Raised among wealth and privilege during America’s fabled Gilded Age, a niece of famous novelist Edith Wharton and a friend to literary great Henry James, Beatrix Farrand is expected to marry, and marry well. But as a young woman traveling through Europe with her mother and aunt, she already knows that gardens are her true passion.
How this highborn woman with unconventional views escapes the dictates of society to become the most celebrated female landscape designer in the country is the story of her unique determination to create beauty and serenity while remaining true to herself.
Beatrix’s journey begins at the age of twenty-three in the Borghese Gardens of Rome, where she meets beguiling Amerigo Massimo, an Italian gentleman of sensitivity and charm—a man unlike any she has known before....
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A Garden for First Meetings
This is the most difficult type of garden to design, since who can tell when first meetings will occur? However, if you are inclined to plan for the unforeseen, to hope for limitless possibility, I recommend a garden that includes elements of the romantic, the antique, and the implausible.
The romantic element should include a series of intersecting winding paths, trails from which, at the beginning, one cannot see the ultimate destination but only guess at it. The gravel for these paths should be very fine and make only the slightest whisper of noise when walked upon.
The antique element should include a small folly or casino, a shelter of some sort in which those meeting for the first time can find objects to feed their conversation. First meetings often involve a certain amount of shyness, diffidence, and anxiety. It is therefore helpful if the garden provides distraction.
The implausible should include a plant growing out of place. I do not normally recommend such a thing. Plants, after all, know where they like to grow and do not like to grow. Roses do not like shade and ferns do not like direct sun. If, however, you can convince creeping speedwell to grow in one twist of the gravel path, this serves as a reminder to those meeting for the first time that life is full of uncertainty and unexpected happenings. Above all else, we must cherish the mystery.
For plants I recommend pines as a backdrop, especially Roman umbrella pines if your climate will allow them. If not, a very small grove of Black Forest pines or, even better, pines from the Odenwald area of Germany, planted thickly.
Flowers should include angel’s tears daffodils of the narcissus species. They are smaller than other varieties and require a more observant eye; Aquilegia vulgaris, or common columbine, which looks best grown in semishadowed areas; Chrysogonum virginianum, goldenstar, which will bloom all summer in case the first meeting should not occur quickly.
And roses, of course. There should be roses in all gardens, and in a garden for first meetings the rose should be Rosa gallica “Officinalis,” the old apothecary rose, also known as the rose of Lancaster. This rose, with its very dark green foliage, blooms just once in the season, reminding us that first meetings are not to be taken for granted. It will also spread of its own will, sending out shoots in all directions, and is a good plant for sharing.
My grandparents had a farm outside of Schenectady, and every Sunday my father, who worked in town, would hitch the swaybacked mare to the buggy and take us out there. I would be left to play in the field as my father and grandfather sat on the porch and drank tea and Grandma cooked. My mother, always dressed a little too extravagantly, shelled the peas.
A yellow barn stood tall and broad against a cornflower blue sky. A row of red hollyhocks in front of the barn stretched to the sky, each flower on the stem as silky and round as the skirt on Thumbelina’s ball gown. In the field next to the barn, daisies danced in the breeze. My namesake flower.
I saw it still, the yellows and reds and blues glowing against my closed eyelids. The field was my first garden, and I was absolutely happy in it. We usually are, in the gardens of our childhood. I, who had lost so much, wondered if I could ever be truly happy again.
When I opened my eyes I was on a porch in Lenox, a little tired from weeks of travel, a little restless. My companions were restless, too, weary of trying to make polite conversation, as strangers do.
Mrs. Avery suggested we try the Ouija board. We had, before that, been discussing rose gardens, and the new hybrids, especially the Miriam yellow with its garish, varying hues.
“Roses should be red or pink,” Mr. Hardy complained.
“Or white,” added Mrs. Ballinger.
“I like the new hybrids,” I said. “Those bold colors.”
“Oh, dear,” said Mrs. Avery.
Guests at the old inn, we perched in a row of rockers, recovering from a too-heavy supper. There was me, just back from campaigning for the women’s vote in Tennessee; Mrs. Avery, the youngest of us all yet seeming the oldest, a rabbit of a woman who spoke too quietly; Mrs. Ballinger, as round as a pumpkin, with hair dyed the same color; and Mr. Hardy, a tall, gaunt man who stooped even when sitting.
It was a late-summer evening, too warm, with a disquieting breeze stirring the treetops as if a giant ghostly hand ruffled them. Through the open window a piano player was tinkling his way through Irving Berlin as young people danced and flirted. In the road that silvered past the inn, young men, those who had made it home from the war, drove up and down in their shiny black Model Ts.
It was a night for thinking of love and loss, first gardens, first kisses.
The moon was cloud covered, and the inn’s proprietor did not turn on the porch lights, since they drew mosquitoes and moths. We sat in darkness, except for the occasional small flare when someone lit a cigarette.
An uneasiness charged the air, the feeling that something was going to happen. It is an uncommon sensation in summer, when the world seems to have settled into its own idea of Eden. The wind had a premature autumnal feel to it. “You feel the seasons in a garden, the passage of time,” my friend Beatrix told me once. “Whether you want to or not.”
