Presidents' Gardens interview with author Linda Holden Hoyt

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Presidents' Gardens
9780747812531/$9.95/Trade paperback/Shire Publications 

An interview with author and former Reagan White House aide, Linda Holden Hoyt

The White House is the most famous house in the world, yet its 18 acres of perfectly manicured grounds and magnificent gardens, much beloved by the Presidents and their families, are rarely seen by the public. Beginning with George Washington's treasured Mount Vernon and looking at the development of White House gardens over two centuries, author and former Reagan White House aide Linda Holden Hoyt takes us on a horticultural celebration of the Executive Mansion with the publication of Presidents’ Gardens, available in August from Shire Publications, distributed by Random House.

Q:  What were some of the interesting discoveries you found in researching your book?

Hoyt: One of the amazing things about the White House gardens is that only seven men have held the post of head gardener since the position was created under James Monroe in 1818. Irv Williams has held the post the longest, beginning in 1961, and served as a primary source of information and private, personal archival material for Presidents’ Gardens along with White House advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Bunny Mellon and Bess Abell.

Q: What do the White House gardens tell us about the Presidents and First Families? 

Hoyt:  What was so special about research for this book was I was able to combine oral histories with artifacts and mementos which, in some cases, have never before been made public. 

For me, the most unforgettable highlight of my research was having the privilege of looking through the scrapbook done in the late 1960s by Jacqueline Kennedy and given to Mrs. Bunny Mellon to commemorate her work in planning President Kennedy’s Rose Garden.

The scrapbook is very large, understated, well-made by a fine stationer, thoughtfully organized and filled with photographs, notations and botanical clippings. Endearing notes such as “with gratitude for making this garden for Jack” and commentary really showed the level of collaboration and friendship that developed between the two women, both well-versed in the fine arts and Mrs. Mellon, an authority in horticulture.

Q: The White House Rose Garden has become an important backdrop of presidential announcements. How did the idea evolve?

Hoyt: President Kennedy came to Mrs. Bunny Mellon after a trip to France and sought her out to create a special garden near the Oval Office. What was really telling to me was that the president didn't delegate the project to staff. He wanted to collaborate with someone who could "read" him and someone who would be thoughtful about all the details of garden composition. For example, President Kennedy loved history so the garden needed to be an American garden, not overdone or ornate but practical, designed with native plantings and conveying importance with subtlety which is also very much rooted in Kennedy’s New England roots.

Q: Were all the presidents interested in the White House gardens in some way?

Hoyt: No, it depends on the individual and other factors like whether the president had young children during their tenure and therefore wanted outdoor space for them to play. Incidentally it's not just the formal gardens of the White House that captured the attention of the presidents! President Kennedy always fussed about the grass at the White House which did not grow as heartily as his native Massachusetts. Irv Williams was often hauled over to the White House landing pad by President Kennedy who asked, ‘What’s going on here?’ pointing to the burned grass patches caused the helicopters!

Q: Is there one President or First Lady that seemed to enjoy the White House gardens most according to your research?

Hoyt: Lady Bird Johnson has to have a special place in the history of White House gardens. Her daughter, Lynda Bird, once told me that her mother always had flowers on the table in their home. That was part of her personality: She wanted to bring the outside beauty indoors. She wanted to spread the gift of beautification.

President Truman added the "Truman balcony" to the White House to give the First Families a private place to enjoy the outdoors, right off the private residence area. And even President Coolidge, back in the 1920s, enjoyed his outdoor space! He was known for sitting on the front porch of the White House in a rocking chair in the evenings.

In my own experience, President Reagan, who was a great outdoorsman, loved the White House gardens. He had a great rapport with the grounds staff and treated every person with the same respect whether you were the Queen of England or a junior staff member and always referred to the Head Groundskeeper as "Mr. Williams" not "Irv"—in fact it was President Reagan who elevated the position to "Superintendent of Grounds" to show the importance of the outdoor space to the White House.

Presidents' Gardens
Linda Holden Hoyt
9780747812531/$9.95/Trade Paperback/August 2013/Shire Publications
Distributed by Random House
To order contact your local bookseller, online retailer or contact Random House Customer Service: 800/733-3000.

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Ilise Levine

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Shire Publications and Old House Books 

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful garden book a big part of our history. Found out about it through #gardenchat.