Two Gardeners: Katharine S. White and Elizabeth Lawrence--A Friendship in Letters


A legendary editor at The New Yorker during its first thirty-four years, Katharine S. White was also a great garden enthusiast. In March 1958 she began publishing her popular column, "Onward and Upward in the Garden." Her first column elicited loads of fan mail, but one letter in particular caught her attention. From Elizabeth Lawrence, a noted southern garden writer, it was filled with suggestions and encouragement. When Katharine wrote back her appreciation, she reported on her Maine garden and discussed the ...
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A legendary editor at The New Yorker during its first thirty-four years, Katharine S. White was also a great garden enthusiast. In March 1958 she began publishing her popular column, "Onward and Upward in the Garden." Her first column elicited loads of fan mail, but one letter in particular caught her attention. From Elizabeth Lawrence, a noted southern garden writer, it was filled with suggestions and encouragement. When Katharine wrote back her appreciation, she reported on her Maine garden and discussed the plants and books that interested her. Thus began a correspondence that would last for almost twenty years, until Katharine's death in 1977.

Two Gardeners is a collection of these luminous letters, edited and introduced by Emily Herring Wilson. The letters bring to life the unique epistolary friendship between two intelligent women, the "formidable" Mrs. White and the "shy" Miss Lawrence, both avid gardeners and readers, both at a stage of life when to make a new friend was rare indeed: when they first wrote to one another, Katharine was sixty-two, Elizabeth, fifty-four.

More than 150 letters went back and forth during the course of their correspondence, though Katharine and Elizabeth would meet face-to-face only once. Whether talking about gardens or books, friends or family, each held a special place in the other's life.

Illustrated with photographs of both Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence, their families, gardens, and houses, this book is a special treat for gardeners, literature lovers, and anyone who delights in reading about women's friendships.