The hotel had a rose bed in front of the porch. I wondered whether the roses were the same variety as what had grown in the garden at Vevey, Switzerland, where I had first met Gilbert. Pink roses all look alike to me. Perhaps that’s what Gilbert thought of me that evening at Vevey when we met. One pretty American girl looks much like all her sisters.
In a way, all hotels look alike, too. Some are grander than others, some have the Alps for scenery, some a little town in Massachusetts. I was staying, as my finances required, in one of the less grand inns of the town, but I was always aware that in those Berkshire hills nestled some of the most famous houses ever built, cottages where Melville and Hawthorne had resided, and later, after Lenox became fashionable with the wealthy, the larger estates where Vanderbilts and Morgans, and the writer Edith Wharton, had passed summer days.
I was content to be in an inn, where strangers come and go and you feel a bustle of life about you, what Mr. Henry James described as the rustling of flounces and late-night dance music, the cries and sighs as young people court and play.
Fashionable young girls did not wear muslin flounces anymore. Those were as out of style as calling cards.
We had, that night, already finished a game of bridge, and I had fleeced the others of their pocket money. I was usually popular with my peers, but not with their children. They found me a very expensive proposition, a bad influence. That from grown children who danced the black bottom and tango, the young women with their skirts almost to their knees.
What had most shocked me, during my years of campaigning, were the young people who had tried to shout us down, who did not want change. You expect complacency in older folks, not in the young. “Aren’t you satisfied with your homes, your husbands, your children? Leave politics to the men!” they had shouted.
Thank God my daughter, Jenny, had not felt that way. She had bailed me out of jail when needed, housed me often despite her husband’s antipathy toward me, and wined and dined a judge now and then when required. She had also paid in advance for my week at Lenox, so that I could rest after my traveling and marching.
“Penny,” said kindly Mr. Hardy, interrupting my thoughts.
I liked his face. It was open and somehow vulnerable. You could see that his life had not been easy, yet he was not bitter.
“I was thinking about gardens, and then about politics, and power, and men and women,” I said, but no one encouraged me to develop this conversation.
Instead, Mrs. Avery suggested we try the Ouija board. Since the war, it had become a national obsession.
“Let’s,” I agreed eagerly. “Perhaps Mr. James will come through.” He had died four years before, and I would have enjoyed a message from the master. Henry James’ letters to my dear friend Minnie had been so entertaining, and of course she had shared them, as he had meant her to do.
Mr. Hardy, grumbling a bit, went in to fetch the board as Mrs. Ballinger, Mrs. Avery, and I rearranged our chairs around a wicker table.
After we set up the board, placed the planchette in the middle, and put our fingertips on it, we waited.
“Someone is not being open to the spirits,” said Mrs. Avery with more than a little whine in her voice. A stronger breeze stirred the treetops. Inside, the piano player tinkled his way through “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”
“Maybe they don’t like the music,” suggested Mr. Hardy.
We laughed. Then the pointer moved. Just once. When we opened our eyes, it had settled over the M.
“You got your wish, Mrs. Winters,” Mrs. Ballinger told me, sounding envious. “It was to have been a message from the master.”
“Or my sister, Mary,” said Mrs. Avery. “It was, after all, my idea. It should have been a message for me.”
“For that matter, it could have been from my poodle, Mariah,” said Mrs. Ballinger.
“A useful letter, M,” agreed Mr. Hardy. “Could be anyone, anything. He pushed his chair away from the table and refused to continue. We restored our chairs to the assigned row and ignored the Ouija board.
“Nights like this, when I was a child, we told each other ghost stories to pass the time,” said Mrs. Avery. She had grown up on a farm near Rochester, and though I had known her for only a few days, I already understood that her childhood had been harder than mine. She had fled the hardscrabble farm life, and now she looked fondly back upon what she had hated at the time.
“Silly things, ghost stories,” said Mrs. Ballinger. We all turned to look at her, trying to convey the message that ghost stories were no sillier than a woman of her age wearing that shade of pink with that color hair, but Mrs. Ballinger was oblivious to such subtlety. “Silly,” she repeated with a condescending sniff. “Give me a good romance anytime.”
A car backfired just then and jolted Mr. Hardy out of his sulk.
“I saw a ghost once,” he said. “A lovely thing, all white and floating. Back when I was a boy in County Cork and almost dying of typhus.”
“That was an angel,” corrected Mrs. Avery. “I’ve never heard that ghosts are lovely.”
“It was my poor dead mother hovering over, and from what I’ve heard, she was no angel,” Mr. Hardy said.
“I’ve never heard of anyone who ever really saw a ghost,” said Mrs. Ballinger, her voice even more condescending.
“I once saw the ghost of Nero in Rome,” I said. “In Piazza del Popolo. It was all the rage that year. Anyone who was anyone saw him.”
“Rome.” Mrs. Ballinger sniffed, indicating that for some reason Rome was beyond her approval. I suspected she had never been there.
We rocked in our chairs, listening to the crickets and watching eerie, silent sheet lightning flash in the eastern sky. The crickets were very loud with their ratchety, ratchety, and the frogs in the brackish pond sounded like they were auditioning for the Anvil Chorus. Silence, human silence, was difficult that night, and I felt a need to talk. They would be voting on the amendment in Tennessee in two days, and my nerves were taut enough to be strung on a violin.
“I know someone who saw a ghost under very strange circumstances,” I said, thinking of that M and seeing in my mind’s eye a piece of stationery with that single ornate initial on it. “Shall I tell you the story?” I asked.
