A Garden Built On Memories
Teresa Heinz is sitting on the living room sofa of her house in Georgetown, one foot tucked beneath her, remembering the prerequisites she had for turning the Washington backyard visible out the window into her own special garden. “I wanted the mystery of a secret place, with softness and shade and mosses in the middle of the city,” she says, seemingly with instant recall. “I wanted roses and my favorite flowers. And I needed to tent part of the garden occasionally for parties–though I already had what I call my utilitarian terrace for that.” Heinz is casually sophisticated in a navy blue Ralph Lauren suit, almost girlish without makeup. Digressing for a moment, she teases Cim, her German shepherd, about his inability to catch their favorite garden pest, “Georgia the Squirrel,” before Georgia eats absolutely all the aforementioned moss off the garden bricks.
Heinz bought the Federal town house in 1972 with her first husband, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania and Heinz family scion H. John Heinz III, soon after he was elected to the Senate. They raised three sons there, and she began her fund-raising work for early childhood education, human rights and arms control. When John Heinz died in a plane crash in 1991, Teresa inherited his $675 million fortune–and took her husband’s place as chairman of a group of foundations that are now known as the Heinz Family Philanthropies, administering some $1.8 billion in assets. Remarried in 1995 to U.S. Senator from Massachusetts John Kerry, Heinz is a seasoned survivor in Washington’s political hothouse.
Soon after moving to Georgetown in the early Seventies, Heinz rearranged the half-acre garden at the side and rear of the house, which had been formally sectioned into boxwood parterres with a fountain in the middle.
“I wanted a lawn for my three boys to play ball and ride bicycles,” she says now. “I had a small corner for roses, and I told them, `You guys can do anything you want, but don’t break my roses!’ For twenty years I lived like that, and then the boys weren’t home anymore. Five years ago I decided I’d grown up, too, and wanted to have my own garden.”
Her exotic accent is Portuguese, as is her memory of `Mr. Lincoln’, a voluptuous red rose in her garden that her mother also grew at Heinz’s childhood home above the sea in Maputo, in a then-Portuguese colony in Mozambique. “My mother used to tour her gardens with the African groundskeeper every morning,” she reminisces. “I’d “walk behind them and pinch pretty flowers until my mother caught me.” Like so many scented flowers she’s worked hard to find, `Mr. Lincoln’ is a heady reminder of the distance that Heinz, born Maria Teresa (pronounced Tayr-AI-za) Thierstein Simoes Ferreira, has traveled from doctor’s daughter in Africa to philanthropist and the wife of two senators at the heart of the American power structure.
But the larger perception of Teresa Heinz as a somewhat unpredictable public figure (she maintains her resolutely Republican status while married to a Democratic senator) with a bountiful philanthropic wallet doesn’t encompass this down-to-earth woman who likes to stop and smell the roses. In the garden, she’s as knowledgeable about flowers as many landscape designers, and as possessed by the power of green places to add mystery to life.
Despite her hectic routine of award ceremonies, board meetings, speeches, working dinners for good causes and appearances with Senator Kerry, Heinz still manages to maintain five distinctly different gardens. There is Rosemont Farm, the ninety-acre Heinz family estate outside Pittsburgh, which she came to when she was first married, in 1966. Then there is the garden in Washington, the city in which she usually spends the week. On weekends, Heinz tends a rooftop garden at the town house she and Kerry bought on Boston’s historic Louisburg Square in 1995–“with no schedule, no phone ringing, no CNN, no nothing,” she says. Even her vacation retreats encompass plots of green. At the Sun Valley ski house she and her late husband constructed out of the timber of a 15th-century English barn, Heinz reshaped a meadow with trees, and seeded fragrant herbs on the stone terrace. In Nantucket, where she spends the month of August, she planted “roses and a lawn that doesn’t look like a carpet” at the seaside cottage she and Heinz built in 1984. The island has been growing in her affections since she first visited in the early ’70s: just this past fall she donated $2 million toward the restoration of the Whaling Museum of Historic Nantucket. In fact, on January 20, Heinz will be the honorary cochairman–along with Kenneth Chenault of American Express –of the Winter Antiques Show, held annually at New York’s Seventh Regiment Armory, and the special loan exhibition that accompanies the show will highlight the Whaling Museum’s collection of Americana.
Five gardens would seem to be enough for anyone, and these five reflect the many moods of Teresa Heinz. But none has quite as much personal appeal as the tiny backyard oasis at her longtime Georgetown house, a place burgeoning with the scented flowers, exotic plants, and tangled shrubs and grasses that evoke Heinz’s childhood memories. In making it, Washington, D.C., garden designer Jane MacLeish drew deeply on the subtleties and nostalgia of her client’s horticultural taste.
“I wanted to grasp the finesse of a personal style that is at once earthy, sophisticated and adventurous,” says MacLeish of Heinz, to whom she was recommended by a mutual friend. The British-born MacLeish has been designing gardens and country estates for twenty-five years, and her reputation reaches well beyond Washington. Among other projects, she’s done Lucy Rockefeller Waletzky’s New York estate; a D.C. garden for Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig; a Pleasantville, New York, property for writers Ben Cheever and Janet Maslin; and an oil magnate’s pink floral fantasy in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington–for which, she later learned, she’d been recommended by Pamela Harriman.