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Editorial Reviews

Andrew J. Angyal
It is a great pleasure in these troubled times to discover Two Gardeners, a look, through letters, as a durable long-distance gardening friendship between two wise and talented American writers. Two Gardeners is a splendid book to savor on a spring afternoon sitting in a comfortable lawn chair in the garden.
The News & Record
Capturing the true essence of how to be a gardener and what it means to be a friend, their letters, here lovingly collected and eloquently introduced by editor Emily Herring Wilson, offer an intimate portrait of two accomplished women whose contribution to garden literature transcends their professionally published work.
Carolina Woman
You don't need green thumbs to hold a book and not put it down. . . 'Two Gardeners, A Friendship in Letters' edited by Winston-Salem resident Emily Herring Wilson, is a good read even if you aren't interested in gardening. . . . Even judging by the cover, 'Two Gardeners' is too optimistic to leave on the shelf in the springtime. The old-fashioned subtitle, 'A Friendship in Letters,' is a relief from the bad-girl guides and balancing-act yoga manuals that have filled women's reading lists for the past few years. It seems ladylike and wholesome in the way of Emily Post, chicken-salad finger sandwiches and dresses with mid-calf hemlines. . .
Both women were traditionalists. Yet they were partial to informality, whether in borders that were allowed to spill over, in flower arrangements or in letters. And the letters are full of laughter, knowledge, irrational prejudice and unexpected details. Both women belong in the company of the great early gardening writers and are admired by those who have come afterward. In this delightful collection, it is easy to see why.
Garden Design
If you haven't dropped a line to your green-thumbed pen pal recently, you will after reading this delightful book.
Los Angeles Times
White's garden was in Maine, Lawrence's in North Carolina. ... They meet once, in New York for lunch, in April 1967, but it has none of the moment of the letters. "Help! Help!" White writes to Lawrence in 1969. "I'm trying to find how often the old-fashioned Night-blooming cereus opens its white flowers at midnight ... in order to capture an event of my quite young childhood." What are friends for?
New York Times Book Review
Your problems are mine," Elizabeth Lawrence wrote to Katharine S. White. She was talking about finding someone to work in her garden, but she might have been talking about ill health, growing old, the task of writing about gardens, almost anything except climate. . . . These [letters] have been edited by Emily Herring Wilson in a wonderful book called Two Gardeners: Katharine S. White and Elizabeth Lawrence -- A Friendship in Letters. . . .And, indeed, Lawrence, whose writings have received well-deserved posthumous care, is the great find in this collection. She writes with unfailing generosity and humor, and through her letters you can glimpse the culture of Southern gardening as she knew it, as well as the ardors of her own garden. . . . Two Gardeners is one of the finest gardening books published in years, largely because it reveals much about the character of these two remarkable women as it does about the plants they loved
Too often we head to the garden center on Saturday morning, load up on plants and call it gardening. Better to experience true garden drama with Two Gardeners, A Friendship in Letters. From Maine, New Yorker editor Katharine S. White (E.B.'s wife) and the great Southern garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence carry on a 20-year conversation that began in 1958. They exchange enthusiasms (Gertrude Jekyll; the earliest crocus) and intimate exasperations: the cruelty of an untimely freeze, bulb-scrounging mice and the ravages of age. Together they remind us what's to be learned from those who gardened before us.
Raleigh News and Observer
Emily Herring Wilson has edited wisely and well. Her annotations identify fully the many references to people and books that would otherwise remain mysterious because of their brevity. She also captures the sprit of the whole enterprise: "Gardeners are often good letter writers, and their letters are efforts to preserve memory. After they have put the tools away in the shed, they write letters as a way to go on working in the garden.
Publishers Weekly
In 1958 White, wife of the essayist E.B. White, published the first of many horticultural articles in the New Yorker, where she had been an editor for years. It was a critique of the catalogues from which she ordered seeds, bulbs and plants for the gardens around her house in North Brooklin, Maine. It prompted Lawrence, a noted garden writer in Charlotte, N.C., to send a fan letter recommending other catalogues for the author to look into. White gratefully wrote back, and thus began a friendship by mail that lasted until White's death in 1977. Because White often asked for advice about books, catalogues and plants, there is a good deal of gardening information in these 160 letters. Mutual encouragement is a major theme. White praises Lawrence's books, Southern Gardening and The Little Bulb Book, and in her last letter claims to have learned almost everything she knows about horticulture from Lawrence. Though somewhat in awe of the older, more famous woman, Lawrence doesn't hesitate to act as her teacher. Mixed in are accounts of their daily lives, bits of family history and news of Lawrence's aged mother and White's grandchildren. These graceful letters by two women well-known in the gardening world are a joy to read. The book is nicely assembled by Wilson (Hope and Dignity: Older Black Women of the South), whose footnotes are informative but unobtrusive. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Presents 166 letters exchanged between 1958 and 1977 by editor Katharine S. White and gardening writer Elizabeth Lawrence. Their correspondence chronicles the development of their friendship, writing, plants they admire, and their respective health and happiness, with a final section of letters exchanged between Elizabeth Lawrence and writer E.B. White after his wife Katharine's death. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
New Yorker
In 1958, Katharine S. White, an editor at this magazine and the wife of E. B. White, began writing a gardening column, which appeared intermittently, like lady's slippers, under the heading "Onward and Upward in the Garden," until 1970. The first essay prompted a fan letter from the distinguished Southern gardener Elizabeth Lawrence, who wrote a weekly column for the Charlotte Observer. In more than a hundred and fifty letters, they discussed subjects ranging from bloom times in their respective zones to meetings with cantankerous plantsmen, their burgeoning families, and, as time passed, the vicissitudes of old age. Those unfamiliar with Lawrence will be glad to meet her; for fans of the Whites, to hear once more about doings in North Brooklin, Maine, is akin to a visitation.
Kirkus Reviews
Letters between the famous New Yorker editor and a distinguished southern garden-writer chronicle their friendship, as well as the joys and travails of gardening. The correspondence begins in May 1958, when Lawrence writes to congratulate White on her New Yorker essay "A Romp in the Catalogues," and ends with White's death in 1977. Lawrence, who lived with her mother in Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote a weekly column for the Charlotte Observer, had published several well-received books, including A Southern Garden, and also designed gardens. White, recently relocated to Maine with husband E.B. White, continued to edit and write for the New Yorker but now had more time to garden and to maintain a correspondence (though illness, travel, and work cause some breaks in the flow here). The two became friends through their letters, meeting only once in 1967. In the correspondence, they commiserate with and encourage each other in writing and gardening projects. White, thanking Lawrence for a copy of her book The Little Bulbs, hopes it will expand her collection of bulbs; she notes in 1959 that she picked roses until the end of November; she details catalogues she receives and tells Lawrence, "I am with you in detesting most garden books and their sentimentality or their jokes." Lawrence writes that she is " the most casual gardener... When things get sick I destroy them"; she gives her opinion of Gertrude Jekyll ("best book is Home and Garden"); and describes her long search to find out who or what Ornithogalum balansae was named for—without the capitalization, she wasn't sure whether balansa "was a place or a person." Their delight in gardening is increasingly circumscribed by their physicalcondition: White suffers a series of debilitating illnesses; Lawrence must take care of her bedridden mother and then suffers from painful arthritis. A splendid, moving collection memorably celebrating two remarkable women's shared affection for the making and tending of gardens
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807085585
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 4/16/2002
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.84 (w) x 8.42 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Emily Herring Wilson is a writer, lecturer, and novice gardener living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The author of Hope and Dignity: Older Black Women of the South and coauthor of North Carolina Women: Making History, she has taught at Wake Forest University, Salem College, and Cornell University and is a MacDowell Colony Fellow.
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Read an Excerpt


