Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence: Discovered Letters of a Southern Gardener


Ann Preston Bridgers, who first studied drama at Smith College and later lived in New York City to be close to Broadway, was the pride of Raleigh, North Carolina, where she founded the Little Theatre, a New Deal Federal Theatre project. In 1927, she coauthored with George Abbott Coquette, starring Helen Hayes. In 1929, Coquette became Mary Pickford's first talking movie. The role won her an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1930. Ann, like George Abbott, was a great encourager of the young. Her talent for ...

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Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence: Discovered Letters of a Southern Gardener

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Ann Preston Bridgers, who first studied drama at Smith College and later lived in New York City to be close to Broadway, was the pride of Raleigh, North Carolina, where she founded the Little Theatre, a New Deal Federal Theatre project. In 1927, she coauthored with George Abbott Coquette, starring Helen Hayes. In 1929, Coquette became Mary Pickford's first talking movie. The role won her an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1930. Ann, like George Abbott, was a great encourager of the young. Her talent for friendship and for identifying the talent of others led to her correspondence with Elizabeth Lawrence, who would become one of America's best garden writers.

Elizabeth, a graduate of Barnard College and the first female graduate from the landscape design program at what is now North Carolina State University, was struggling to make a career for herself in Raleigh at a time when there was little work for landscape designers, especially women and especially in the South.

When Ann moved back to Raleigh in the early 1930s, she and Elizabeth struck up a friendship that continued after Elizabeth moved to Charlotte in 1948 and endured until Ann's death in 1967. They were two women of different generations (Ann was the older) who valued their opinions and their privacy and did not conform to images of the so-called Southern lady. Ann encouraged Elizabeth to find a way to live as she wished and guided her to write articles for some of the new women's magazines. Elizabeth was already making a splendid garden, and with Ann's help she began to write about her passion. By 1942, she was so successful that her book, A Southern Garden, was published. It is still considereda classic.

Although only a small number of Ann's letters were preserved, editor Emily Herring Wilson discovered a treasure trove of Elizabeth's letters to her mentor. Through those letters, readers can glimpse what life in a Southern town was like for women, especially during the 1930s and 1940s. Elizabeth discusses family, friends, books, plays, travels, ideas, and, of course, writing. In 2004, on what would have been her 100th birthday, Elizabeth (who died in 1984) was featured as one of the 25 greatest gardeners in the world by Horticulture magazine. That acclaim would never have come her way without her friendship with Ann Preston Bridgers.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Wilson (No One Gardens Alone: A Life of Elizabeth Lawrence) has written about North Carolina gardener and garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence (1904–85) for more than a decade. She provides a fair assessment of this book by describing it as a creation "for readers who enjoy letters, rather than a text for scholars." Found here are letters spanning 1934–66 that Lawrence wrote to her older friend and mentor, the playwright Ann Preston Bridgers. They provide a window into Lawrence's daily activities and contemplations on various topics while revealing the significance of the women's relationship. The conversation is not evenly represented, but this is not Wilson's fault. Although a few letters authored by Bridgers are included, most of the letters she wrote to Lawrence have not been found. VERDICT This book will have regional appeal in the southern United States, with the potential to especially attract readers in North Carolina. It is also a worthy acquisition for libraries with well-used gardening collections, since gardeners are most likely to recognize Lawrence's name.—Stacy Russo, Chapman Univ. Libs., Orange, CA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780895873750
  • Publisher: Blair, John F. Publisher
  • Publication date: 4/28/2010
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

The New York Times called Emily Herring Wilson's Two Gardeners: Katharine S. White an Elizabeth Lawrence - A Friendship in Letters (2002) "one of the finest gardening books published in years." Wilson is also the author of an acclaimed biography of Elizabeth Lawrence entitled No One Gardens Alone (2004). While editing correspondence between Lawrence and Katharine White, she discovered several hundred letters from Lawrence to Bridgers, which inspired her to compile this collection. Wilson lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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Read an Excerpt

In this letter excerpt, Elizabeth Lawrence tells Ann Bridgers about a visit from Ellen Biddle Shipman, who gave a lecture in Raleigh on October 22, 1935. The most famous American woman garden designer, Shipman designed the Sarah P. Duke Gardens of Duke University.