“Yes!” said Mr. Hardy with enthusiasm.
“Oh, Lord,” sighed Mrs. Ballinger.
“It begins in Rome,” I said.
“I’ve never been,” said Mrs. Avery. “I bet it’s lovely.”
“I’ve been many times,” I said. “Rome and Paris. London. We used to live like nomads. Newport in the spring and summer, New York in the autumn, Europe in winter. We all did, though of course such travel was new to my family, since money was new to my family. I met my husband on my first trip to Switzerland, and even after the babies came we went back every year. He insisted. ‘My dear,’ he would say, ‘you don’t mean to say you are going to buy this year’s gowns in New York rather than Paris?’ So we would pack up the children and the nurses and later the governesses and board the steamer, seeing the same faces over and over, because society was all doing it. The Lusitania, the German torpedoes when they came in 1915, ended that.”
Mr. Hardy’s mouth clamped into a straight, sad line. He had lost a son in the war.
“Well,” I continued. “The story begins in Rome, in the gardens of the Villa Borghese. Mr. Henry James wrote about them. My friend Beatrix Jones was there, touring Europe, to look at those gardens. She’s the famous garden designer. The first American woman in the field, really, and making an excellent job of it. Even her male counterparts agree on that.”
“Women just don’t know their place anymore,” grumbled Mr. Hardy. He gave me a sideways glance of disapproval. I still wore my purple, yellow, and white rosette on my cardigan, the badge of the suffragists. He, like a good many men, was worrying over that upcoming vote in Tennessee, the last state in the union to debate giving women the vote. He was not in favor.
“We will not speak of politics tonight, Mr. Hardy. We are in the Borghese gardens with Beatrix. Rome. Early spring,” I insisted.
“Oh, Lord,” repeated Mrs. Ballinger.
“Is it possible to have a haunting without a sense of evil attached to it? Last night poor Mrs. Madden kept insisting she felt the presence of someone, some spirit, and instead of feeling afraid, she was comforted.” Mrs. Frederic Jones, christened Mary but known to friends and family as Minnie, frowned. Why had she brought this up? She hadn’t meant to speak of it. Everyone knew Mrs. Madden was, well, to be kind, a bit unmoored.
“I should think so,” said Mrs. Jones’ daughter, Beatrix. “It would be like—let’s see—like spring in the garden before the first seedlings are up. You can feel their presence even though you can’t see them.”
“Mr. James would disagree,” said a third woman, Edith Wharton. “I think he rather feels that this world and that other world are like Europe and America, with a vast ocean between them. Any spirit still lingering on the wrong side of the ocean must have a grievance, and a grieved spirit must have some sense of anger or wrath. Interesting concept, though, a harmless spirit. I wonder . . .” Her voice trailed off as it sometimes did when her thoughts moved from public discourse to a more private daydream. She looked pale, an indication that she had not slept well.
The little dog curled on her lap grew restive and barked to be set down. Edith held it closer.
“Nightmares again, Edith?” Minnie, her sister-in-law, reached over and patted the dog’s head. Edith had been “unwell” for the past year, suffering from depression and nerves.
“A very strange one,” Edith said. “A long avenue of trees, ashen olive trees, leading to a house I knew was haunted. The ghost was a woman who had been locked up by her husband . . .” Her voice trailed off again. Her hand fluttered in the air for a moment as if she were waving at someone, and then fell into her lap. Her dog barked once more, a high, demanding sound that echoed through a stand of umbrella pines.
“Hmm,” said Edith’s husband, Teddy. “This is the result of spending so much time reading and scribbling. More fresh air, perhaps. A good long walk after dinner.”
“The house was called Kerfol. Such a strange name.” Edith ignored Teddy’s comments.
“Blasted city,” said Teddy. “We should never have come to Rome.”
“But I wanted to see Minnie and Beatrix, and they were in Rome,” Edith said.
“It was that nurse who told you ghost stories as a child.” Teddy found a new source of blame, landing on one closer to the point than the city of Rome. Edith as a child had been ill in Germany, had almost died of typhoid, and her nurse had passed the long hours telling old village ghost stories to the child. Lord, how we torment our children.
Another wife, at this point, would have said, “Yes, dear,” and dropped the subject. Edith instead gave Teddy a scathing glare.
Mr. Wharton was a man who simply ignored what he could not comprehend, the type of person who never read a novel or poetry. This, Edith had discovered, was not a good quality in a husband. When she most needed encouragement to pursue her work—her scribbling, as he called it—he simply smiled and said, “My dear, perhaps we should go for a ride. Get you out of that dark library.”
“Well, I don’t know houses called Kerfol, but the nervous excitability of ghosts would account for Mrs. Ford’s experience,” said Minnie, anxious to fill a hostile silence. “She swears she saw Nero’s ghost when she visited the Piazza del Popolo. A raging old man in a white robe, making obscene gestures.”
“Did he have his fiddle with him?” Beatrix asked. “Some people are so gullible. Ghosts. Really. It is the result of being too much amid all these old places.”
“Women, my dear. Men are not so sentimental as to go looking for Nero’s phantom in the Piazza del whatever it was,” said Teddy. He was very handsome, with a dashing reddish brown mustache and fine blue eyes, but there was something unfinished about him, like a portrait still on the easel waiting for the artist’s final touches.