Gardeners are often good letter writers, and whether they write to describe what's blooming today or to remember a flower from childhood, their letters are efforts to preserve memory. After they have put away tools in the shed, they write letters as a way to go on working in the garden. Because it is impossible to achieve the kind of perfection they dream of, they try to come to terms with their dreams by talking back and forth about their successes and failures. Sometimes they like to have visitors who can walk with them along the paths and admire their handiwork, but at other times, they feel more confident if they can keep visitors at a distance. No matter how lovely the garden looks, as soon as the gardener hears that someone is coming, she feels compelled to warn, "Don't expect much; we haven't had rain." The perfect flower today can wilt under the eye of tomorrow's visitor. Even a visit to Monet's garden may find us standing in a line in the rain only to notice an unweeded bed. It is far easier to maintain the illusion of a garden in a letter.

    Which brings us to the idea of the garden as an illusion, for it is the constant hope of the gardener that enriching this bed and planting that shrub will result in an aesthetic experience that lives up to the dream. So, what is the gardener's dream but a dream of the ideal order in which beauty can be expressed and loss absorbed? Often the struggle between what is hoped for and what is accomplished meets with unexpected disappointments: weeds and varmints are insistent, a flower bed looks poorly. But as the gardener moves along with worried brow, suddenlythe smell of a particular flower provides transport to a garden from one's childhood (which may have been no more than one scraggly rosebush on a school playground). Memory is awakened, the world made whole, if only for a moment. But in that moment some sort of healing takes place, or so gardeners have believed for centuries.

    This interplay and perhaps it is a kind of play, between what is lived and what is remembered, between what is desired and what is accomplished, shapes the writing of letters and the making of gardens. I would observe further that this shaping is an act of evocation and is, of course, an art rather than a science.

    Gardeners are as different as their favorite plants and seasons, but they share a passion for growing things. Some spend many of their gardening hours reading nursery catalogues and making plans for next year's borders, bringing the energy inside the house to bear upon fruit and flower in the outside garden. Katharine S. White was of this variety. Elizabeth Lawrence called herself a "dirt gardener," who worked outside digging and planting, bringing blossoms and leaves into the house to study. How these two different gardeners in distant places became friends is the subject of this book.

