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Elsa Bakalar, Gardener and Friend

Elsa at her 91st birthday with Marie

Last October I joined with friends, and family including Jake and Susan Bakalar, Elsa’s nephew and his wife, and ‘honorary daughter’ Marie Hershkowitz who had been a student of Elsa’s, to celebrate Elsa’s 91st birthday. It was a jolly affair with a buffet brought by Jake and Susan, cards, stories,  and tributes. And laughter. And champagne.

Two weeks ago my husband and I visited Elsa at the nursing home and again had a jolly time. The menu was more limited, but one of the two other guests who had shown up had brought chocolate cake.  More laughter. Who needs champagne?

For the past two days I have been conferring with Susan and Marie, and that other important ‘honorary daughter, Nicole Gordon, to prepare an obituary, because Elsa was failing. This morning I got the call I had been expecting, but dreading.  It was time to to send out the obituary.

Elsa  (Holtom) Bakalar,  of Ashfield and Heath, passed away peacefully at the age of 91 at Overlook Northampton in Leeds, Massachustts on  January 29, 2010.

Elsa was born in London in 1918 to Ernest Alfred Holtom and Rosalie Gilder Holtom. She attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls and Bishop Otter College, now part of the University of Chichester.

After graduation she began her teaching career at a school that was bombed, killing many students, while Elsa was out of the building.  She was lucky! She went on to teach at Penshurst Village School, often teaching 65 young children in a class. She married a German refugee artist, Erwin Wending.  After the war she came to the United States, working for British Information Services (BIS) in New York City lecturing and writing pamphlets, and several articles that appeared in Gourmet Magazine, introducing Americans to English traditions and recipes. There she and Wending divorced.  It was in New York that she met Michael Bakalar; it was love at first sight and they married in 1954.

After leaving BIS in the 1950’s, she worked for many years as a teacher in New York City at the Ethical Culture and Fieldston schools, now known as the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, first as a grade school teacher at Midtown (in Manhattan), then at the high school in Riverdale. As a much-loved teacher, she is remembered by her students for a demanding but highly engaging and inspiring teaching style and for her annual uniquely dramatic reading of the whole of  Dickens’ Great Expectations to her 6th grade class.

In 1958 she and Mike bought a small house in Heath where Elsa began making the garden that she would write and lecture about for many years. For several years she also ran a summer camp for girls, most of whom were her students at Ethical Culture and Fieldston.

In 1978 Elsa and Mike moved to West County full time. Mike founded the Shelburne Falls and West County News, and Elsa became Director of Community Services at Greenfield Community College. While there she instituted a series of Study and Travel Courses, leading groups through England and its great gardens. She also taught garden workshops in Heath and became well-known for her garden talks to local groups, encouraging new gardeners, and expanding the horizons of experienced gardeners. She was as well known for her charm, wit and turn of phrase as for her gardening expertise

When she retired from GCC she began a career of lecturing to garden groups all across the  United States and offered workshops under the auspices of Harvard University’s Arnold  Arboretum, the New England Wildflower Society, the New York Botanical Garden and many  professional organizations. In 1994 she published her book, A Garden of One’s Own: Making  and Keeping Your Flower Garden, made a garden video, and was interviewed on national TV.  In every endeavor her husband Mike was at her side, a perennial support: photographer,  mover of stones in the garden and slide projector operator on the lecture road until his death in 2000.

She is survived by her  cousin, with whom she was raised as a sister, Peter Kerry and his wife Iris of Almeria, Spain; stepson G. Michael Bakalar  and his wife Erika of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, granddaughters Dawn Byrd,  Amanda Eiras, Leigh Anne Jennings; and four great grandchildren as well as nephews, nieces, cousins and her beloved “honorary daughters” Marie Hershkowitz of Northampton and Nicole Gordon of New York City.

Interment is private. A memorial gathering is being planned for the spring. Memorial gifts can be sent to the Friends of the Heath Library, c/o Jane Deleeuw, Long Hill Rd, Heath, MA 01346, or the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, 900 Washington Ave, Wellesley, MA 02482.

Garden Bloggers Book Club

My Friend Elsa

Though I haven’t read Dear Friend and Gardener I have my own great garden friend. When I moved to my Massachusetts hilltop, I found that one of our area’s most famous perennial gardeners, Elsa Bakalar, lived on a neighboring hilltop. She was a generation older, British, much more knowledgeable about flower gardens, and way more opinionated than I was about anything but happy to befriend a novice.

She is a born teacher, and even now living in a nursing home, she is always imagining classes and lectures she is ready to present.

I knew nothing about perennials and never imagined growing any flower more exotic than a marigold, but she taught me and I encouraged her to write, to put all those good lessons down on paper where they could be shared. We started writing together. It was my byline that appeared under The Flower Garden According to Elsa in the January 1987 issue of Horticulture Magazine with fabulous photographs by Gary Mottau, but the very definite and charming opinions were all Elsa’s.

Elsa not only has skill in the garden, as well as a strong aesthetic sense, she has a sharp wit. It is her sense of humor that helped make her a sought after lecturer at garden clubs, flower shows and botanical gardens all across the country. The tales she brought back from Williamsburg, Virginia, and the Whitney Museum of Modern Art entertained all of us in Heath.

The speaking engagements finally inspired her to put down her thoughts about gardening. Though she held strong opinions, she believed that gardeners should please themselves. Bring on the gnomes and flamingos if that’s what the gardener loved. Her book is aptly titled A Garden of One’s Own: Making and Keeping Your Flower Garden. Elsa was insistent about using those brisk Anglo-Saxon words – make and keep. Forget designing and creating she said. The book came out in time to mark her 75th birthday in 1994.

After we met she watched me put in a 90 foot perennial border and knew how foolish that was at that stage of my life and responsibilities. She just shrugged when it disappeared. She grew a single Queen Elizabeth rose, but appreciated my collection of hardy roses as it grew. Imitation was not considered a compliment in her book. For Elsa the garden is all about pleasure. That was the only thing she demanded a gardener find there. It is what I find with Elsa.