Teddy and Edith, though seated side by side, seemed a world apart, as couples do when both have come to the realization that the marriage is a failure and there they are, stuck with each other.
Edith had been a young woman hungry for approval when she wed. A daughter born twelve years after her mother had already produced the two required sons, she had been a lonely and to a large extent ignored child. When handsome young Teddy Wharton proposed, she accepted with what she thought was love or at least the possibility of it. It turned out to be relief, and relief is a short-lived emotion. Within months she realized that a love of small animals, their only shared passion, was not enough to sufficiently bind man and woman together.
She had tried to ignore her compulsion to write, to create stories and other worlds with more interesting people than those around her; she had tried to become a good society wife—tried, in other words, to become what others expected of her—only to find that such behavior . . . teas, the constant round of leaving calling cards, the interminable dinner parties, consultations with cooks, and other wifely duties . . . left her physically and emotionally ill. And so she had begun writing again. Some of her work had been published, and now Teddy had a literary wife. Not quite the thing, in New York or Newport.
And Edith was stranded on a silent, cold island of marriage with a man she neither loved nor was loved by.
“Piazza del Popolo. That’s where Nero’s ghost is seen,” she said now, her voice metallic with irritation.
Their knowledge of Roman ghosts having been exhausted by that brief conversation, the four of them sat wrapped in the silence of early-spring heat and foreign places, each secretly wishing to be elsewhere. The Borghese gardens were all very well. But there was an unpleasant sense of requirement to the visit. When in Rome, one must visit St. Peter’s Square, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Baths of Caracalla, the Borghese gardens, and so they had, dutifully, done so.
This tour of European gardens was to further the education of her daughter, Beatrix, but Minnie was more interested in the Common People than in gardens. Her eyes were focused inward, on the suspicious doings of a certain Nurse Henrietta back in New York, who sometimes filched from the infirmary where Minnie performed charity work.
Minnie sat straight-backed in her chair, both feet flat on the ground, the proud posture of a woman who could trace her family back many generations, whose ancestors had tossed tea into Boston Harbor, whose lawyer father had visited President Lincoln in the White House; a woman raised to know good wines, read in several languages, arrange flowers. Minnie knew how to dress for a Patriarch Ball and what to order at Delmonico’s, but she also knew that life was serious and short, and a wise woman would use her time well. Minnie, suffering through her own failed marriage, had learned the value of good works and doing one’s duty.
Some of this wisdom she had already passed on to Beatrix, who sat listening and watching. Waiting, she would have said, though she didn’t know what for; perhaps simply waiting to become who she was meant to be, free of interference, of the need to please others. And that is one of the hardest things in life to achieve, especially for a woman.
While her friends had been dreaming of marriage, Beatrix, with her mother’s approval, had planned for a career in landscape design. She wanted to add beauty to the world. A fresh morning, a wheelbarrow, and a dozen bushes to be planted or trees to be pruned, no one in shouting distance to yell at her that she was grass staining her dress or ruining her hands—that was what she wanted of life. A lady’s hands said everything about her, Uncle Teddy had stated once, glancing disapprovingly at hers.
After only a month of the planned six-month tour, Beatrix already missed her home and garden in Bar Harbor. She wanted to be digging in the winter-freshened soil of Maine, planting the first lettuces and peas, working to the music of gulls crying overhead and rollers breaking against the rocky shore. In Bar Harbor, gardens were not far removed from a wilder nature; in Rome the gardens seemed beaten into submission.
Bar Harbor was more home to Beatrix than either New York or Newport, and their cottage there was a house of women; of long, easy days and Sunday afternoons spent discussing books and music without male bluster and tumult. Her father and mother had ceased living together soon after arriving at Mount Desert Island. There had been shame for Minnie in that separation—a failed marriage was a failed marriage, no matter who was to blame—but a measure of peace as well.
Now, sitting in that public garden in Rome, Beatrix was all too aware that her long-absent father was only two days’ travel away, in Paris. She was used to having an ocean between them. She thought she preferred it that way.
Perhaps that’s why she later sent for me to come visit her in Rome, to provide a little taste of home. We had become very good friends. I was in Paris that spring with Mr. Winters and our three youngest daughters. Our two sons were in New York, studying, and the eldest daughter, Jenny, was at Mrs. Prim’s Academy in Geneva, Switzerland. Mrs. Prim wasn’t her real name, of course, but that was how I referred to her.
“I don’t wish to leave the girls,” I told Mr. Winters when Beatrix’s letter arrived for me. And I didn’t, not even for Beatrix.
“It is unnatural for a woman to spend so much time with her children,” said my husband, who had spent very little time indeed with his own mother. “You should go. It will do you good. I’m not certain Paris agrees with you.” I suspected that my presence did not agree with Mr. Winters at the moment. It was the racing season and we had had enough quarrels over his gambling and his numerous broken promises that he wished me out of the way. At my husband’s behest, I reluctantly packed my travel case and prepared for a trip to Rome, to visit Beatrix.
Probably it was just as I was packing my new walking suit that Beatrix was sitting in the Roman sunshine, her strong fingers yearning for the crumble of soil. It was maddening for her to sit feet away from a weed popping up in a flower bed and not be able to bend over and pluck it.