    Some years ago when I began reading the letters of Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence in preparation for a biography of Elizabeth, I felt as if I had discovered a private garden, though not exactly a secret garden. Certainly, in leaving their letters in library archives, they had not locked the gate and thrown away the key, and, in fact, no buried secrets, if there are any, will be uncovered here. These two intelligent and private women—one a New Englander, the other a southerner; one a well-known editor of The New Yorker, the other a respected garden writer—present snapshots of themselves, their gardens, and their different worlds in letters written over almost twenty years. Amid reports of what's growing in the garden and what they are writing, they share glimpses of themselves that give substance to Elizabeth's confession (to a much earlier correspondent), "Privacy is like time. It is within."

    The letters begin in the late spring of 1958, soon after Katharine and her husband E. B. White had given up their New York apartment and moved permanently to their saltwater farm in Maine, and they end in the summer of 1977, when Katharine died at the age of eighty-four. In the course of the letters, the two women discuss gardening, their writing about gardening, and books. They also create a small cast of characters from the past and present—family members, friends, other gardeners, and writers. What we are shown in the letters is never complete, for their lives were full, and their letters were often interrupted. When they did sit down to write one another, however, they revealed far more about themselves than people meeting them face to face may have recognized. To acquaintances, Katharine White sometimes seemed "formidable," and Elizabeth Lawrence, "shy." Readers of their letters will have many opportunities to see beyond these limited characterizations and to develop a fuller understanding of the two women as intelligent, opinionated, sensitive, and generous friends who bolstered one another's confidence in good times and bad.

    In reading their letters, we enter a private garden rather than a public one. For here among the persistent weeds, the briers, the deadwood, and the tangle of branches, green shoots await unearthing (I use some of the language from that favorite children's book The Secret Garden). As editor I have done some pruning, a bit of staking, but in the end, I hope the letters have not been changed as much as made ready for visitors. Maine winters—and mice—took their toll on Katharine's garden borders, but she went on ordering more bulbs and plants. Elizabeth liked for visitors to admire her well-designed garden, but often she had time only for sweeping the gravel walks before welcoming friends. Although both women were traditionalists (Katharine's first garden essay included a lively and humorous argument with hybridizers who made zinnias look like chrysanthemums; Elizabeth had to know the Latin names of plants), they liked informality —whether in borders that were allowed to spill over, flower arrangements, or letters.

Katharine White was born September 17, 1892, in Winchester, Massachusetts, the last of three daughters. Their mother, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, died when Katharine was three years old, and her father turned to his unmarried sister Caroline to help bring up the girls. Katharine's beloved "Aunt Crully" and her mother's sister, Annie Shepley ("Aunt Poo"), figured large in Katharine's memories of a happy childhood. Two years after his wife's death, Charles Sergeant moved his family into a handsome Georgian house on Hawthorn Road in Brookline, Massachusetts, a place Katharine wrote about in her garden essays. The three sisters—Elizabeth ("Elsie"), Rosamond, and Katharine-rode the streetcar into Boston to attend Miss Winsor's School. Katharine, especially, enjoyed visits to her father's family home on Bridge Street in Northampton, Massachusetts, where his sisters presided over a household that reminded Katharine of the mythical town "in possession of the Amazons" in Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford. It was a book Katharine had read and reread as a young girl, a gift from her father on her twelfth birthday. The sisters kept house and set an excellent table; the front parlor was often lively with women's club meetings and other social gatherings. Katharine was brought up on good conversation and good company and later on, her own parties in the Whites' Turtle Bay apartment in New York would be happily remembered by her guests.

