Samuel Untermyer in His Enchanted Gardens (Part 2)

The Entrance to the Greek Garden at Untermyer Gardens. Photo by Rick Stachura. July 9, 2017.

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JULY 19, 1939. YONKERS, NY— I MEAN, HOW OFTEN DO YOU NOTICE WHAT ANOTHER MAN PINS TO HIS LAPEL? When I catch up to Mr. Chisholm, he says the Odontioda is Mr. Untermyer’s orchid of choice. It’s small and trim, reddish or white, and fits easily into the buttonhole of his silk Wetzel blazer. Since Mr. Untermyer likes to change his boutonniere three or four times a day, his chauffeur brings the first backup down from Greystone to Manhattan by noon to “brighten up his luncheon.”

“In the course of a year,” Mr. Chisholm notes, “[Mr. Untermyer] easily run[s] through the approximately four hundred varieties that make up the Odontioda group. [We grow them] in a small, damp greenhouse, and beneath the pots, [place moist bins of charcoal that] give off carbonaceous fumes. [The Odontioda are quite pleased with that.]”

We pass by a row of greenhouses and through the limestone opening of a fortress. Above us, a rendering of Artemis announces our arrival. The citadel, I discern, has three great walls. In lieu of a fourth, there’s a diorama of greenery set out sparkling before the Hudson River. Towers rise at the corners, each perhaps housing a hidden sentinel. Mr. Chisholm calls this the “Greek Garden.” It might as well be Olympus.

A rectangular pool awakens. Tiny jets of water pop up gracefully and ignite giant fountains. When lighted, I imagine they make a feverish spectacle under a darkened sky. Mr. Chisholm points out two columns topped by identical marble sphinxes in the distance. They’re relaxing before a modest amphitheater he remarks Mr. Untermyer designed for his late wife, Mrs. Minnie Carl.

As stray sunlight speckles my eyes, I put up my hand for shade. Between two fingers I can just make out these fluted Corinthian columns to my left. They comprise a round colonnade gaping roofless at the heavens as if it were some monument left over from antiquity. Mr. Chisholm concedes the effect, identifying it as the “Temple of the Sky.” Within its circle rests an older man aided by a cane. He’s contemplating the jagged landscape beyond the Greek Garden as we appear. It’s Mr. Untermyer.

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The Amphitheater in the Greek Gardens at Untermyer Gardens. Photo by Rick Stachura. September 17, 2017.

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“Ah! I’m glad you are here!” he stirs. “I’d like to ask your advice. What would you think of a row of fine old boxwood planted along the sides of that path? Do you think it would be a mistake?”

I’m mortified. Perhaps anticipating my reaction, Mr. Chisholm returns: “We have a good many specimens of box prepared. Twenty-five thousand dollars worth, probably.”

“Good,” Mr. Untermyer replies. And then to me: “A boxwood tree is like a man, more interesting if not too smooth. The pruning shears should yield to the contours of [its] natural growth.”

I’m relived. Behind him the heads of two stone lions drop water into an elaborately tiled swimming pool. There’s some purple blossoms about. Nodding to the smallest, he needles Mr. Chisholm, “You’re not going to have very good chrysanthemums this year, [are you]?

But it’s all in jest. Mr. Untermyer winks and the gardner mutters off. They’ve probably been at it for years–a private competition.

“From the time I could understand anything,” he confides, “I have regarded flowers as an inseparable part of [my] daily life.” He says he inherited the affinity from his mother.

“[If I could do things differently], I’d like to [have been] New York City’s Parks Commissioner.”

When I suggest the trouble he’d have had wresting that post from Robert Moses, Mr. Untermyer scoffs, “Nothing to it if I had the time!

But wouldn’t he have been more suited for, say, the presidency of the State Bar Association?

No, not at all. “What [are] the leading lawyers of the day? [They’re] a lot of highly paid clerks [guiding] financiers in the way of keeping prayerfully within the law. Where [are] the great advocates? Where [are] the Erskines, the Evarts, the Rufus Choates, the Charles O’Connors?”

I could appreciate his point.