However, when in a public garden, or a private one owned by another, one did not squash aphids no matter how thick they were on the petunias, or pull weeds. One merely sat, like the elderly, the infirm, or the merely lazy, and admired what others had done, or had not done, or had not done well.
Beatrix sighed and studied the scenery. All those moldering buildings and old ruins. That weed taunting her from the edge of the gravel path was driving her to distraction.
“One must expand one’s horizons,” Minnie said for the dozenth time. “Remember there is a purpose to all this. There is always a purpose.”
The purpose, of course, was to learn, to study, to experience. To see how other people experienced the wonder that was life, what they made of it, how they shaped it. That was what travel allowed.
That spring of ’95, though, there were more English and American people in Rome than there were Italians. They filled the benches, the gravel walks, the little terrace tables, the men all in gray frock coats and tall hats, the ladies in their pastel silks tightly cinched at wasp waists. They talked of the midnight escapades of the Prince of Wales, the tennis matches at Wimbledon, the debutantes of the New York season.
They talked, Beatrix thought, of everything but Rome. She was twenty-three years old that spring. It took determination, in those days, to be twenty-three, of a good solid New York family with sufficient income and attractive appearance, and remain unencumbered of a groom. She had busied herself with work and study at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, and now she ran her quick, bright eyes over the Borghese grounds, taking in the expanse of lawn, the temple in the distance, the crumbling casina in the other direction. She was trying to ignore that single taunting weed with all the effectiveness of a child trying to ignore a plate of cakes.
The flowering plant beds were severe in their geometric rigor and the temple not well placed, fronted as it was by that little fake lake in the middle of what was obviously a dry plateau. Like a tableau vivant waiting for the posers to arrive. No. More like something in a dream from which one is eager to awake. What would Mr. Olmsted think of all this, he who had designed Central Park without a single straight line, who made the plantings follow the lay of the land and the granite outcroppings, rather than the other way around?
“Lovely day, isn’t it?” An American matron had stopped in front of their café table and addressed Beatrix’s mother. She looked vaguely familiar, though Teddy was completely indifferent to her presence and had already looked away with as much condescension as he would have shown a waiter.
Edith’s little dog barked so insistently that she placed it on the ground, where it ran at the stranger and worried the hem of her gown.
The American matron smiled even more broadly. She had light brown hair graying in broad streaks, thick brown eyebrows over impossibly pale blue eyes, and a pointed face, all giving her a wolfish look. Gathered around her was her pack of three daughters of marriageable age, decked in pale colors and trailing skirts. They swayed, twirled their parasols, and kept looking coyly about, like girls in a ballroom waiting to be asked to dance.
“Lovely day,” Minnie agreed, nodding but still not remembering. “The sun is quite pleasant.”
“It is a bit warm, though.” The woman eyed the glasses of lemonade, the shade of the umbrella, the free chair.
Mrs. . . . Mrs. . . . Beatrix couldn’t for the life of her remember the woman’s name, only that they had met at another woman’s home, probably in New York, although it could well have been there, in Rome. Traveling was an excellent occupation, except it required so much memory, and the only details in which Beatrix was truly interested were plants and landscape. Her memory for Latin taxonomy names was inexhaustible; for matrons, brief.
“A bit too warm, perhaps,” agreed Edith, squinting a bit from the sun.
Mrs. Of-the-Forgotten-Name eyed Edith with a distinct lack of approval. It was rumored that the Wharton woman had written poetry as a young girl. She had even published in journals. Unsuitable. And that niece, Beatrix. Yes, she had heard about Beatrix Jones. Imagine, a lady digging in the dirt, standing in the sun for hours, working for a living. In truly good families, even husbands didn’t work for a living.
“Well,” said Mrs. What’s-Her-Name, angry that she hadn’t been asked to sit with them. The Jones family was strange, but they were of old blood and old money. The Joneses and Whartons were just the kind of society she needed to get those three daughters married off, to get them, finally, onto Mrs. Astor’s list of those to be invited to future balls and New York charity events. What luck to run into them in Rome!
But now the Joneses and Whartons had as good as snubbed her in a public place. Bad enough that they couldn’t remember her name, but not to offer her a chair and a place in the shade under their sun umbrella—that was too much.
The woman flushed. “Will we be seeing you this evening?” she asked. “So many dear friends have sent their acceptances, I can’t quite keep them straight. The princess Constanza will be there.” She had already resolved that if the Joneses and Whartons did not attend her musical evening, she would find a way to make them sorry for the slight.
Minnie remembered now, with a visible sigh of relief, who this inconvenient woman was. “Thank you so much for thinking to invite us, Mrs. Haskett.” They had met in New York a few years before, and Newport before that, at various charity balls and public events. Her husband had speculated and accumulated a fortune in one of the industries, but Minnie couldn’t remember which. He had died recently, heart trouble. She recalled now that Mrs. Haskett always had her three daughters in tow. They seemed especially difficult to marry off, still being paraded about after so many seasons. And then Minnie repented of that thought, for wasn’t the same being said of her Beatrix?
“I do worry, though, that my headache may keep me in this evening,” Edith said.
“It must not,” Mrs. Haskett insisted. The three daughters smirked.
“I said, Mrs. Wharton, that your headache will probably disappear between now and nine thirty and I would so hate to have you miss the music. Signor Lucente is on violin, and Madame Granados will be singing. Perhaps Miss Jones will also sing for us. I hear she has a lovely voice.”