    In 1915, the year after Katharine had graduated from Bryn Mawr College, she married a Harvard man, Ernest Angell, and apparently never considered any obstacles to having both a family and a career, in spite of the belief of the Bryn Mawr president, Martha Carey Thomas, that it would be unwise for ambitious women to consider both. After several office jobs, two children (Nancy Angell Stableford and Roger Angell), and a marriage that ended in divorce, Katharine found herself employed in the office of a new publication, The New Yorker. Early on, Katharine recommended that the editor, Harold Ross, hire E. B. White (known as "Andy"), who became what many readers regard as the best essayist in America. Katharine and Ross were putting together a group of talented people, and when she and Andy married (in 1929), her life at home had many of the same lively interests as her life at the office. Although, over the years, she and Andy moved back and forth between the house in Maine and the apartment in New York, in 1957 Andy persuaded her to live permanently on the Maine farm ("gumming up things," as he later reflected; Katharine was a city girl). In Maine, they worked in offices across the hall from one another and sometimes had staff to help with their correspondence and typing. Katharine devoted her mornings to reading manuscripts sent up from The New Yorker and then tried to settle down to work on a garden essay

    E. B. White loved farming in Maine and working in the barnyard (as his readers know). Katharine's domain was the house and the flower borders. She was in charge of the household staff, which prepared meals for the two of them, and often for children and grandchildren. Vegetables from the garden were great favorites. Katharine also grew houseplants (sometimes as many as fifty or sixty), and in winter months she spent hours reading through nursery catalogues to make out her orders for seeds, bulbs, and plants. Between them, the Whites had a busy, full life, one which did not seem to slow down much from the pace of their city lives.

    Once in Maine, Katharine hoped to have more time to garden and to do other things she had not had time for in New York. She also set to work on her first "garden piece" (Elizabeth called it a "story"): a review of garden catalogues, which appeared in a March 1958 New Yorker under "Books." (After the first essay, her garden essays appeared under the title "Onward and Upward in the Garden," a phrase from the Unitarian creed.) Writing was for Katharine, as Andy observed, "an agonizing ordeal," and she had no sooner submitted her first essay than she began worrying that she would never write the next. What most stood in her way was trying to satisfy her own standards of excellence. And yet the author of the delightful and original first piece—called "A Romp in the Catalogues"—found an immediate audience of enthusiastic readers. Many of them wrote to Katharine White to thank her for her essay—and she answered every letter. The correspondent that she came to value most lived in North Carolina. Her name was Elizabeth Lawrence.

    Elizabeth's first letter to Katharine White was a fan letter. Beginning with words of appreciation for Katharine's review, she quickly settled into her dominant tone: familial and helpful. She noted that they had a friend in common—Joseph Mitchell, a writer at The New Yorker and a native of North Carolina—and then launched into suggestions of other catalogues Katharine might read. She also added what would become a characteristic just-one-more-thing postscript.

    Apparently, Elizabeth did not hesitate to send her badly typed letter filled with spelling errors, dashes, and half-finished parenthetical phrases to one of the best literary editors in America. She did, however, know her facts about plants, and that distinction was not wasted on Katharine, who always relied on the celebrated Fact Checking department of The New Yorker. The knowledge that showed through the smudges of Elizabeth's letter was enough to convince Katharine that she had fallen into company with yet another talented writer, perhaps one as individualistic (her word) as the writers of the nursery catalogues she so much enjoyed. From the very beginning, Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence struck up a friendship in letters that helped them as writers—and later encouraged them through difficult times in their lives.