“The arts, learning, and the graces of advocacy [are dead],” he mourns. Worst of all, the judges are reprehensible. “[They fail] to assign distinguished counsellors to defend [poor people] charged with serious offenses.”

He pauses. “But haven’t you come here today to inquire about my gardens?”

—–

The Pergola in the Greek Gardens at Untermeyer Gardens. Photo by Rick Stachura. July 9, 2017.

—–

I’m suddenly sworn in. The master of a thousand cross-examinations has me in his grasp. He’s eighty-one years old, but can still sense a secret. I know he won’t relent, so I decide to come clean.

“[Well, Mr. Stachura, I shall tell you why you should embrace flowers then!]” he delights. “[My enjoyment of them], I suppose, is to a considerable extent esthetic—such enjoyment as one gets from the contemplation of fine art. I have a love of [their] rich color, and I want as much of it around as possible.”

To steady himself, he places a hand on my shoulder. “My bulb gardens, for instance, in the spring—I should like you to see them. Fifty thousand tulips, a riot of color—and for harmony or contrast, spread beneath them like a velvet carpet, fifty thousand rich-textured pansies! Can you imagine what a sight that is?”

I try.

“Such things give me the thrill of music played on a great organ! [Come on then, I would like to show you something.]”

Leaving the Temple of the Sky, we move gingerly down a path of crushed tree bark. Mr. Untermyer’s hand is heavy, but not enough to make our advance difficult. He points out all the petals thriving along the way: “These there, [these] are my favorite flowers. [Orchids! Dahlias! Delphiniums!]”

“Which are which?” I stammer.

We step into a pergola. The latticework of its roof is drooping with things he identifies as “Dalmatian bellflower.” As they bop in the breeze, the reflection of the trellis makes a formidable maze. He presses me toward a cast-iron gate where beyond lies his Vista Garden. I was quite right to characterize this place as Mount Olympus.

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The Vista Garden at Untermyer Gardens. Photo by Rick Stachura. July 9, 2017.

—–

“It [was] an ungrateful soil, thin and stony and I have had to make a good deal of it myself so that it would be more friendly and nutritious. I have blasted out rock, and in many places mixed large quantities of peat into the topsoil—a thousand tons of it at least.”

He describes using 1,200 tons of “straw-manure” a year for fertilizer. “We could not get along without it; you have to feed plants, like humans, plenty of nourishing food if you expect them to grow up healthy and vigorous.”

At the end of a 600 foot cascade, two columns of Cipollino marble frame a view of the Hudson and, behind it, the Palisades. According to Mr. Untermyer, the late architect Stanford White purchased the pair in Europe exclusively for his garden. I’m immobilized, a pillar of salt, but Mr. Untermyer insists I walk down the steps. Alone.

“Bring me back a rhododendron from the overlook. I—I’m afraid I can no longer make the trip.”

A few hours from now, he’ll invite me to dine at Greystone. He’ll regale me with a map of the “Color Gardens” I have yet to descry. He’ll speak to me in terms of “annual asters,” “forget-me-nots,” “monkshoods,” and “rudbeckia.” He’ll make me set my pocket watch to an enormous sundial of perennials. He’ll even reproach me for not minding the English ivy or “weeping forsythia” dangling along the carriage trail that winds up to the mansion. But for now, here I go stepping off into this disorienting new pageant to fetch Mr. Untermyer a flower.

 


 

Author’s Note: Although this is a work of historical fiction, I quoted Mr. Chisholm and Mr. Untermyer from actual interviews they gave to Better Homes and Gardens (1928), The New Yorker (1940), or The New York Times (1940). I added some things between the brackets, but otherwise kept their words intact. I also imagined my dialogue from profiles of Mr. Untermyer that once appeared in the New Yorker (1930) and the New York Times (1940). Finally, I’d like to dedicate this story to Gove Hambidge, the reporter who preceded me to Greystone. He interviewed Mr. Untermyer there in 1928.

  2 comments for “Samuel Untermyer in His Enchanted Gardens (Part 2)

  1. Toni Auletti
    August 8, 2018 at 3:05 PM

    I love the flavor of the conversation! You are an amazing visionary of prose and poetry xoxoxo

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