By Carol Stocker
Frances Mendelson Tenenbaum, for many year's the nation's leading garden book editor, died Sept. 24 at age 94, in Cambridge after a series of illnesses.
When the Garden Writers Association cited the 25 most significant garden books of the last 25 years, they included four edited by Frances Tenenbaum at Houghton Mifflin. "Before Frances, the only garden writers known in America were British," said Sara Hobel, director of the New York Horticultural Society which honored her in 2011. Our library is full of her books."
As both an author and editor she was prescient and anticipated several trends, including the interest in the history of American garden landscapes with her popular reprinting of antique American garden books. The first and best in the series was "An Island Garden," illustrated by famed American impressionist Childe Hassum's delicate watercolors and written in 1894 by forgotten poet Celia Thaxton, who lived and gardened on the Appledore Island off the New Hampshire coast and was a friend of Hassum. Tenenbaum also helped rediscover Vermont children's book author and gardener Tasha Tudor late in her life with the picture book "Tasha Tudor's Garden," which became an industry phehnomenon.
In 1973, Tenenbaum wrote, and her daughter Jane illustrated, “Gardening with Wild Flowers,” just before the importance of native plants and prairie gardens was about to be recognized. In 1980, she co-wrote “Diet Against Disease,” with Alice Martin, discussing the link between diet and health. In 1979, her book “Over 55 Is Not Illegal” was about staying active as the years advanced.
Her own life began its most influential chapter at age 55 when she she spotted the growing interest in gardening and became a garden book editor at Houghton Mifflin Company in Boston. She resurrected “Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Garden Plants” and turned it into a long series of authoritative, illustrated garden books for American gardeners which set a standard in the industry. In 1995, she edited “Noah’s Garden,” about plants that could heal the environment. Late in her life, she edited “The Secret Gardens of Cambridge,” designed by her daughter, Jane, and “Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Garden Plants,” under her own imprint at Houghton Mifflin.
Stubborn, witty, charming, curious, acerbic and generous to a fault, she had many friends, including many of her authors, some of which, including the great garden writer and Washington Post columnist Henry Mitchell, would camp out on her Cambridge sofa when in town.
Tenenbaum was also a dedicated island gardener herself at her summer home on Martha's Vineyard, as well as a bridge player and bird-watcher. Her sense of humor extended to her titles: “Nothing Grows for Me: A Brown-thumb’s Guide to House Plants.”
Frances Judith Mendelson was born in New York City in 1919, to Regina Muskatenblut Mendelson and Emanuel Mendelson, who made his living in clothing manufacturing. Frances grew up on the South Shore of Long Island, and received a B.A. from the University of Michigan circa 1939 and later a masters in journalism from Columbia University. During World War II, she wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1943, she married Frank Tenenbaum, a fellow native of Long Island, who spent the war in the Signal Corps in the South Pacific.
Living in Great Neck, NY (1950-1973), Frances wrote and edited for a variety of magazines, newspapers, and book publishers. In 1963, the Tenenbaums began vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard. After Frank died suddenly in 1972, Frances moved to Cambridge, Mass., where she lived the rest of her life.
She invented her dream job as acquisition editor for non-fiction, at Houghton Mifflin, and soon acquired the books, “Escape from Sobibor” and “The Killing of Karen Silkwood.” The daughter of a gifted gardener, she began to specialize in garden books with a personal voice, including Mitchell's crotchety charmer “One Man’s Garden.”
Building on her own experience in the garden at Martha’s Vineyard, she wrote her last book, “Gardening at the Shore,” in 2006.
Tenenbaum received many awards and honors, including the 1999 Horticultural Communication Award, from the American Horticultural Society, the 2000 Gold medal, from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. In 2004 she entered into the Garden Writers Association Hall of Fame.
She will be buried at Abel’s Hill Cemetery, on Martha’s Vineyard. Frances Tenenbaum is survived by her daughter, Jane, a book designer in Cambridge, Mass., her son, David, a science writer in Madison, Wis., daughter-in-law Meg Wise, and grandsons Alexander and Joshua Tenenbaum.