He had invited me earlier in the year, when the winter raged, and thoughts of the garden were all that kept me sane. In his lovely way, he asked me to visit him “when the roses bloomed” and then he included his address and contact information. His name was Lee Bailey, and he was the man who wrote my gardening bible, ‘Country Flowers’ – the first book I ever read on the subject. I’d written him a fan letter when I was only eleven or twelve, and he’d written back then, pleasantly surprised by my age and interest. I thought nothing of it until a decade or so later, when I wrote him another fan letter, and he responded with the invitation to see him in the city.
I didn’t make it down until the end of June or early July, passed the point of the first flush of roses, at the height of heat and the nastiness that accompanies summer in New York. At the Chelsea Pines Hotel, in some starlet-themed room of garish and gaudy excess, I stood before the raging air conditioner, cooling down before my meeting with Mr. Bailey. ‘Poses’ by Rufus Wainwright was playing in my mind, its references to Fifth Avenue and flip-flops an apt correlation to my time there.
Out on the street, the heat was instantly intense. It was only a few blocks to his penthouse, but I knew they would be grueling. Taking it slowly, I stayed in the shade, waiting in vain for a breeze that never arrived. Normally I’d have slipped into shorts and, yes, flip-flops, but for this meeting – for the first face-to-face with an idol – I donned khakis out of respect, and a short-sleeved button-up shirt, with few buttons undone in deference to the heat. Something told me, in the friendly and casual way he had of writing, that Mr. Bailey wouldn’t stand on ceremony when it came to clothing or attitude.
On this sunny summer day, on a sticky and somewhat stinky sidewalk of New York, I made my way to my hero. Writers and artists and gardeners were always more impressive than Batman or Superman (but perhaps not Wonder Woman.) Suddenly I was very nervous about meeting him. In some ways, it was a moment that was a decade and a half in the making. He was someone who’d been with me since I was a child. Even if he had no idea, he was there guiding my choices, aiding in my decisions. Mostly it was in garden matters, of course, but there were other lessons cloaked in the guide of caretaking and tending to plants and flowers.
All these poses such beautiful poses
Makes any boy feel like picking up roses
In the lobby of his building, I paused, trying to cool down before going up in the elevator. I had never been in anyone’s NYC penthouse, and as the doors opened and deposited me in the hallway of his place, I felt wholly removed from New York, and almost everything I’d ever known. I’d seen similar things before, and had spent time in several mansions and the occasional Senator’s home, but it always impressed me to see how the other half lives. There was an ease to it, a grace you don’t always feel when you’re struggling, even if I knew that such wealth and comfort had its own sets of problems and worries. So much was simply relative.
His assistant brought me into the main living room, flanked on two ends by French doors that were open to the wrap-around balcony. That would be where the roses bloomed, I surmised. She offered me a glass of water and I accepted. Shortly after, Lee Bailey entered his living room. Walking with a cane, he exhibited the passing years since ‘Country Flowers’ had been published, but the spark was still there, and the wit and charm that seeped through his prose were still in evidence now that he stood before me in person. We sat across from each other, on parallel couches, and shared a lovely chat.
I don’t recall the specifics. Mostly, I just marveled at the pinnacle of a journey that began in the winter nights of my childhood, when I pored over the photographs of his flowers, imagining the expanse of his gardens, and drifting to sleep with the hardcover by my side. I explained, in slightly faltering form, how much he had influenced me, but it’s never easy to get across how much it had meant.
We talked of things other than gardening, too: men and boyfriends and his friend Elaine Stritch. He knew several other celebrities whom I would later see at one of his parties – Joel Schumacher, Liz Smith, Hal Prince – but they were merely his contemporaries, people who populated his past like Suzie or Chris populated mine. Though it seemed like my silly life had paled in comparison to his, he treated me as an equal, and such gracious respect would be one of his great lessons.
All these poses such beautiful poses
Makes any boy feel as pretty as princes
The green autumnal parks conducting
All the city streets a wondrous chorus singing
All these poses oh how can you blame me
Life is a game and true love is a trophy
And you said
Watch my head about it…
Our waters done, and sweating on a pair of coasters, we rose and I helped him toward the balcony. He apologized that the roses were done blooming for the moment – and recounted their beauty from a few weeks ago. Here was where the breeze lived – cool and refreshing and so very far from the sidewalk down below. We walked once around the entire length of the balcony, and then I sensed it was time to go.
He promised an invitation to his holiday party – a promise he kept, and a party I would attend right before Christmas – the first of a couple, and I was honored to be included. On that day, we parted quietly, easily, as if we’d known each other all our lives, and for one of us that was kind of true.
Back on the street, the heat had not abated, and I undid another button of my shirt. Mr. Wainwright came back to my head, and a gently meandering piano line plotted my return to the Chelsea Pines Hotel. I’d met my idol. The day was filled with promise and sparkle, with a melancholic undertow that scored all things bright and beautiful.