    Who, then, was Elizabeth Lawrence? Younger than Katharine by almost twelve years, she was born on May 27, 1904, at her father's home in Marietta, Georgia. Samuel Lawrence was an engineer, fun-loving, and Elizabeth "Bessie" Lawrence was a popular social hostess who loved order. The first of two daughters, Elizabeth lived in a small village in northeastern North Carolina until the family moved to Raleigh so that the girls could be sent to St. Mary's, a preparatory school founded by the Episcopal Church. (Elizabeth never talked about religious faith, but the calendar of the Church was as important in her letters as the Latin names of plants.) Elizabeth never liked to leave home but surprised herself by applying to and being accepted by Barnard College (the alma mater of her St. Mary's English teacher). After graduation from Barnard in 1926, however, Elizabeth paid no attention to the directives of Barnard's Dean Virginia Gildersleeve that Barnard women take their places in the world: Instead she couldn't wait to get home. Springtime in the Raleigh garden was the most beautiful she had ever seen.

    Family and home always held Elizabeth close: The pattern of her childhood was not as much to be remembered as relived. She seems never to have had thoughts of separating herself from home, not for marriage or for anything else. She and her mother loved to garden and to compare closely kept records of bloom dates. Realizing that she could never earn a living by writing poetry (the poems she wrote were imitative of Edna St. Vincent Millay) and giving "talks" on the arts, which she loved, she enrolled as the first woman student in a North Carolina State program in landscape design. When she graduated in 1933, she designed several gardens, often working for a Raleigh woman who had set up a landscape practice, but Elizabeth was not suited for business: Her designs were done mostly for friends. Happily, she was taken under the tutelage of two unmarried Raleigh sisters who helped support their household by writing for publication. (Like Katharine's Northampton aunts, they had graduated from Smith College, made a home for their brother, and were gracious hostesses.) With these sisters as her mentors (one of them, Ann Preston Bridgers, appears in the letters that follow), Elizabeth began writing garden articles for House & Garden and other magazines, using her own large garden as her laboratory. By 1942, her garden was famous in Raleigh, and by the time she was thirty-eight, she had written her first book, A Southern Garden. After her father's death and her sister's marriage, Elizabeth found the large old house in Raleigh and the garden too much to manage, and in 1948 she and her mother sold the Raleigh property and moved to Charlotte to live next door to her sister Ann and Ann's family. There was a great deal of back-and-forth between the two houses, and increasingly as their mother became more of a care, Elizabeth depended on Ann to help. Family ties counted for a great deal in both the Lawrence and the White households, as the following letters make clear.

    By 1958, Elizabeth began to come into her own as a noted garden writer. The year before Elizabeth wrote her fan letter to Katharine White, she had published The Little Bulbs and had started writing a garden column in a Charlotte, North Carolina, newspaper. Slowly, quietly, and with growing confidence in her own ability, she was becoming one of the most authoritative writers and lecturers in the southern gardening world. She had made her choice: to stay at home and look after the old people. And increasingly, she had many responsibilities, especially after her mother became an invalid and required constant care. Looking after her mother, however, was like looking after the garden—it required both love and work. Katharine, too, knew about caring for older relatives—her own aunt Crully spent the last years of her life with the Whites in Maine. Sensitive to the needs of older people, Katharine and Elizabeth shared in their letters some of their own concerns about aging.

    But what linked these two gardeners perhaps more than anything else was the fact that each was an inveterate letter writer. Katharine was able to make the adjustment to living in Maine in part because of her continued contact with many of the writers she edited and with friends she had made at The New Yorker. Elizabeth maintained an enormous correspondence with gardeners all over the country. Both were readers of Jane Austen and showed the same kind of anticipation as the inhabitants of Longborne in Pride and Prejudice: "The arrival of letters was the first grand object of every morning's impatience."


Excerpted from Two Gardeners by Katharine S. White and Elizabeth Lawrence. Copyright © 2002 by Emily Herring Wilson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Introduction vii
Editor's Note xix
Part 1 "A Romp in the Catalogues" 1958-1961 1
Part 2 "A Tender Leaf of Hope" 1962-1968 119
Part 3 "Letters One by One" 1969-1977 183
Epilogue: "Signs of Durability" Letters of E. B. White and Elizabeth Lawrence, 1977-1980 247
Acknowledgments 259
Index 263
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