The Impeccable Gardener

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The strain of success sometimes seemed unbearable. She often felt guilty about her husband—”an angel of patience for taking the leftovers from a selfishly overworked machine.” In turn, Edith Wharton and Max constantly fretted over “Trix,” her aunt lamenting that “she seems to slave at her work in a way that ought to belong only to the beginnings” but concluding that that was the way of all truly creative people, like herself. She was ever more proud of her independent niece and left Beatrix a considerable amount in her will.

 
 

Beatrix’s letters at this time reveal an extraordinarily complex character. Her naturally generous nature sometimes seems at odds with her professionalism. She was constantly sending iris and other unusual bulbs to friends at home and abroad. She had J. P. Morgan bring seeds from Hippocrates’ plane tree on the Greek island of Kos back to the Yale School of Medicine, whose grounds she was tending. She donated money to the California Institute of Technology just so they could pay her a pittance and her ten years of work there would not be labeled “volunteer.” Her determination to get everything just right often made her impatient with people working under her. In one ten-page letter she admonishes Miss Sweeney, a decent at Dumbarton Oaks when it was opened to the public, that “you are wrong in thinking that winter is an idle time,” for there were cards to be cataloged “backward and forward,” lectures to be prepared, botany studied so “you can show [people] what a sepal is and how it is also an altered leaf and how bulbs are constructed of the leaf base sort like narcissus and onion or of the solid sort like tulips … and so on forever.” As Robert Patterson said: “She had absolutely no small talk. People who worked for her had to be willing to bite their tongues and shut up. Mrs. Farrand was strong-minded, some would say a task master, but she was never unreasonable. She just wanted things right.”

Her determination to get everything just right made her impatient with employees.
 
 

Beatrix poured herself without reserve into all her projects, but Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., was her most demanding undertaking; it remains to this day her greatest living monument. “The Oaks” belonged to Robert Bliss, a career diplomat, but it was his wife, Mildred, who was determined to make a formal garden of unparalleled majesty in the United States. To accomplish the task she hired Beatrix in 1921. For the next twenty-six years the two women collaborated fiercely to carve the terraces, parterres, flowering slopes, and herbaceous and rose gardens out of the rugged hills and woodland and to create the illusion of country life in the heart of town.

Now fifty years old, Beatrix undertook the commission with a determination to make it one of her best. Every step of the way she was aided and confronted by Mildred Bliss, a woman with a strong design sense of her own. They called each other the “garden twins,” and Beatrix seemed to rejoice in her client-comrade’s firm resolve. Mildred presented ideas; Beatrix countered with her own. The result was both grand and intimate, imposingly formal near the house but constantly interrupted by glimpses of wild nature. A series of outdoor “rooms” were designated by name: the Green Terrace, close to the house and overlooking the grounds below, had no flowers—the evening gowns of visiting ladies were expected to add color; the North Vista with its graduated parterres provided one long, spectacular view; the Rose Garden set off blooms of soft yellow and orange-salmon mixed with blacks and whites against box bushes and yews. Mèlisande’s Allèe and Lovers’ Lane Pool, the Forsythia Hill, Crabapple Hill, and the Fountain Terrace were a few other “rooms.” Each entity was calculated for its effect; every view from the house was a careful composition.

 
 

From her Italian journeys Beatrix understood the added lushness that the sound of water evokes, and at Dumbarton Oaks the nine fountains and eleven pools tap thirty thousand feet of underground pipes. In 1940 the Blisses turned Dumbarton Oaks over to Harvard University with the strict proviso that the gardens were to be maintained, and Beatrix spent seven years planning for the transition from private to public garden. Both women were wary of the changes Harvard would make. Beatrix, particularly bitter about Harvard’s delinquent treatment of the endowment her old mentor Charles Sargent had left for the care of the Arnold Arboretum, wrote volumes of memoranda describing exactly how the gardens were to be groomed. Today the garden staff has shrunk from thirty-eight to twelve, and three of the six greenhouses have been closed down, but the overall design has been preserved and provides a pastoral retreat of tremendous style for the more than one hundred thousand visitors who wander through the enchanting landscape each year.