Her plan for the Georgetown property was not complex. It satisfied Heinz’s threefold desire–for roses, a wild secret place and a site for entertaining–by sectioning the half-acre side- and backyard into three distinct “gardens within a garden,” as MacLeish describes it. Early on, however, she was concerned that such diversity also be cohesive. Recalling her client’s request for a “soft, ethereal, old look,” she kept that romantic vision in mind as she chose every plant and building material. As a result, says MacLeish, “the three gardens are distinctly different, but together they create a wonderful mood.
“As you leave the street gate and descend stairs into the garden, you meet different visual experiences,” she continues, describing a long view, down to a shaded flagstone area that can be tented for parties, to a brick terrace, where beds of roses and herbs flourish in the sunshine. To the right and just visible around the corner of the house is a pergola nestled under Katsura trees. Ranging across the back of the property is a lower-level woodland, looking quite secret and tangled despite being in the midst of Washington, D.C.
Articulating the “softness” concept came slowly and through constant dialogue. “I saw the workmen starting the brick terrace, and they were laying the bricks too close together,” recalls Heinz. “I showed them how I wanted space for moss and herbs between them, but they said, `That far apart, the bricks will come loose!'” She directed the Portuguese mason, in his native tongue, to redo it. MacLeish regarded this successful change and a subsequent one–chipping the wall coping to make the edges look old and worn –with amazement. When she suggested boxwood for the corner of the house, Heinz said, “No, we need a big tree to play down the huge wall. Go find me a big tree!” The Amelanchier canadensis MacLeish located in Connecticut was so striking against the wall that she realized Heinz had been right. “We eventually brought in seven big trees, natives mostly, to give the garden and especially the woodland an indigenous sense of spirit and wildness in the city,” says MacLeish.
They spent the most time choosing flowers for the garden. “Mrs. Heinz had input on every single variety that went in,” says MacLeish of a process that was distinctly not a breeze. “At first I wanted to use flowers that were in the early Dutch still lifes she and John Heinz had bought for the house. I had the idea of extending the warmth and elegance of those paintings into the garden.” Using one of the world’s best private collections of 16th- and 17th-century Northern European still-life paintings as source material was an inspired idea. “But it didn’t work,” says MacLeish, “because those flowers were too garish and hard-edged.” Heinz told her so: “No tulips,” she said. “I don’t like tulips popping out from under the rose bushes like a jack-in-the-box!”
Getting the look right meant tuning in to Heinz’s childhood garden memories, then proposing varieties that might engender some of the same looseness and profusion. “She isn’t rigid and tight, and doesn’t want to see that in the garden,” says MacLeish. The designer also installed flowers Heinz had known in her mother’s garden: Scabiosa caucasica (saudade, in Portuguese) in its open, sky-blue `Fama’ variety; Lavandula angustifolia `Hidcote’ for its scent and compact habit; a profusion of thymes; Agapanthus africanus; and roses, always roses–‘Helen Traubel’, `Crimson Glory’, `Sea Foam’, `Tiffany’, sweetbrier. “We’d sit for three hours at a stretch reviewing books and catalogs of roses. Mrs. Heinz would notate pages,” MacLeish remembers, “and we came up with a list of fifty. Beside a photograph of `Gloire de Dijon’, she’d write, `If not purply, OK.'” The final decision on what roses to plant was based on what thrives in the Washington climate with just a monthly dose of mildew and black spot preventive (Heinz is no fan of herbicides).
One morning last May, Heinz and MacLeish strolled through the Georgetown garden, taking stock of spring’s tender arrivals. They passed full-blown white peonies bobbing like swans on dense green foliage, and exclaimed over a tiny Potentilla alba emerging from a crack in the wall. Beside beds of roses underplanted with petticoats of creeping thyme, Heinz bent to smell a big red tea rose. “Oh, this is `Mr. Lincoln’! Everybody smelled it yesterday,” she said, referring to the current and former members of Senator Kerry’s Washington staff, who had been to the house for a reception.
MacLeish turned Heinz’s attention past `Mr. Lincoln’ to a voluptuous orange-red rose on the next bush. “Look! Dolly’s coming out,” she announced, momentarily forgetting her proper British poise. “Wouldn’t you love a nightdress that looks like that?” The two began talking at once, professional boundaries dissolving in their eagerness to describe the flower’s charms. Heinz inhaled its scent and with droll wit fixed its allure for them both. “When I first heard its name was `Dolly Parton’, I said, `Yeah, right.’ Then I smelled `Dolly Parton'”–she’s laughing now. “And I said, `Yeah! Right!'”
MacLeish says she still searches long and hard “for what Mrs. Heinz might like. And sometimes I send over a note so she won’t miss the appearance of a new bloom.”
Teresa Heinz doesn’t miss a thing. In the tradition of her mother, she very much enjoys monitoring the garden’s progress. Often she eats outside among the flowers and, early in the morning, she looks out her bedroom window to the woodland. “That’s where, if I ever have any grandchildren, they’ll play,” she says of the space.