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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Enid Haupt : A Rewarding Lifetime Spent Cultivating the Public’s Garden

<i> Janny Scott covers ideas and intellectual trends for The Times</i>

Enid Annenberg Haupt, patron saint of public gardens, arranged herself in a flower-print chair with her Norwich terrier, Orchid, at her feet, and observed, amid the freshly cut flowers in her home in Greenwich, Conn., that yes, it has been a wonderful year for the roses.

At 87, Haupt is a horticultural guardian angel, benefactor to her own roses and many others as well, a philanthropist who has given tens of millions of dollars to make flowers flourish and fountains burble everywhere from Washington to Claude Monet’s studio in Giverny, France.

She rescued the New York Botanical Garden’s vast Victorian-style conservatory from demolition. She built a garden at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and a fountain on the Ellipse, and she has helped pay for the planting of wildflowers along the nation’s highways.

In 1983, she sold 15 Impressionist paintings to her brother, Walter H. Annenberg, then used the proceeds to pay for a $25 million ambulatory-care center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, also endowing a program to place fresh flowers throughout the hospital three times every week.

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These are hard times for the cultural institutions that Haupt and others support. Public funding is dwindling after years of recession. Museums find themselves competing with gardens and libraries and hospitals in an increasingly high-powered contest for donations.

While charitable giving in the United States has grown, generosity varies from region to region, with one recent study revealing that Angelenos give less to cultural institutions than do residents of most major cities. And nonprofit groups have found themselves pressured to take on new obligations as governments and taxpayers back out.

Haupt is the fourth of eight children of the late publisher Moses Annenberg. Her brother, Walter, started TV Guide and Seventeen. She spent 17 years as publisher, editor and editor-in-chief of Seventeen, before resigning in 1970. Her husband, Ira Haupt, a financier, died 30 years ago.

On a recent afternoon at the house where she spends her summers, Haupt talked about philanthropy and her personal brand of it, begun nearly 70 years ago and inspired, in part, by a gift of a spray of cymbidium orchids for which she couldn’t seem to find the right vase.

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Question: How is the experience of being a philanthropist changing as government funding for cultural institutions dries up?

Answer: I find I have to do more, financially. Because if I can do it, and it’s important to the organization, then I would far rather do it than see an opportunity lost. I have no heirs. And I hope that I will be around long enough to see that everything I have will benefit other people.

I believe also that in giving, you must endow. Particularly if you give money for something you believe in (that) perhaps isn’t (the organization’s) most important idea. But if it’s a sound idea, and I like it, I’ll fight for it.

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Q: With all the problems in our society, why gardens?

A: Because it’s been the greatest thing in my life. Nature is so fabulous and so fantastic. See, I believe nature is God. I can only tell you, the smile I must have on my face when I hear, “The missile will take off if weather permits .” . . . I get great consolation from that. . . . You know, once one of my sisters asked my father, could she join a certain church. He said, “Well, you have several right here--in your back yard. . . . “

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Q: So, what does a great public garden give to a society?

A: I think you can tell by how a society lives. If you go to Paris, you never see an empty garden. It (provides) for people beauty they don’t have in their lives,wonderment about the people who take the time to raise the flowers in those gardens. . . . People are refreshed, their minds are cleared when they take a walk in a garden. They’re seeing something that they don’t have, that they’ve heard about, that’s beautiful . . . It’s also a marvelous escape from reality. . . .

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Q: How do you decide which organizations to support?

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A: Oh, well, I know of them. I know people, I’m invited to come. I’m rather a star among the invited-to-come. I get lots of nice mail.

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Q: But how do you decide? For example, the fountain in Washington, on the Ellipse, how did that come about?

A: Well, long, long ago, I became a friend of Mary Lasker. She was a great friend of Mrs. (Lady Bird) Johnson. And they decided to do a beautification program. Washington needed it. And they asked me to be one of the members of the group. I was delighted. So, I had other projects. I must have a project--that should be my middle name, “Project.” I’m really and truly not happy without one. I (had been) to tour the Howard A. Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in Manhattan. I went there because I knew Howard Rusk and his wife. I knew them socially. I knew his work . . . .

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He was having a children’s program. I said, “Howard, have you plans for where they can play?” He said, “Yes, eventually we’re going to build something on the roof.” I said, “On the roof? Do you want them to fall off? So you can put them back together?” I said, “You’ve got some property out front. You don’t need a driveway, you just need a place to bring (the children) in.” So we went downstairs and looked at it. I said, “The lobby’s way too big. We can do this and do that.” I said, “I’m going to make these children a world. And they’re going to come in by themselves, the doors will open and they will see the little fountain and the pool. And if the weather’s nice, you could let them put their feet in--if they had feet.”

So, I was working on that project when beautification came up. Of course, I had to do something for beautification. Well, my dear, that was the worst. I designed and asked them to build (a base) about this high, just so someone could sit on the edge of a pool while they were walking. Because water is so nice to a tired, hot person when walking on the Ellipse.

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Q: And why was it “the worst?”

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A: I never--and my sisters, who frequently go to Washington for different embassy things--none of us ever saw it work. I would get reports: Fountain not working; still not working. Until I was building the Smithsonian garden. Then I had Smithsonian muscle backing me. I said, “Please turn it on while I’m alive. I want to see it, once.”

