To appreciate the impact Frances Mendelson Tenenbaum has had on garden writing, and by extension on gardening itself, consider that when the Garden Writers Association cited the 25 most significant garden books of the last 25 years, four were edited by Tenenbaum. “Before Frances, the only garden writers known in America were British,” said Sara Hobel, director of the New York Horticultural Society, which honored Tenenbaum in 2011. “Our library is full of her books.” For many years Tenenbaum, who didn’t launch her career as an editor at Houghton Mifflin, where she had her own imprint, until age 55, was considered the nation’s leading garden book editor. She died following a series of illnesses on September 24 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she had lived since 1972. She was 94.
Born in New York City and educated at the University of Michigan and the Columbia School of Journalism, Tenenbaum was a Long Island wife and mother of two who had worked for many publications before she was suddenly widowed in 1972 and moved to Cambridge. In 1979, she wrote Over 55 Is Not Illegal: A Resource Book for Active Older People. She followed her own advice and at 55, she joined Houghton Mifflin in Boston and her own life began its most influential chapter.
As both an author and editor she proved prescient and helped launch trends. Her reprints of antique American garden books fueled interest in garden history and preservation. The best of these was An Island Garden, written in 1894 by poet Celia Thaxter and illustrated with her friend impressionist painter Childe Hassam’s delicate watercolors, it is a sweet look at New Hampshire’s Appledore Island. With Tasha Tudor’s Garden, Tenenbaum introduced a new generation to the beloved Vermont children’s book illustrator. Tenenbaum also resurrected and deconstructed the old Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Garden Plants making it a best-selling pocket-sized guidebook series that innovatively use color photos for plant identification. In 1973, Tenenbaum wrote, and her daughter, Jane Tenenbaum, illustrated, Gardening with Wild Flowers, signaling the importance of native plants in backyard gardens.
Stubborn, charming, acerbic, and generous to a fault, Tenenbaum encouraged writers with personal voices, including the crotchety wit of Washington Post columnist Henry Mitchell in the modern classic, The Essential Earthman. “He would camp out on her Cambridge sofa when in town,” recalled Phyllis Meras, another Tenenbaum author. “Frances was a very good editor and a very good idea person.”
Tenenbaum received numerous awards including the 1999 Horticultural Communication Award from the American Horticultural Society and the 2000 Gold Medal from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. In 2004 she entered the Garden Writers Association Hall of Fame. She was also honored by the Cambridge Public Library, for whom she initiated a successful annual fundraising garden tour, The Secret Gardens of Cambridge. She summered on Martha’s Vineyard for 50 years, where she tended to her own garden. Her last book was Gardening at the Shore in 2006. She is survived by her daughter, Jane, her son, David, and two grandsons.
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