At Francis Cabot’s tribute at the New York Botanical Garden on April 30, 2012 after his death late in 2011, members of the Garden Conservancy, Wave Hill and the NYBG gathered to honour his legacy.
Marco Polo Stufano (ex-Director of the garden known as Wave Hill), Daniel Hinkley (creator of Heronswood Nursery and avid plant hunter) and others related how Cabot was a passionate plantsman and advocate for gardens. He was the force behind the creation of the Garden Conservancy after he and his wife visited Ruth Bancroft’s ahead-of-its-time arid garden in California and was told there was no plan for its future after her death.
Cabot put his considerable wealth, power and personal charisma behind creating this organization and as a result, the Ruth Bancroft garden was it’s first preservation project.
Cabot was born in the summer of 1925 into a wealthy New York family with Boston roots, where his name was taken from his father’s, Francis Higginson Cabot Sr.. The expectation was, no doubt, that he would follow in those financial footsteps and work in the same engineering and investment banking company, Stone & Webster, in which his father was vice-president.
And his path did in fact take that route. Toward the end of World War II and before college, the younger Cabot served in the Army and then attended Harvard University where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1949.
He took a job at his father’s company and then became a partner in an investment and venture capital firm (Train, Cabot & Associates) in 1959.
“I was a good promoter,” Mr. Cabot told The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., in 2003. “But I was a good promoter of ventures that didn’t always work out. So I threw myself into gardening.”
His family had several residences but one country property in La Malbaie, Quebec, was perhaps the most wild and evocative to Frank. The smell of the soil, the breeze from the river, the squishy humousy earth beneath his feet, the serendipitous spruce seedling — all of these things beckoned him to gardening.
By the time he retired from the banking business in 1976, he had already served as chairman of the New York Botanical Garden for three years. The year prior, he and his wife moved to the Cabot family property at La Malbaie on a full-time basis and he spent much of his time developing this garden that he called Les Quatres Vents (the four winds). He had many childhood memories that spoke of the magic of nature and over time, he tried to translate this magic into garden experiences.
For the next several decades, Frank Cabot pruned and planted, clipped and sheared, employed and directed, translated and re-envisioned this wild space into a series of allusions. Cabot freely admits in his book describing the creation of this garden, The Greater Perfection, that he plagiarized from great gardens into this Zone 4 acreage: indeed, you will find a white garden, a rose garden (underplanted with Dianthus, as per Russell Page’s instruction), a number of allees (with tightly clipped cedar), water features, shady glades, a Japanese garden (complete with tea house), an English perennial border, a knot garden, etc. — all of these reinforcing the garden fan in him.
More than a private Disneyworld of world gardens, this property shows a greater perfection that can only be achieved through skill, dedication, the ability to learn and listen, and the means by which it could be carried to completion. We all know that it is rare for all of these characteristics to meet in a garden.
There are details around the house that speak to intimate moments between plant and home owner:
And there are bigger moments, that suggest much effort and skill, with the help of many hands:
These cultivated allees with orchestrated views are reminiscent of European and English gardens, like Hidcote and other gardens with hedges and topiaries.
Cabot is known to have had a sense of humour. Hidden amongst the notes to his book, A Greater Perfection, he makes the following admission:
I made the mistake of asking a psychiatrist friend why I should be so drawn to large-leaved plants. He replied on his best clinical notepaper that I must consider myself to be so well endowed that I couldn’t resist searching for the ultimate fig-leaf.
He was also a lover of sculpture that related both to the garden and to the garden visitor…
There are moments of serenity, seemingly natural, with only the lightest hand of land-owner or gardener…
More to come in Part II … especially more on plants and the creation of several of the garden spaces.