. . . It was not at all what I designed and paid for. Oh, it was awful.

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Q: How often do you end up with what you had in mind?

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A: When they think I’ll see it.

I must say, you know how you have to take care of anything you really want to do? No one can do it for you. So you have to trust other people and train people, because I don’t know how to do the work. I can only explain and see, as much as I can, how it’s going . . . .

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Q: I’ve read that hard times appeal to your imagination--like when you decided to pay for the restoration of the New York Botanical Garden conservatory after finding rain pouring through the roof.

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A: I think it’s a challenge . . . . (But) I only agreed to do the palm court. I said, “Other people will each take a greenhouse.” There are 11 greenhouses. I said, “Certainly it will work out.” Famous last words. . . .

To raise the money for the whole thing, I sold my fine collection of jewels, which were in the vault. . . . I said, “I’ve never been in Suzy’s column but I would like to have you people be in Suzy’s column and say that you’re going to sell the Enid Haupt collection of jewels to pay for the botanical garden.” Which is what I did. And the funny thing is Anne Johnson, when she was Anne Ford, was selling her French furniture at the same time. And she was telling me, just a few years ago, “Enid, I’d love to hate you but I can’t. I’ve tried so much, because people stood on my sofa to look in your vitrine.” (The auction house) put a glass vitrine in the center of this room and her furniture around it! . . .

I didn’t have fancy jewelry. . . . Ever since I read “The Green Hat,” I had wanted a square emerald, but a divine one. It finally came up at Parke Bernet. I was going to Washington for the last dinner the Johnsons were giving in the White House. So I’d made an arrangement with Parke Bernet that I would call at a certain time from a telephone booth. So I did. And after he said “Sold,” a little man, an Italian man, jumped up and screamed “Unfair! Unfair! I should be able to call Italy. I have an order to buy that ring for Sophia Loren by her husband and now she can’t get it because you’ve got someone in a telephone booth in some other place?” They said, “Yes. And the person outbid you. . . “

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Q: How did you become interested in flowers?

A: . . . I married this widower who was a great breeder of Irish Setters. He had kennels at the farm which he owned in New Jersey near Eatontown. . . . When I married my husband, there were six gardeners. . . . Do you know, the salaries were $60 a month for a gardener? It was heart-breaking. So I said to my husband, “I know that you always want to help people. Can you just get jobs in defense factories for each one of those?” . . . So I was left the only gardener on the place.

The reason that most people think I raise orchids is because in the beginning, that’s what I did. My (future) husband had sent me a spray of cymbidium orchids. . . . I tried every vase in the place, but I never seemed to make it look good. I went downstairs to the florist in the (Waldorf) towers and I said, “Please, help me. The gentleman’s coming at 7 o’clock. It’s 6 o’clock. And what is this? Can you fix it?” He said, “Look in the window and see how they look and I’ll fix it for you.” I said, “Well, that’s how they should look! You have five of them. But this one long thing !” He said, “Don’t call it a thing . Shall I tell you how much this cost?” This was the Depression, you remember. And he counted up (the blossoms). . . . He said, “I haven’t seen anyone buy a gift like this. We usually take the bottom ones off to make little bouquets for debutantes.”

So we went to dinner with his partner, who raised orchids. I said, “Have you ever raised any cymbidium orchids?” He said, “No. The only place you can get those is in England. Why are you interested?” I said, “Well, I just would like to know how to grow them. And you said I could have anything I wanted for a wedding present. If you get me 13 single plants, I’ll be very, happy.” He said, “That’s no present!” I said, “For me, this will be the world.”

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Q: Why do you think some people give to charitable causes and others not?

A: I have known people who will give nothing. Nice people, and they have it, but they have no interest in giving it. I started on a hospital board at (age) 19 and I’ve never been without my favorite hospital. . . . I don’t know. Maybe they don’t care about anybody but themselves. And why should they bother? . . .

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Q: Why do you do it, then?

A: I do it because I like the feeling that I’ve helped. I think it’s just a feeling of being needed. I think it’s that simple.

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Q: And you seem to be very needed.

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A: . . . You know, when I think of the things, I can’t imagine all of them that I’ve done! I joined the American Horticultural Society . . . (and) we had the annual meeting in Seattle. I had heard on the radio that the State Department had just found out that George Washington’s last available property was to become the summer home of the Russian Embassy. Well! Everybody went right to the telephone and called the State Department. . . . “Oh,” they said, “tell her not to worry, she’s the 8,000th to call. It’s already been taken off the market, forever.” That was about two years before this meeting in Seattle. The tragedy of the meeting was that the office that Cambridge had given us through Harvard was canceled. I said, “You know what? Maybe the house of George Washington has never been sold to anyone. Let’s find that out and if I can do it, I will buy it for the Horticultural Society.”

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Q: Had you ever been there?

A: No. But it was George Washington’s! So what more did I have to know?

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Q: Do you feel satisfied by what you have accomplished?

A: Oh, yes, I do. I once told a doctor who couldn’t believe that I had no regrets, I said, “Not a one.” He said, “How can you explain that to me?” I said, “Because I know I used the best judgment available to me at the time. Now I’m not going to sit and cry that I wasn’t smarter that Wednesday in the rain.”

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Q: What remains to be done?

A: Oh, I suppose, everything. Nothing short of everything.


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