I have been thinking for some time that I might as well resort to writing to you as I never see you to say anything, and never can say it when I do. . . .

Why didn't you go to hear Mrs. Shipman? Because it was in the morning? I meant to tell you to be sure to go, but it never occurred to me you wouldn't. I thought the lecture pretty poor—not at all well thought out; she just said whatever came into her head, which is charming but not very helpful at a garden school where you go to learn. She told me with pride, that she never read her lectures. "Mrs. Cary [another of the speakers at the garden seminar]," she said, "reads her lectures; of course it takes much more out of you to speak, but it is the only way." She is right, of course, but a really good lecture has got to have been thought out in detail beforehand and turned in your mind. Then you have to think it all out all over as you say it, and then it sounds spontaneous, but makes sense too. I learned this from what you told me about Helen Hayes [the star of Ann Bridgers's Broadway hit, Coquette]—I can't do it.

But you should have heard Mrs. Shipman. Just as you would not miss an opportunity to see a distinguished actress you should hear Mrs. Shipman.

She is old—nearly seventy I think. Once I cut a picture of her out of House & Garden. It was from a drawing in profile, and beautiful as Botticelli is beautiful. That beautiful longline of the jaw, wide mouth, and flaring nostrils. A beautifully modeled head, done in a few lines. I said to myself that here was a person I wanted to know. Please, imagine her coming to Raleigh and no one else wanting to entertain her.

. . . [A friend] said, "How will you know Mrs. Shipman?" I said, "Oh, I know exactly what she looks like, tall and slender with the same sort of beauty as Miss Rosa [Rosa Heath Long, voted "handsomest" in the class of 1907 at St. Mary's School, where Elizabeth Lawrence had attended].

We sat waiting in the station, the train was not in, and I said, "There is Mrs. Shipman." Bessie [Elizabeth's mother] said, "But the train isn't in." But I ran after her, and said, "Are you looking for someone?" and she said, "Yes, Mrs. Lawrence, are you Mrs. Lawrence?" And I said, "No, I am Elizabeth."

She had flown to New Orleans to see about a garden that wasn't getting along as she liked, straightened it out, and came all the way here which takes over twenty-four hours, and it was 9:30 p.m. when we got home. And she is nearly seventy. I said, when we got home, "Wouldn't you like to go right to bed?" and she said, "No, if you are not tired, I would like to sit down and talk to you."

I said, "Mrs. Shipman, I think it is 'extraordinary' (I was mimicking her—she calls everything 'extraordinary'—I don't know whether from reading Henry James or being born in Philadelphia) that you can do gardens all over the whole United States. Aren't you the only landscape architect who does?" She said, "I really do not know. I really don't know anything about what other landscape architects do. I have three children and five grandchildren so I don't have much time."

I said, "But you must be extraordinarily versatile to do gardens in such different places as New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Winston-Salem, the middle-west."

She said, "But the principles are always the same."

"But how do you get the individual character of each place?"

"Because I am architecturally minded."

"And what about plant materials? Surely you can't know the plant materials for all those places." (It takes a lifetime to learn it for one.)

This, of course, is the whole thing. She was very much annoyed. And at once on the defensive. She said you didn't need to know the plant material. She said, "I ask my clients what they like and I use that. A garden should be a portrait of the person for whom it is designed."

To make up, I said, "That is the secret. It is because you do not try to express your personality, but your client's—so you can never become stereotyped."

