Fox, Helen Morgenthau

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FOX, Helen Morgenthau

Born 27 May 1884, New York, New York; died 13 January 1974, Mt. Kisco, New York

Daughter of Henry and Josephine Sykes Morgenthau; married Mortimer Fox, 1906; children: three

Helen Morgenthau Fox, one of America's foremost garden writers, was the daughter of the immigrant financier/philanthropist/politician Henry Morgenthau. Encouraged by her family to become involved in some serious lifework, she spent some time in social work (with the Henry Street Settlement and such institutions) after her graduation from Vassar College and marriage to an architect. However, as she explains in Adventure in My Garden (1965), from the time she was fourteen she believed her vocation was to work with plants. "In my social work I learned a good deal about human nature and human problems, but gradually I realized this work was not for me. It did not fill me with joy, as if music were playing in my heart, which is how I always felt when I worked in my garden," she wrote.

Along with raising three children, Fox studied botany at Columbia University and worked at the New York Botanical Garden with Dr. A. B. Stout, who encouraged her to write her first garden book, a study of lilies, Garden Cinderellas (1928). Thereafter she devoted her life to the study of plants and the writing and translating of garden books. Fox frequently lectured on horticulture and appeared on radio and television broadcasts. She held membership in many horticultural associations, receiving the distinguished service award from the New York Botanical Garden in 1960.

In a 1928 article in the National Horticultural Magazine, Fox stated that "the best garden book" should "give one a sense of gardening as an art and make us feel its relation to the other arts." Her books do just that. A cultured woman, with a background of travel, study, and work, Fox always presented gardening as one of the popular arts, setting it in a historical and cultural context.

Most of her work falls into two groups: studies of European gardening (including translations from the French) and practical treatises with an informal, autobiographical emphasis. Fox translated a book of essays and sketches by the 20th-century garden designer Jean Forestier, who was an expert in restoring the lost gardens of Moorish Spain. Fox's study of Spanish gardens, Patio Gardens (1929), relates to his work. Yet characteristically, she made her book more than the usual study of foreign gardens. The history, culture, and lifestyle of the people became part of the study; in addition, the book offers practical suggestions, particularly for the modern gardener in America's Southwest. André Le Notre (1962) is a biography of the landscape architect who created Versailles, an introduction to his work, and a piece of cultural history.

Fox is best known for works about her own gardens and gardening experiences. Gardening with Herbs for Flavor and Fragrance (1933), an introduction to herb growing, is still in print, although it has had many imitators. A similar book about growing vegetables, Gardening for Good Eating (1943), was no doubt encouraged by the victory-garden campaign. In both, Fox presumes that the reader takes a scholarly interest in the subject and includes chapters on historical considerations and literary associations.

In The Years in My Herb Garden (1953), a more personal account of her herb gardens, Fox again combines historical, horticultural, and literary material. Organized mainly by plant families ("The Mints and Their Relatives"), with an emphasis on garden design, this book is an American classic for herb growers. Fox's last garden book, Adventure in My Garden, contains the most complete descriptions of her own gardens. To Fox, gardening was a lifetime "adventure" that she shared with others through her books.

Other Works:

Gardens by J. C. N. Forestier (translated by Fox, 1924). The Dancing Girl of Shamakha by J. A. Gobineau (translated by Fox, 1926). A Delectable Garden by B. Palissy (translated by Fox, 1931). Abbé David's Diary by D. Armand (translated by Fox, 1949).

Bibliography:

Morgenthau, H. All in a Lifetime (1922).

Other references:

NYT (14 Jan. 1974).

—BEVERLY SEATON