Saying goodbye to a great, hard-working society gardener

November 23, 2003|By Susan Reimer

I DIDN'T THINK that society matrons gardened. I thought they just supervised.

And I didn't think the very rich answered their own phones. I thought they had someone to do that, too.

That is, until C.Z. Guest picked up the phone somewhere in her vast Old Westbury mansion and answered my gardening questions with the acumen of someone who regularly gets her hands dirty.

Guest died earlier this month at the age of 83, and I don't think we will see her like again: the society gardener.

I refer not to the hothouse orchid enthusiast nor the lady of the manor who presides over manicured lawns and shrubs, but a woman like Guest, who didn't have to grow the carrots for her horses or the peonies for her tables, but who did. And loved it.

It had been just a year since she and her twin set and her briefcase full of gardening slides had lectured in a rain-soaked tent at historic Rainbow Hill in Baltimore County to benefit the Maryland Historical Society.

Her lecture, titled "Glamour in the Garden," was more like a chat among girlfriends. She was funny and frank and approachable, just as she had been on the phone. It was hardly what I expected from someone of her wealth and pedigree.

"I mean, I want people to be able to relate to me," she said to me.

"I don't want them to think, 'Oh, God. She knows too much. She makes me nervous.' "

It might be hard to relate to C.Z. Guest, the doyenne of New York Society, or C.Z. Guest, the fixture on international best-dressed lists, or C.Z. Guest, the champion equestrian.

But it was not hard to relate to C.Z. Guest, the self-taught gardener who started small -- with radishes and marigolds as a child -- expanded her efforts to a modest kitchen garden and rose garden as a busy mother and who, when the nest emptied and her husband died, turned her full attention to the three acres of gardens on her estate.

"Having a garden is like having a good and loyal friend," she often said, and she repeated it to her listeners that day at Rainbow Hill.

"All the love and tender care you put into it will be returned."

At Templeton, the family estate where she moved with her husband, steel heir Winston Churchill Guest, in the 1960s, she had a walled rose garden and orchards, 500 peonies and three greenhouses, one of which was full of her rare orchids, and a topiary garden designed for her by renowned British landscape architect Russell Page.

But she was equally enthusiastic about her vegetable garden and the raspberries, blackberries, tomatoes and asparagus it produced for her dinner table.

And she channeled that enthusiasm, and all that she had learned over the years, into books, a newspaper column and a line of garden products.

She had reinvented herself after a riding accident ended her equestrian career and after the death of her beloved husband in 1982 had left her lonely and bereft.

But underneath the sun hat, she was still a cool, blue-eyed patrician beauty at 80. Still slim and athletic, and with that boyish shock of white-blond hair.

C.Z. Guest was unique among her social set in her willingness to do the digging herself.

And she was unique, too, in her approachability. That was made clear to me that day on the phone, and again at that rainy-day lecture.

I think the title of her final book said it all, Garden Talk: Ask Me Anything. "I am flattered that people want to ask me questions," she said to me. "I am delighted to share. I mean, why not?"

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