Then to prove her great interest in plant material, she got out a little notebook, asked the name, height, blooming period, and characteristics of the milk-and-wine lilies, saying "You see, this is how I pick up information wherever I go"—whereupon Bessie got out her blooming date books and began to reel off bulbs for the South. Poor Mrs. Shipman never having heard of any of them before, and being a worse speller than I, tried to take down Lycoris squamigera; Hymenocallis accidentalis; Amaryllis belladonna; Chimonanthus fragrans; Sternbergia lutea—looking utterly bewildered. Finally, she said, "Frankly, I am no botanist, you know. I think gardens are best when they are planted with a few things, that you know will do well and give the right effect. And I am not interested in horticulture."

I said, "Mrs. Shipman, you are not a gardener, you are a landscape architect." She was indignant at that. She said, "But I am a gardener." (Her own garden is famous; that is how she got started—her own garden was so perfect, that an architect asked her to design gardens for his houses. She never had any training as far as I know, but she is nevertheless, a thorough workman—like you, and in the same way—and has learned a technique, I feel sure. I tried to find out how, and I think it is by eliminating nonessentials. My weakness is caring so much about everything, and not emphasizing the essentials. I feel pretty discouraged at this point.) [Mrs. Shipman said,] "I work in my own garden with my own hands—I am a gardener."

I said, "But no, you are not, you don't love plants for themselves. You only think of them as part of the design." (I was thinking of you.)

Mrs. Shipman looks right at you when she talks and her pupils get very small and sharp and bright.

I hope I wasn't as rude as this sounds. I don't think I was. And I don't think she thought me so. And all of the conversation was impersonal, and not at all heated; intense but not heated. I think if she had thought me rude she would have stopped talking. I was criticizing her, but not as a person. I wanted to find out from the best landscape architect in the country, what is essential in designing a garden. I thought I did when she said, "A garden must be a portrait of a person."

Bessie kissed her goodnight. She left her door open while she undressed, and kept talking to us.

In the morning I took her her hot milk and orange juice. When I went back in, she was sitting up in bed with the tray in her lap, and in a blue dressing gown, and her eyes are blue when she wears blue, and gray otherwise. I never saw anyone so beautiful. Michael and Turk [the Lawrence family's dogs] were sitting on the rug staring at her. They will never believe there is no bacon, just because they can't smell bacon.

When I told Sammy [Elizabeth's father] how beautiful Mrs. Shipman is, he could not bear not having seen her. I told Mrs. Shipman this, and she laughed, and said he would have been disappointed when he saw a wrinkled old woman. She said it the way Nana [Elizabeth's grandmother] said she was a wrinkled old woman, knowing she was, and knowing it didn't matter.

When I told Sammy about Mrs. Shipman, he said wistfully, "I wish you could have seen more of her while she is here." He seemed to forget that the garden school is what she came for. I said, "Oh, but I saw her a lot; last night, and taking her to the Woman's Club, and this morning before she got up." It isn't the amount of time you see a person, it is how responsive they are in that time. Mrs. Shipman doesn't waste a second. Sammy said, "Did you tell her you are a landscape architect?" I said, "No, she isn't interested in what I am." He said, "You were afraid to." He said, "Why didn't you ask her where to study?"

I said, "I did not want her to think I asked her to my house for what I could get out of her."

Sammy said, "Isn't that what you asked her for?" . . .

Mrs. Shipman said in her lecture, "If anyone asks you 'who landscaped your place?' the landscape architect is a failure." Her slides were ravishing—all of little gardens, and more of very little ones. She likes doing little gardens—some were adorable.

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Table of Contents

Introduction by Emily Herring Wilson
Cast of Characters
Part One: 1934-1941
A Life of One's Own
"There is nothing like the revelation of a reticent person once started." Elizabeth to Ann
Part Two: 1942-1948
A Book of One's Own
"One thing about the war suits me perfectly. Staying at home." Elizabeth to Ann
Part Three: 1951-1966
A House of One's Own: The Charlotte Years
"I found to my delight that a house is a companion." Elizabeth to Ann
"I want you to know how much I have loved life and how necessary it was just the way I played it." Elizabeth to her family

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