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.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Lisa at Greenbow

    I am sorry to hear of your loss.

  2. Frances

    This is a woman who led a full and remarkable life. There is little that can compare to teaching for making a difference in the world. Your obituary was moving and concise in summing up a life well lived. I believe I have read her book.

  3. Tinky

    I only talked with her once, to interview her when her book came out, but she was HIGHLY memorable; I got a sense of what has obviously charmed, delighted, and informed you in her all these years………. I’m thinking of you!

  4. Pat

    Elsa was a remarkable woman with many beginnings in her life dating back to her early childhood. She was not only successful and appreciated in all her professional endeavors, she had a great love in her life. Mike died in 2000 but as her memory failed she often explained to visitors that Mike couldn’t be there because he was down at the office writing. We were fortunate to share so many years with her.

  5. Rose

    She sounds like a remarkable woman. Your obituary is a wonderful tribute to her and shows how much she meant to you. You must have had some wonderful conversations with her!

  6. Carol

    A lovely and amazing woman… I was excited when first seeing her name and picture here but then saddened to read your obituary. We all have regrets in life … opportunities past up… I so wished I had gotten to know Elsa … wish I had studied with her. Her gardens were beautiful and her lectures always delightful … even the one where my assistant asked about bishop’s weed (which is rampant in my gardens) and Elsa said she would abandon a site where it reigned. After the shock I began planting more shrubberies! Sounds like she had a very full life… incredible really. I am truly sorry for your loss Pat. Carol

  7. Steph

    I found a well-used copy of “A Garden of One’s Own,” a few years ago at my library and was inspired anew with her writing. As I was reading, I felt like I got to know the author, and felt that those that actually got to know her or attend her lectures were truly lucky.

    Thank you so much for sharing a little more of her life.

  8. Pat

    Steph – She was an amazing lady. She had such wit and gaity that it is hard to think that there were many difficulties in her life, especially in her childhood.

  9. Tammy Taylor

    Elsa was so inspiring. I saw her at a master gardener conference in Dayton Ohio. She was the best, most entertaining speaker I’ve heard! I learned from her that no matter what gardening I did…it needed to bring me joy! …and it has!

  10. Pat

    Tammy – Elsa did find joy in her garden, a joy that she was able to share, and leave in other people’s gardens wherever she visited.

  11. Almeria apartment

    A great and touching tribute to someone who was so well loved. Thank you.

  12. Jean Smolens

    Here I am deeply saddened upon learning of Elsa’s death – over a year ago. She has spent a great deal of time with me mentally during the 25 years since I heard her wonder-filled voice at a seminar at Arnold Arb. with the Mass Hort. Soc. For a few years I was able to attend many other talks, be with her while “learning in the garden”, her favorite way she always said for teaching. She was my thoughtful and giving mentor as I began my journey as a gardener in Worcester, MA designing/installing gardens for others. Elsa excelled in urging one on, assuming that her passion was yours – and thereby it was ! For awhile we corresponded when I left MA, and had been given enough confidence to do some elderhostel teaching on rejuvenating the garden. Thinking and talking about her I find my sadness is overcome by my feeling of being blessed to have been so richly touched by her beautiful life. And to be a part of the community of you all in loving her. Thank you, everybody, for speaking.

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