Beatrix pretended to find a loose thread in her crocheted bag and did not respond. Mrs. Haskett’s eyes narrowed.
Mrs. Haskett was a social climber of consummate skills. In a few short years she had risen from her beginnings as a shopkeeper’s daughter in Montana to a society wife, sans accent, sans homemade clothing, sans a Western taste for bread dipped in bacon grease.
But when she first arrived in New York as a young bride, she had hit the brick wall of Mrs. Astor’s dislike of the nouveau riche and stalled there, smashed on the sidelines of old families and old money. Her widowhood had not advanced her cause—single women could be so hard to seat at a dinner party—and though she was invited to parties and balls, they were not the right parties and balls, not the exclusive ones in the Fifth Avenue mansions. Bitterness and envy smoldered in her like an autumn bonfire that will never die completely out but only smoke away, threatening the houses in the near vicinity.
And now, having made it as far as Rome, as far as a private tea with the princess Constanza, who, though of questionable character, was a bona fide princess of an old Savoy family, she was being snubbed yet again by the New York brigade. She would not have it.
“Till this evening, then,” she said. “Come, girls. We will be late for our appointment with the hairdresser.” She turned and stalked away, head high as though sniffing the air for her next attack.
A group of young men, mustachioed and with swinging canes, appeared on the walk and set the three Haskett daughters into a fit of simpers and giggles.
The Whartons and Joneses watched the blushing girls and their mother disappear down the gravel path.
“I thank whatever fortune guides me that my Beatrix is not silly,” said Minnie. “Imagine making it your life’s work to marry off those creatures.”
“We must go to her party, I suppose,” Edith said.
“She knows I had forgotten her name. I saw it in her eyes. How unpleasant.” Minnie sighed.
“I would have remembered her if there was any distinction to be remarked,” Beatrix said defensively. “They do all look alike, don’t they? Some simply wear larger jewels and more padding in their hair. I do wonder if there are any New Yorkers left in New York.”
“You need more exercise,” said her mother. “You are sounding bored. Perhaps you should walk a bit. We’ll stay here.”
In fact, it was Minnie who was most bored. Beatrix was still being taunted by that weed, and those in the midst of temptation are not bored. But one of the advantages of being a mother was that one’s faults could so easily be assigned to one’s daughter. Not that Minnie was unpleasant about it. She and Beatrix were close and loving, certainly closer than Beatrix and Minnie had ever been with the third part of the family trinity, the husband and father.
Mr. Frederic Jones, Edith’s brother, was currently, and had been for some time, in Paris with his mistress. If, in some rare minutes, Beatrix, with her soft gray eyes, regal height, and long, straight nose, reminded Minnie of that straying husband, she never said so. She had once loved Freddie, well enough to defy dear Henry James’ fearsome edict that they should not wed.
Early during Freddie’s brazen adulteries, Minnie had tried to forgive him because of that supreme favor he had once done her: bringing her in contact with Mr. James. Henry had been a college friend of Freddie’s and, knowing the man well, had gone to New York to plead with him not to wed the serious bluestocking Mary Cadwalader Rawle, not because of any imperfection in Mary but simply because of oil and water. That was what he had said. They would never mix well, never be happy together. He had been correct, as always. Henry knew human nature.
Freddie hadn’t been at home to receive the warning, that afternoon of many years before, so Henry had called on Minnie, instead to voice his doubts about the coming nuptials. It was impudent on his part, even a little rude, but Minnie hadn’t taken it amiss. She had already read his stories and reviews in The Atlantic Monthly and was flattered by the attention of a man of his reputation. In fact, she quizzed him closely on his opinions of Sir Walter Scott, and they spent a pleasant hour together discussing not marriage or Freddie Jones but the novels of Scott, which Mr. James admired and Minnie did not. However, Minnie was in love with Freddie, and Henry James hadn’t been able to talk her out of the marriage. Despite that, they had been friends ever since.
“You do look bored, Edith. So am I.” Teddy tugged at his collar and then, understanding his words could be considered boorish, gave his wife a false smile of reassurance. “My immediate company is charming,” he quickly added. “As always. But all these gardens and ruins. What good are they?”
“You ask what the point of a garden is. Really, Teddy.” Edith tapped her foot with impatience.
Beatrix shifted in her chair, feeling the perspiration that made her clothes stick to her back and arms, and longing, absolutely yearning, to lean over and pluck that weed.
“Your story is very gossipy,” protested Mrs. Ballinger, the creak of her chair pausing for a moment as she leaned across Mr. Hardy to complain. “I’m not certain I approve.”
“It is important to reveal character as well as situation,” I explained. “That would have been Mr. James’ defense for detail. Beatrix would have said that the soil must be thoroughly prepared before the planting. Gardeners pay attention to detail. I do not invent, and if you are to understand what follows, you must understand what Beatrix was thinking at the time. I will continue now, Mrs. Ballinger.”
“Do,” said Mrs. Avery.
Lightning split the Lenox sky in two like a theater curtain. Girlish shrieks and laughter sounded from the parlor where the young people were dancing.
“Storm’s coming,” said Mr. Hardy, smiling. He was remembering, I thought, a storm of his youth, when a bolt of lightning sent a pretty young girl, shrieking and laughing, into his arms. “I like a good storm. Cleans the air,” he said.
