JULY 19, 1939. YONKERS, NY— I’M ALREADY LATE TO MEET HIM. Maybe it’s because I care nothing for flowers. Speeding in a cab toward Yonkers and his Greystone mansion, I wince at the thought of those willowy things ahead.
When I covered the annual exhibition of the New York Horticultural Society last November, I had my fill. As the limbs of some 500,000 blooming atrocities were crammed into the Museum of Natural History, I watched wheezing as the likes of J.P. Morgan, Payne Whitney, Harold Pratt, and Marshall Field all jockeyed for gardening prowess. It was a competition, after all, under the guise of a leisurely afternoon.
But with categories like best “Six Chrysanthemums in Six-Inch Pots” and top “Collection of Orchids to Cover 50 Square Feet,” there were countless honors to be had. The judges near invented one for every configuration of petals they saw. In all, some 80 accolades were bestowed that day on account of their zeal.
Afterward, sniffling through the throngs, I came upon some revelers congratulating an older man in a wheelchair. He was showing them his first prize medals. One was for “Specimen Fern,” another for “Assortment of Trained Chrysanthemums,” and the other for best “Group of Large Flowering Begonias.” It was Samuel Untermyer, the lawyer. Having only witnessed his mastery in the courtroom, I was bewildered to see him anywhere else.
Arriving at Greystone, I’m told that Mr. Untermyer gave up waiting for me. He went out to one of his gardens instead. A valet takes me around the back of the mansion toward the Hudson River in the distance. The sun is blinding, but on the horizon a great gazebo materializes and, with it, a woman reclining under its iron cupola. He sends me up to it on a staircase made of rock. When I reach the top, she meets me at the opening of the bower. It’s Mrs. Irene Richter, Mr. Untermyer’s fifty-four year old daughter. She invites me to sit down in what she calls his “Temple of Love.”
She chides me gently. Mrs. Richter can’t believe I’ve come to ask her father about flowers when I detest them as much as I do. So I abandon the front and try for my real aim.
“To tell you the truth,” she confides, “I don’t really know whether I have much to give you about my father that you haven’t already learned from others. You see, [he’s] a very busy, a very public man.”
Public indeed. During my years on the beat, I often dispatched briefs about his cases. Many were famous. In fact, his 1910 lawsuit against Standard Oil on behalf of the Waters-Pierce Oil Company gave me so much material, I could finally afford a decadent lunch. Remember when he cross-examined John D. Rockefeller, Sr. for two hours on the witness stand? It was operatic.
But whatever thrill he derived from such drama in court paled in comparison to the pleasure he took from his medals last year at the museum. Up until then, I had only known him as the ferocious litigator. Since then I’ve wondered: Wait, who was that unfamiliar man?
“Well, Mrs. Richter, it’s been said he had a ‘head for drama.’ Your father turned each day’s hearing into a ‘three-act melodrama. He had three big punches. One for the noon editions of the newspapers, one for the late afternoon’s, and one for the morning’s. Three bombshells a day. Timed to the second!’ I wonder if he didn’t miss his calling as a dramatist.”
“Well, he did love to act, though,” she laughs. Having accompanied him to court on occasion, she could certainly relate his theatrics. “All through my girlhood, I remember how he would suddenly burst forth with the words of Bulwer or some such romantic poet. He [always] liked theater, particularly [Edwin] Booth. He went to all the Shakespearean plays he had time for, [but he] said later that the modern theater was a degeneration of the art.”
I’m about to grin when, suddenly, she sits up. She wants to me understand something. Her father’s old performances weren’t easy. They were the result of “grueling, feverish work that kept him at high tension for 16, 18, or more hours each day.” And now he’s paying a dreadful cost. He has asthma, bouts of insomnia, spots before the eyes, and shooting pains—most curiously, whenever he works less than 14 hours a day. Nonetheless, he continues to rise at four o’clock in the morning.
I’m aghast. She leans in and explains: “At heart [you see, he’s] really a romanticist and sentimentalist, but he had to stifle that strain for the sake of his work until he no longer felt it. But all during the years when he [gained fame] as a lawyer, he relied on the memory of emotions he once experienced in his youth to play upon the emotions of the people he needed to influence in court.”
As I reconcile the lawyer with the chrysanthemum enthusiast, a man approaches. It’s Mr. George H. Chisholm, chief horticulturalist and estate manager of Greystone. He’s come to bring me to Mr. Untermyer. After we take leave of Mrs. Richter, he tells me about his career before starting at Greystone in 1930. He says he worked for William Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and the Duchess of Talleyrand among others. He also boasts about producing an arrangement for Mr. Untermyer that won first prize at that Horticultural Society show last November. The distinction, he reminds me, was for top “Assortment of Trained Chrysanthemums.”
“Mr. Chisholm, what was it that you assorted again?” I ask.
“[Well, it was] a life-size craft made of yellow cascade chrysanthemums in a fair-sized pond of mountain laurel. In it [I placed] a chrysanthemum model of a full-grown Indian [and had him wield] a chrysanthemum paddle.”
Weary of feigning any further interest in chrysanthemums, I change the subject.
He reveals that there’s over 80 statues and 60 greenhouses strewn about the property’s 170 acres. Mr. Chisholm also estimates “a staff which runs up to 50 in midsummer” under Mr. Untermyer’s employ. He’s most ebullient over the 60,000 plants, though, including “30,000 rhododendrons spread throughout the estate in groups and as border shrubbery mostly under trees—because they prefer the shade.”
“Because they prefer the shade?” I probe, hoping to have heard something different.
No, I was right. Concerned Mr. Chisholm is catching on to my disdain, I blurt out the first thing I can: “And what does Mr. Untermyer consider his favorite flower?”
He stops and looks me square in the eye, like trying to corral his words: “Are you quite certain you’ve seen him in person before, Mr. Stachura?”
I nod affirmatively.
“It’s an orchid,” he sighs. “Mr. Untermyer’s favorite flower is the orchid.”
He walks on ahead. I waver behind.
Although this is a work of historical fiction, I quoted Mrs. Richter and Mr. Chisholm from actual interviews they gave to Better Homes and Gardens (1928), The New Yorker (1940), or Famous in Their Twenties (1942). I added some things between the brackets, but otherwise kept their words intact.
I also based my dialogue on profiles of Mr. Untermyer that appeared in the New Yorker (1930) and the New York Times (1940). Finally, the Horticultural Society’s exhibition I referenced was held at the Museum of Natural History on November 10, 1938. The next day, an article with all the particulars appeared in the Times under the headline “500,000 Flowers Seen in Fall Show.”