The scandal surrounding John Edwards — the two-time presidential candidate who stood trial on charges that he misused campaign funds to hide his pregnant mistress — was one of the biggest American political dramas in decades. But for then-101-year-old heiress Rachel (“Bunny”) Lambert Mellon, who provided the bulk of the funds in question but was unaware of how Edwards was using the money, it was a grand old time.
“He would have been a great president,” Mellon told author Meryl Gordon before her death in 2014, according to Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend, which hits bookstores Tuesday and delves into Mellon’s quietly stylish, American aristocrat lifestyle. “He and I were great friends. Every time he’d go on a debate against Hillary [Clinton], he’d call and we’d talk.'”
According to Gordon, the heiress saw similarities between Edwards and John F. Kennedy. (She would know. Mellon was friends with the Kennedys and redesigned the White House Rose Garden at JFK’s request.)
“[Edwards] was wise, he was clear, he was a very good person,” she told Gordon. “I don’t like complicated people.”
But Mellon did, evidently, relish a complicated game.
After meeting the charming North Carolina senator, Mellon — whose grandfather invented Listerine and whose second husband was banking heir Paul Mellon — wanted to contribute to Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign.
“Bunny defiantly believed that John Edwards could do no wrong. Imbued by a sense of patriotism and a desire to be relevant, she saw this campaign as a chance to elect a liberal Democrat to the White House,” writes Gordon.
“This wasn’t a shallow thing with a handsome man,” Tony Willis, Mellon’s librarian, told the author. “‘She really took it seriously and wanted to help the country.”
At first, Mellon started with standard contributions: $3 million to two of his entities, asked her attorneys to host two fundraisers for Edwards in New York City, and even wrote and paid for an ad supporting his campaign in her local newspaper, according to the biography. Her contributions became less traditional after she read about the criticism he received for $400 haircuts charged to his campaign.
“I was sitting alone in a grim mood — furious that the press attacked Senator Edwards on the price of a haircut,” Mellon wrote to Edwards’ campaign aide Andrew Young, “But it inspired me — from now on, all haircuts, etc., that are necessary and important for his campaign — please send the bills to me.”
When her lawyers informed her that she wasn’t legally allowed to underwrite Edwards’ personal expenses, the elderly heiress devised a scheme to fund him through an intermediary. According to Forbes, she sent checks to her friend and interior decorator Bryan Huffman under the guise that she was buying antiques (‘chairs’, ‘bookcase’, and ‘antique Charleston table’). Huffman then sent along the money to the Edwards camp. Neither Mellon nor Huffman knew exactly how the money was being used.
“Later in life, Bunny loved to play games, she loved fairy tales and horoscopes and wishes,” her lawyer, Alex D. Forger, told Gordon. “Games appealed to her. There was this intrigue. She didn’t want me to know she was giving to John Edwards, maybe I would disapprove. I kept asking, ‘Where is the money going?’ “
The note she wrote Andrew Young would later be used as evidence that the $725,000 she gave him was a campaign contribution, and not a gift as Forger argued in court. Mellon was never accused of any wrongdoing.
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That did little to quell the scathing criticism he received for having an affair with Rielle Hunter while his wife was fighting stage-four breast cancer (Elizabeth Edwards died in 2010), using funds from Mellon to hide Hunter and her pregnancy during the campaign, and later denying that he was the father of Hunter’s daughter.
“I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong,” Edwards said after the verdict, per the Times. “I am responsible. I don’t have to go any further than the mirror. It’s me and me alone.”
But through it all, one of his few remaining supporters was Bunny Mellon — although she said she wished he had paid for his mistress himself.
“He’s a very, very nice guy,'” Mellon told Chris Matthews, according to the book. “What went wrong with him? I mean, I just sort of feel someone came and put an injection in him and made him a little naughty. Even now, I’m for John Edwards.”
Gordon writes that Mellon got a kick out of being part of the investigation, and even befriended Chuck Stuber, the FBI agent who interviewed her. (Stuber told the author that Mellon “had an interesting take on mistresses. It was like — ‘everybody does this.’ ” Still, Stuber said Mellon told him she “didn’t want her money going to support John Edwards’s mistress.”)
While she no longer gave Edwards money (he reportedly asked for help to pay for his trial expenses), they did talk on the phone occasionally. Mellon even insisted that Edwards be a pallbearer at her funeral, although her family forbade it after she passed away on March 17, 2014, at the age of 103.
Whatever her family’s opinion of Edwards, Mellon loved supporting the man she hoped would be president.
“When she talked it over from time to time with Bryan Huffman,” Gordon writes, “she would often end with the same wistful line: ‘Didn’t we have fun?’ “
Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Icon is on sale now.