My husband, Mr. Winters, had enjoyed a good storm as well. He used to bet on how long it would take for the rain to arrive, once the first lightning struck. He’d bet on which raindrop would trickle down the window first. It was his flaw, his fatal weakness. But he had carried excitement with him the way another man might bundle the daily paper under their arm. I think it was because he had spent so much of his youth and childhood abroad in Switzerland, where because so much is forbidden he had grown up with a sense of outlawry.
That is the problem, you see, with the overly strict rearing of children. If even little things, such as putting one’s elbows on the table and saying “damnation” when a toy breaks, are condemned as criminality, then the child feels himself to already be a criminal. In for a dime, in for a dollar.
This was partly Edith’s problem, as well, I believe. Her mother had been strict and undemonstrative, making it quite clear she preferred Edith’s brothers. Edith learned, eventually, to please only those who pleased her, Mr. James among them.
“Didn’t Mrs. Wharton have a home in Lenox?” Mrs. Ballinger asked.
“Not far from here,” I said. “But now we are in Rome, not Lenox.”
• • • •
“So sorry you are bored.” Edith didn’t look at Teddy but stared into the green distance. “The gardens are lovely, though, aren’t they?” Her voice was clipped and cold, in contrast to the Roman heat.
Teddy tugged at his collar again and looked at his pocket watch.
I will never marry, Beatrix thought. Never.
She had passed through the first heady years of womanhood, the first balls, first waltzes, first dancing card and house party invitations, quickly discouraging any serious suitor. “My mother,” she had simply explained when any young man tried to call on her a little too frequently, implying that her duty to her solitary, hardworking mother made it impossible to accept other affections. Now that most of those young men had already wed, she felt she could easily avoid the issue permanently.
She jumped up, eager to be away from the table. “I will walk.” She stepped closer to the taunting weed. She bent. She pulled and plucked. It had fibrous roots rather than tap, just as she had suspected. She put the weed in the pocket of her jacket for later sketching and identification and looked around to see if anyone had caught her in this furtive maneuver. Only Edith, who smiled conspiratorially.
Still, they might never have met, the Italian and the American.
Beatrix could have walked in the opposite direction, away from the temple. She could have strolled through the rose garden or gone into the casina. But she chose the temple, that eerie replica of pagan passion.
“Don’t be too long, Trix. We have invitations for this evening,” Minnie reminded her.
“Fifteen minutes,” Beatrix called over her shoulder, already moving quickly away. “That’s all.” She walked with determination, strides a little longer, a little faster, than was acceptable for a lady during a leisurely afternoon.
An air of decrepitude, a smell of unwholesome rot and stagnation, circled the part of the garden surrounding the temple. It was like moving from one reality to another, and not entirely pleasant.
The temple made Beatrix think of Bluebeard and his wives, knights locked in dungeons. To dispel the gloom, she tried to imagine Uncle Teddy as Bluebeard, trying to lock Aunt Edith into her room. Impossible. Edith would climb out the window and be away, never to return.
They will divorce, too, Beatrix thought. It is just a question of time. What was the point of it, then, courtship and love and marriage? In a garden, things began and ended according to season. In relations between a man and a woman all was disorganization, discord. I will never marry, she repeated to herself.
I dread marriage, thought a young man walking a good distance away. He had been taking the air before going home, enjoying a walk between the lawyer’s office and the dilapidated palazzo he inhabited with his father. The lawyer had been unpleasant, his voice bordering on a continual sneer, his statements full of ultimatums and warnings. Shoulds and musts. Or else. Your father insists.
The gardens were full of Americans; the young man who had just been soundly berated by the family lawyer disliked the sounds of their voices, so full of German consonants, not at all soft like his own Italian. The sounds of conquerors, he thought, laden with wealth and greed and taking much of his homeland back with them when they returned to New York and Boston and Chicago. That’s what the visit to his lawyer had been about: the possible sale of several artworks. That, and the other business.
Empires rise and fall. He lived in a land of fallen empire, part of a family that was falling even faster than the rest of the empire.
There was no cure for history except to sell: collections, paintings, sons.
Perhaps Mrs. Haskett would be in the gardens again today. He could accidentally encounter her, remind her that she had promised to come look again at the painting.
Ahead of him was an example of the fall of empire: a group of boys, dirty, sly eyed, begging, and worse, their grimy hands snaking into the folds and cuffs of passing men and women, searching for coins, watches. They had surrounded a young woman and were practicing their street skills on her. He saw her face, the terror behind the forced calmness of a tight smile. He changed direction and headed toward the crime in action.
Still, they might never have met. He could have waved from a distance, yelled something the boys would have understood, driven them off with words. But he kept walking toward her.
Beatrix, suddenly surrounded, trapped by the clamoring children, was forced to a complete halt.
Where had they come from, this cluster of noisy urchins, each one beautiful enough after a necessary washing to pose as an angel? As she stood, speechless, they grew bolder, tugged at her sleeves, jumped up at her. “Me, me,” they shouted. “Choose me for your guide. A penny. Only a penny, miss.”
She felt one little hand snaking into the folds of her skirt, searching for a pocket, a purse. The scene changed from charming to fearsome as the children swarmed ever closer, forcing her in one direction, then another. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t escape. She put her hands over her ears, trying to shut out their cries.
