s birth.

Because of the large turnout, the service in the church was also broadcast on a big screen in the adjacent Parish house, where there were rows of folding chairs. Practically every seat was filled. In front of me was former presidential candidate John Edwards, with his daughter Kate.

I sat with a friend, both of us there as admirers and with connections to Upperville. For a decade in the 1980s I lived in Upperville on Rt. 623, also known as the “Mellon Road,” and it was impossible not to be aware of Paul and Bunny Mellon, and in the best sense. They were a generous part of the community, but who just happened to come and go by jet on their backyard landing strip.
Mourners head from the church to the burial site at Trinity Episcopal Church.
The opening of the service was a full half hour of the choral “Requiem” by Gabriel Fauré, performed by the Trinity Church Choir and members of The American Boychoir concert choir, who traveled all night by bus to be there, and their gorgeous voices were not the least drained by the journey. At the completion of the Requiem, the congregation was asked to stand to sing “O God, our help in ages past.” There was a reading from Lamentations (3:22-26, 31-33), The American Boychoir sang “Bay Psalm 23” from the Bay Psalm Book, followed by the Epistle from Revelation (7:7-19). There was another hymn sung by the congregation, “In the bleak midwinter,” there was the Gospel (John 14:1-6), and the Homily, by Rev. Banse.

The order of service program was titled “A Celebration of Life.” On the cover was Dorelia in the Garden in which Dorelia McNeill – not unlike Bunny Mellon – is posed wearing blue and leaning on a garden tool.
Bunny Mellon in gardening attire in 1982.
When he welcomed the mourners, Banse said that one of the advantages of his job was getting to know Mellon over the last six years “and having some wonderful conversations with her.” He said, “She was a person of great love and she devoted that love to always making sure that things were planned wonderfully and well. She had a great eye for detail.” She had an eye for friends, too, and chose a few of them to join her family in speaking and performing at the service. The actor Frank Langella said “this woman had an extraordinary gift for personal relationships.”

Langella came into her life through her daughter Eliza, as did another friend who spoke, Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, a brain surgeon, brain trauma specialist and the chairman of the Brain Trauma Foundation. Ghajar met Bunny when he treated Eliza, who in 2000 suffered a severe brain injury when she was hit by a truck on a New York street. She became quadriplegic and Bunny took care of her at the Mellon’s Upperville estate, Oak Spring, until Eliza’s death in 2008. Ghajar said Bunny’s determination and her insistence on excellence “inspired” him to do work at Stanford University that now benefits victims of concussion in sports and brain injuries on the battlefield. He was impressed at the way she looked at the world and recalled, “Her friend Jackie Kennedy told her, ‘Bunny, you think all your ducks are swans.’”

Langella met Bunny in 1961, when he and Eliza worked together at the same little theater near the Mellon’s home on Cape Cod. Bunny came upon him while he was painting Fleur dy Lys on woodwork for a set, and she sat and talked with him. She had with her a picnic basket lunch for Eliza. Later, Eliza told Frank that he’d made a favorable impression on her mother and she wanted him to come to lunch, an invitation he accepted. When he got to the Mellon home the other guests were Paul Mellon, Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele Astaire, Noel Coward and President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy.

“I was 23 years old. I didn’t have an ounce of breeding,” Langella said of the occasion, where an enduring friendship began. “Bunny divined something in me: a young man eager to learn. She could easily have dismissed me as just Liza’s friend. But she did something for me. She adopted me (and caused) a cataclysmic change in my life. She taught me not to be vulgar; to respect; to go into the kitchen and say ‘thank you,’ and to ask about their families; to write thank you notes. Above all, be loyal.”

On one of his last visits to Oak Spring, she handed him the keys to the car, said “let’s go for a drive,” and “the two of us drove every inch of this farm.” He finished with a poem and tears in his eyes. There was another poem in the service, too, “The End of An Era,” written for Bunny and read by Tommy Breeden.
Her son and grandsons told the congregation of the firm hand but loving heart and soul they knew as “grandbunny.”

Stacy B. Lloyd III, her son from her first marriage, sat as he spoke, and may have spoke haltingly, but his message was clear: life for his mother was never dull, and living with purpose was what mattered. “Mother was a very determined person and whatever she did was for good reason.” He recounted her many projects, usually to do with her homes and gardens. He spoke about her marriage to Paul Mellon and the frenzy of house-buying-and-building that ensued: New York, Washington, Cape Cod, Antigua and Nantucket. He said it was always “some outrageous thing and just beautiful.” Of Paul and Bunny, he said, “they rarely got into fights except about money and houses.” At the end of his remembrance he looked toward her casket: “I’ll miss you, Mommy. Be safe in heaven. Take care of God. I know you are working on a project.”

Her grandson, Stacy B. Lloyd IV, said he treasured the memories of her teaching him to notice the smell of things – bark, soil, leaves, air. “I will always think of her whenever I see a flower – an Azalea or a Geranium,” he said. “She has not died and never will (because) she is everywhere to me. She taught me how to find beauty in everything.” His brother, Thomas Lloyd, said that his grandmother intimidated him when he was young – “as a little boy I kept my distance and watched her create” – and that marriage and a family opened the way for him to become close to “this amazing woman.”
Bunny let her great grandchildren jump in bed with her, paste Barbie stickers on her, and run through the house at Oak Spring, said Thomas, making a beeline for the Lays potato chips “in that plastic container she kept them in.” He revealed, too, that she liked a Bloody Mary. “We would call her often,” he said, “but not at 6:30, when ABC News was on.”

The service concluded with The Lord’s Prayer and the Prayers of the People, the American Boychoir singing “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” and the Commendation, after which the mourners rose and filed out, walking and singing “Go Forward, Christian soldier” as they moved to the burial plot only steps from the church, where Bunny would be laid to rest with Paul, Eliza and other Mellon family members.

But before the very end of the service there was one more moment, which came after Langella finished his charming recollections. Bette Midler walked up to a lone microphone and, wrapped in a cornflower blue neck scarf, sang “The Rose,” a song she recorded in 1979 for her film of the same name. I wondered at first how and why Bunny chose that song to be the endnote of her perfect funeral, and then I listened closely to the words as Midler sang it perfectly, too, and with wrenching emotion.

When the night has been too lonely
And the road has been too long,
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong,
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun's love
In the spring becomes the rose.
The family markers now also include Rachel Lambert Mellon.
According to DPC: A source connected to the Mellon family has stated that Mr. Edwards was barred from entering the church by the family. And that he was working the crowd near the graveside after the service. The service may have been open to the public, but he was not welcome.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt