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01.29.10

John Edwards' Sugar Mama

Meet Bunny Mellon, the 99-year-old heiress who helped fund Edwards’ presidential run—and apparently his extra-marital exploits as well.

You’d assume Rachel Lowe Lambert Lloyd Mellon—who, just shy of 100 years old, is probably the last surviving member of the old-money aristocracy that once lorded it over America—would be mortified by her involvement in a tabloid-ready sex scandal.

Hardly.

According to confidantes of the reclusive high-society doyenne best known as “Bunny,” she’s predictably annoyed by the media glare, and was infuriated last week when an ABC News helicopter buzzed her mansion in the Virginia horse country to get aerial photos for Friday night’s 20/20 segment based on a tawdry tell-all book by Andrew Young, a disgruntled ex-aide to her embattled friend John Edwards.

“Just think!” she marveled recently to a friend after the feds paid her a visit. “I have lived for 99 years, and I’ve never been interviewed by the FBI before!”

Yet, surprisingly, Bunny Mellon is also said to be energized and amused —“but with a tinge of disappointment,” one pal admits—by the cheeseball antics of the former North Carolina senator, the dashing young politician on whom she lavished so much money and adulation over the past six years, hoping to make him the next president of the United States.

Instead, he became the subject of a federal grand jury probe looking into possible violations of campaign laws—and the FBI has been fanning out to grill Edwards’ friends and supporters, including Bunny Mellon. “Just think!” she marveled recently to a friend after the feds paid her a visit. “I have lived for 99 years, and I’ve never been interviewed by the FBI before!”

Back in 2003, when Edwards was in the midst of his first presidential campaign, the widow of billionaire art collector, National Gallery patron and racehorse breeder Paul Mellon (Bunny’s second husband) had fallen hard for the handsome, thick-maned senator. She told intimates that he strongly reminded her of her old friend John F. Kennedy. She impulsively bought a full-page ad in the local newspaper celebrating Edwards as “a new wind” in American politics, and placed “John Edwards for President” yard signs along the roadside of the sprawling Mellon estate, Oak Spring Farms—an act not calculated to ingratiate herself with her snobby Republican neighbors in Upperville, Virginia.

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“She really felt that John Edwards could help—as she said in a metaphorical sense—‘make the flag fly straight again,’ ” says interior decorator Bryan Huffman, a 40-something North Carolinian who was befriended by Mrs. Mellon in 2003, after he sent her a fulsome note praising the beauty of Upperville’s Trinity Episcopal Church, a stone edifice that Bunny Mellon had designed, built and paid for. “She told me that when she was she was coming in to Washington for John Kennedy’s inauguration that day in 1961, there was a brisk wind, and she said, ‘Look at the flag! It’s standing straight!’ And she told me, ‘I would hope that the country could stand straight again.’ She felt John Edwards was the person for that task.”

Little did they dream that, one day, there would be talk of a graphic sex video, and “making the flag fly straight again” would serve as a metaphor for something else.

Huffman says Bunny is a tall, slim presence with ramrod-straight bearing. She walks without a cane and dresses stylishly, often in slacks and a cashmere sweater set, and she likes to wear a knickknack or two from her collection of enameled Schlumberger bracelets. With her all-consuming sense of aesthetics, she demands beauty in her life.

Long after they became friends, Huffman says, she admitted to him that their first lunch at Oak Spring might well have been a deal-breaker. “She told me, ‘Bryan, you realize—and I know this is terrible to say—but if you had been short, fat and bald, you'd have had only one session.’ Luckily, I’m 6-foot-1 and I have hair.”

In her amazing time on Earth, Bunny Mellon has known just about everybody worth knowing— from artists and scientists to presidents and monarchs. She hosted Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, socialized with Ronald and Nancy Reagan; was a loyal patron of couturier Hubert de Givenchy; learned Pilates, the exercise regimen she observes to this day, from Joseph Pilates himself; and otherwise steeped herself in her paintings and plants.

Her Virginia estate, with more than 100 full-time employees, boasts greenhouses and gardens aplenty, to say nothing of an airstrip for the Falcon 2000 jet that shuttles her to and from homes in Nantucket and Anguilla and last month whisked the disgraced Edwards from North Carolina to Upperville for a mysterious visit. And she has amassed a world-class 10,000-volume library devoted to botany through the ages.

Until Edwards’ reckless indiscretions forced her onto the public stage, Bunny Mellon had been out of circulation for decades, the mysterious Greta Garbo of her vanishing breed. Most of her friends were dead and gone, and her life was not without tragedy. A few years after Paul Mellon died of cancer in 1999, her daughter from her first marriage, Eliza Winn Lloyd, was hit by a speeding car, rendered mute and quadriplegic, and Bunny lovingly nursed her for several years until her death at Oak Spring in 2008. Then Bunny’s frequent companion, the famed floral designer and events planner Robert Isabell, suffered a fatal heart attack last July at the tender age of 57. “He was like the Harold of Harold and Maude,” says David Patrick Columbia, who runs the New York Social Diary, a website tracking the lives of Manhattan’s elite.

She buried him with minimal ceremony in a Civil War cemetery on her property, and his friends Ian Schrager and Norma Kamali later came to pay their respects.

It was Huffman—an acquaintance of Andrew Young through his sister Carol, Young’s law school classmate from Wake Forest University—who arranged Bunny Mellon’s first meeting with Edwards, at Oak Spring Farms in December 2006.

“He drove up from Washington and came for a cup of tea in the late afternoon,” says Huffman, who was present. “When he sat down in a chair, Bunny told him, ‘That was one of President Kennedy’s favorite chairs to sit in!’ I know he had to have been smitten with that fact, too.” Huffman adds with a chuckle, “The very next week, the Edwards people called and they asked her for a million dollars.”

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The candidate carefully courted the grand dame, checking in with her often and even phoning in from televised presidential debates to ask her how he was doing. One gets the impression of a Southern-fried, pretty-boy version of Max Bialystock.

“I guess she would be as close to a royal personage, something like the Queen of England, that America might possess—she is truly an American aristocrat,” Huffman says. “But she does not live in the past. She is always just marching ahead toward the future.” (Mrs. Mellon was not available for an interview).

One reason Bunny Mellon was supporting John Edwards, she told friends, was that somebody had to stop Hillary Clinton from becoming president. Shortly after Bill Clinton was inaugurated, Mrs. Mellon heard to her dismay that Hillary was planning to display modern sculpture in the First Lady’s Garden at the White House. Mrs. Mellon—a self-taught horticulturalist and landscape designer who had created a special First Lady’s garden for her friend Jacqueline Kennedy (as well as helping Jackie redecorate the White House and refurbish the White House Rose Garden)—lobbied Hillary to leave things as they were. After all, Bunny Mellon argued, it was a matter of respecting history: Ladybird Johnson, no less, had formally named the area the “Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.”

“It’s my garden now,” Hillary allegedly replied—thus earning the lasting enmity of the offended heiress. (The State Department had no response).

In early 2007, Mrs. Mellon sponsored but did not attend a Manhattan fundraiser that netted $85,000 for Edwards’ presidential campaign. She ultimately donated at least $3.48 million to his issue advocacy organization, Alliance for a New America.

In 2007 and 2008, at the height of his crusade against the “Two Americas,” Mrs. Mellon secretly gave Edwards a total of $700,000 for his personal use—paying required gift taxes of up to 45 percent—at the behest of Young, who was acting as Edwards’ bag man. Young told her that the senator had an urgent “personal need,” according to a knowledgeable source. Bunny Mellon’s friends say Young didn’t reveal that the so-called “need” apparently was Edwards’ sex partner, New Age videographer Rielle Hunter, the mother of his love child—and they claim Mrs. Mellon was shocked, shocked, when she finally learned the truth.

According to two sources close to Mrs. Mellon, her suspicions weren’t even aroused by the unusual method of payment: She was advised to write bank checks for “furniture,” made out to Bryan Huffman's Monroe, North Carolina-based interior design business. Huffman in turn endorsed them over to Young, who then got the money to Edwards.

“She loves intrigue,” says a Mellon confidante. But she came to despise Young, who persisted in shaking her down, even after she told him the well was dry because she was having “liquidity issues.” According to the confidante, Young cheekily suggested that she take out a mortgage or perhaps sell some of her priceless paintings, to meet the "need." It was at this point that Bunny Mellon had enough. She phoned Edwards bitterly to complain.

"She's very angry at Andrew Young because of his aggressive solicitations of funds," says a confidante, "but she remains friends with John Edwards."

Huffman, who speaks to Bunny daily and visits her often, told me he’s “chagrined” by his role in the scandal. “Bunny laughed when all of this came out,” Huffman says. “She said, ‘Bryan, who would have thought that our little furniture business would have turned into such a federal case?’ We called it ‘the furniture business’—that’s what the checks said they were for—a table or something like that. It turned out that the ‘furniture business’ was not a very good idea.”

Last spring, I’m told, Bunny Mellon was brimming with sangfroid and seductive charm when a team of investigators from the United States Attorney’s Office in Raleigh, North Carolina, arrived at Oak Spring Farms. A federal grand jury was probing for evidence, and an FBI agent and an assistant U.S. attorney had hoped to pump Mrs. Mellon for information about Edwards’ possible criminal misuse of campaign funds to conceal his carryings-on.

But Mrs. Mellon had other ideas. With her acute sense of design and placement, Bunny made sure the visiting G-men were seated just so—to maximize the sunlight that streamed into their eyes. In her soft, girlish voice, punctuated by an occasional coquettish giggle, she seized control of the conversation, favoring her dazzled (and blinded) interlocutors with reminiscences of President Coolidge—a buddy of her father Gerard Lambert, the Gillette razor and Listerine magnate—and her love of picking wildflowers as a small girl.

But what about John Edwards cheating on his wife? one of the investigators eventually interrupted.

All young men do that,” she breezily replied.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.