Elsa Bakalar

As a young single teacher in England during WWII, Elsa Bakalar was sometimes required to serve in ways other than teaching. One of those tasks was to hand out blankets and hot drinks at a railroad station in Kent to those rescued after the Dunkirk evacuation. Elsa told e, “It is possible that one of the people I handed a blanket to was the man who was to become my first husband.” Erwin Weinberg was a German Jew fleeing France escaped to England with the evacuees.

After they were married her husband wanted to come to the US, so in 1947 they landed in New York City. As advised Elsa then checked in with the British Foreign Service and became a liaison with American students arranging for a year abroad.

Erwin was a painter and he and Elsa were a part of the exciting post-war art world in NYC, but they soon separated. In 1953 she met Mike Bakalar and within a year they were married. “At that time Mike and I were both working in Rockefeller Center. His windows looked north and mine looked south so we could wave to each other during the day.”

They moved to West 13th Street with Mike’s 13 year old son who also brought his snapping turtle and a dog. He lived with them until he set off for Earlham College in Indiana.

It was in 1957 that they first came to Heath. They responded to an ad their friend, Tish Goodell, placed in the NYTimes. She rented them a hillside cottage which was barely more than a room and fireplace. They knew immediately that they wanted to keep that house. Three years later they did purchase it, and put on an addition.

Tish was also responsible for introducing her to the Head of the Ethical Culture School.  Elsa said “Although I was a certified teacher I didn’t have a teaching degree as it is calculated in the US. However, the Head was a great Anglophile and she bent every rule to allow me to teach at the school. I started with second graders. I had never worked with young children before and I was afraid I’d step on them. Eventually I taught fourth, fifth and sixth grade and then went on to teach at Fieldstone, the Ethical Culture High School. I taught English. Mostly very dense literature courses.”

While she was teaching at Fieldstone, she would often bring groups of her students to Heath for a weekend treat. “The girls thought it was lovely and loved picking flowers. The boys poked bees’ nests and fell out of trees, breaking their bones.”

Because of the boys propensity for danger and injury when she started a summer camp, it was only for girls, although younger siblings, including brothers, sometimes visited on weekends. The girls called it a camp for kids who didn’t like camp. An additional wing and bathroom was added for the girl campers.

“Mike had a PR business at that time so the girls and I would be in Heath all week, and Mike would arrive on Friday night. Everyone was allowed to stay up and he got a real hero’s welcome.”

“For eight weeks we took field trips around Greenfield and got involved with Heath town events. We got to know the Musacchios at the open air market and he couldn’t believe the girls had never had fresh figs so he cut them open and handed them out, to their delight. We had ice cream cones at Howard Johnson’s, and went to the Williamstown Theater Festival and Jacob’s Pillow. We were well-known there. We made our own shows, and swam in our pond and cooked our own dinners.”

Elsa did need some help. Her NYC housekeeper came up some weekends and Susie Pazmino helped sometimes, especially weekends when the parents came up. “I ran the camp for about 11 years,” Elsa said.

It was in 1977 that they left their apartment and came to Heath full time. The Heath house was never winterized so for many years their friend Flora Sampson let them use her house while she spent the winter in Florida. Later they bought a house in Ashfield – fulltime!

Mike first started a placemat business that advertised local businesses, but Elsa said, with a smile, “That cost a lot of money.” Then she laughed and said, “You can’t say we don’t learn from our mistakes.” Then Mike prepared to print the Shelburne Falls and West County News, another iffy financial venture.

In her own attempt to make some money Elsa once packed buckets of the daffodils that blossomed behind the Heath house and took them to sell at the Farmer’s Market. Risky Case, who worked at the Greenfield Community College, told Elsa to come see her at the College. Elsa, did meet with her and she joined the College. Her work there was organizing workshops and special events. She instituted and taught the first study and travel course, taking the class to England for a garden tour in 1983. She also started teaching garden workshops at the Heath garden.

Careers don’t necessarily develop one step at a time. When Mike had the placemat business she wrote bits of garden advice for it, and later wrote a column for the West County News. While at GCC she also started giving talks locally about gardening, designed gardens and maintained them for a lucky few, as well as growing perennials to put in those gardens. Those beautiful borders gained a local fame, but Elsa said they were not to everyone’s taste. She laughs when she remembers the time Ed Calver came up to visit. She said he took one look around at all the blooming perennials and said, “Ah, I see you are into gaudy.” He then turned around and left. Ed’s gardens, of course were elegant and restrained. A very different aesthetic.

And as she gardened Mike built stone walls and took wonderful slides of the plants and gardens. Then all of a sudden she became known nationally for her lectures which were filled with information, but delivered with her engaging wit and humor. After speaking at the big Williamsburg Garden Symposium in the spring of 1986 and again in 1987 she was deluged with requests to speak all across the county, from the Whitney Museum in NYC to Vancouver, Canada. Mike and his slides accompanied her everywhere. Elsa and I wrote an article on Color in the Garden that appeared in Horticulture Magazine. Virginia Sullivan worked with her to produce a video tape and she even appeared with Charles Osgood on Sunday Morning national TV.

On 1994 Elsa published A Garden of One’s Own (William Morrow and Company, Inc.) with photos by Gary Mottau, with Line Drawings by Elayne Sears.

Always the garden was busy. Garden workshops continued and numerous garden parties were held to benefit the community including the Valley Community Music School and the Friends of the Heath Library. “I’ve loved doing the workshops and classes, but really I’ve loved everything I’ve done,” Elsa said.

Since Mike’s death the garden has been quieter, and in the fall of 2003 Elsa sold the Heath house and garden to Scott and Nanette Prior and their family. The Priors, both well-known artists, are avid gardeners. Elsa acknowledged that selling the house had been difficult. It’s where her heart had been for decades, but she says “Selling to the Priors has made it all right. I can think of the life of this family going on in this house.”

Once again young people will be frolicking in the pond and new gardeners will discover the delights of Elsa’s garden while they find their own garden vision.

Elsa began concentrating on the garden in Ashfield. It was intended to be a lower maintenance garden, but I watched it grow in scope. Happily she had the assistance of  three good friends  who have enjoyed working with her.

Elsa passed away in 2010, at the age of 91. I will always miss her. ###