They pressed closer, suffocating her. She became dizzy and was afraid of stumbling, of falling beneath the frenzy of screaming children, being trampled by them.
“Alt! Attenzione!” A man’s deep voice scattered the boys. One by one, the hands and shoulders and knees that had been closing on her flitted away.
She opened her eyes to see the last of the children scurrying off, sticking his tongue out at her over his shoulder.
“Are you all right, miss? May I help you to a bench?” The man’s voice was melodious, with soft middle vowels, slightly rolled r’s. His hand was on her elbow, guiding her, and still flustered, she pushed him, her long arms windmilling in panic. He backed away.
“Pardon,” he said more stiffly.
“No, please pardon me.” She offered him her hand apologetically and looked straight at him. This was Beatrix’s way. Direct, open, no coyness.
Their eyes met in a shock of recognition though they had never met before. Did all birdsong, all conversation, cease for a heartbeat when their eyes met, or did they merely imagine it? You know the moment, don’t you? This one, and no other. If you have never experienced this moment, you have my condolences for your loss. Whatever comes after, the moment is worth it.
Beatrix, though, was already thinking, There is still time to stop this. She could simply turn away and hurry back to her table, her family. But she stood her ground.
He had a kind face, a good face. Olive complexion, black hair and eyes, but with none of the leer or suggestion that traveling women often faced in strangers’ eyes in public places.
Her face was flushed pink, the color of distress that comes over women with hair that particular shade of auburn. Her nose was long and sharp, her mouth and eyebrows straight, no hint of a curve. A handsome rather than pretty woman, with pale gray eyes full of sweetness, though when she was crossed they became the color of a cold rain.
“Sorry,” she said. “Thank you. I will sit for a moment. Catch my breath.” Her voice, he thought. It sounded of arias and violins, danced up and down scales within those few phrases.
He extended his arm, palm up, in the direction of the bench. He did not attempt to touch her again.
“They can be troublesome, these little boys,” he said, sitting as far away from her as the bench allowed. “It is better not to walk on your own in these gardens.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Beautiful American
“Readers will rank [it] right up there with The Paris Wife…. A brilliant, beautifully written literary masterpiece…”New York Times bestselling author Sandra Dallas
“Will transport you to expat Paris… and from there take you on a journey through the complexities of a friendship…breathes new life into such luminaries as Man Ray, Picasso, and, of course, the titular character, Lee Miller, while at the same time offering up a wonderfully human and sympathetic protagonist in Nora Tours.”Suzanne Rindell, author of The Other Typist
“Leaves its essence of love, loss, regret, and hope long after the novel concludes."Erika Robuck, author of Fallen Beauty
“Achingly beautiful and utterly mesmerizing… Sure to appeal to fans of Paula McLain's The Paris Wife and Erika Robuck's Call Me Zelda, or indeed to anyone with a taste for impeccably researched and beautifully written historical fiction.” Jennifer Robson, author of Somewhere in France
“An engaging and unforgettable novel. I couldn’t put it down.”Renee Rosen, author of Dollface
"An exquisitely imagined and beautifully rendered story of the talented, tragic, gorgeous Lee Miller."Becky E. Conekin, author of Lee Miller in Fashion
Reading Group Guide
1. Did you enjoy the novel? What was your overall response to it?
2. Although the novel is primarily about historical figure Beatrix Farrand, fictional Daisy Winters tells the story. Did you find Daisy an effective narrator? What are the advantages and disadvantages of hearing the story from her point of view?
3. Discuss what life was like for Beatrix as an upper-class woman coming of age before 1900. What restrictions did she face early on that began to fall away as the new century progressed?
4. Beatrix and Amerigo first meet by chance several times, which seems to suggest that fate is conspiring to draw them together. Have you ever had a similar experience of a romance that seems “meant to be”?
5. Discuss the references to novels by Henry James and Edith Wharton. Are you familiar with Daisy Miller, The Turn of the Screw, and The House of Mirth? Are you inspired to seek them out and read them?
6. The author suggests that falling in love was an important part of Beatrix’s growth both as a woman and as a professional landscape gardener. How does the experience enrich her? Do you agree that an experience of passionate, romantic love is essential for a woman’s fulfillment?
7. Why does Beatrix hesitate when Amerigo suggests they elope? Have you ever had to make a split-second decision with far-reaching consequences for your life? What did you choose?
8. There are happy and unhappy marriages in the novel. Discuss the ingredients that go into making each marriage successful or disastrous. How much freedom to choose do the couples really have, and how much is driven by social convention? What role does luck play? And how do the marriages in the novel compare to marriages you know now?
9. Discuss the various ghosts in the novel. Why do you think the author includes them? Does the epigraph, taken from Beatrix Farrand’s writing, provide a clue?
10. Discuss the many cruelties Mrs. Haskett inflicts and the possessions she accumulates in an effort to gain entrée into New York society’s highest echelons. Does she remind you of anyone from history, literature, or today’s pop culture?
11. Why do you think the author includes the three descriptions of gardens—for first meetings, second chances, and “where no one can weep”?
12. Does the novel make you want to create a garden, visit a garden, or read about gardens?
13. Before reading the novel, had you ever heard of Beatrix Farrand? Consider making a list of accomplished women of the last one hundred and fifty years that most people have never heard of.
14. Did you find the end of the novel satisfying? Why or why not?