Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bemoaning the Begonias

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Park Avenue's malls—those center islands which transform a frankly otherwise pedestrian boulevard into one of the city's most elegant streets—are never lovelier than this time of year. The cherry trees are flowering, and fields of eye-popping tulips sweep south from 96th Street. The rest of the year ain't bad either, especially during the holiday season, when Christmas trees shine brightly at every intersection.

[GARDNER.parkAve]Melanie Burford/Prime for The Wall Street Journal

Marge Ternes, among the flowers and plantings on Park Avenue.

If I have any bone to pick (or let's just say a helpful suggestion to offer), it would be to ditch the begonias that replace the tulips in June and stick around throughout the summer and into the fall. They're at best anticlimactic; at worst, they're whatever the opposite of life-affirming is.

Of course, I shouldn't complain. I live close enough to that boulevard of status dreams to enjoy the flora, but not so close that I'm asked to pony up for their cost and maintenance, as the co-ops and commercial buildings along its route are encouraged to do.

Nonetheless, when the opportunity arose to have tea at the Regency Hotel Tuesday afternoon with Marge Ternes, the reigning grand dame of Park Avenue's malls, I was hopeful the opportunity would arise to raise the begonia question.

To give a little bit of history: The beautification of the malls was the brainchild of Mary Lasker, the philanthropist who died in 1994. "She was one of these people who always met the people at the top first," remembered Ms. Ternes, who became her good friend. In the 1950s, "she met Robert Moses, who was [then] the Parks Commissioner," and lobbied him to improve the malls, which at that point were planted with shrubs.

"She said he said, 'Mary, don't be foolish. Flowers will never grow there. It's too dirty; it's too dark.' She said, 'If I pay to plant 20 blocks, and the flowers are successful, you pay afterwards.' He said, 'We'll match you 2-to-1.'

"She had a lot of money, and a lot of will, and a lot of charm," Ms. Ternes remembered. "It was a rather unbeatable combination. We all seem to think we have a lot of will and a lot of charm. But what's lacking in most of our equations is the money to do it."

Still, by 1980, Mrs. Lasker—who with her husband Albert, an advertising executive, was active in funding medical research (the Lasker Prize remains one of the most prestigious in science and medicine)—was tired of footing the bills, as Ms. Ternes tells it. So one day, as she was driving up Park Avenue, or more likely being driven up Park Avenue, she spotted attractive plantings north of 86th Street and was apparently surprised that someone else had shown any initiative.

She contacted the Parks Department to learn who was behind this parallel urban beautification effort. Her query led her to Carnegie Hill Neighbors, a volunteer neighborhood improvement organization, on whose board Marge Ternes sat—and still does. "I went down and had lunch with her," she remembered, referring to Mary Lasker's white-on-white 870 United Nations Plaza apartment with its world-class art collection. "There were finger bowls with orchids, and she always served caviar before lunch. We became very good friends very quickly."

Ms. Ternes also became executive director of the Park Avenue Malls Planting Project, an organization Mrs. Lasker spearheaded. The goal was to extend Carnegie Hill Neighbors' eye down the avenue and to get Park Avenue's landlords and residents to share in the cost.

Mary Lasker proved helpful, not only in suggesting what to plant but also in how to approach fat-cats. "She said, 'You must go to '21' every day, and I will pay the bill," Ms. Ternes remembered. "'That is where you meet rich men. That's where I met Mr. Lasker.'"

Ms. Ternes declined the offer—for starters, she was married—but recalled that one day the two of them were having lunch at La Grenouille when Felix Rohatyn walked in with a friend. Ms. Lasker thanked the financier for his support with their holiday trees fund, at which point Mr. Rohatyn supposedly turned to his friend and said, "I hope you contribute." Ms. Ternes helpfully passed along her business card and a few days later a generous check arrived in the mail. "See!" Mrs. Lasker said.

"She was good at raising money for NIH, cancer, AIDS," Ms. Ternes added. "She took Elizabeth Taylor down to the Congress when she was raising money for AIDS and said, 'Be sure to wear a low neckline.' She was full of these kinds of little tricks.'"

Attempting to steer the conversation back to the begonias, I quite innocently remarked that while traveling down Park Avenue in a cab a few days earlier I noticed that the tulips north of 86th Street seemed a different pinkish hue than those further south.

"It's kind of a political story," said Ms. Ternes, who stepped down as the executive director of the Park Avenue Malls Planting Project in 2008, after a couple of knee-replacement operations but remains on the board of the Fund for Park Avenue, its parent organization. She went on to explain that Carnegie Hill Neighbors decided to change things up as far as plantings were concerned, the tulips only one of their questionable choices. Even more disturbing was their decision last summer to replace the begonias—of which Ms. Ternes apparently feels quite protective—with lantana.

"It's mostly green leaves," she sniffed. "It has little flowers—yellow, orange, lavender. The flowers are wimpy. The leaves are larger. You might as well plant ivy."

One of my many tragic flaws is that I'm a coward. After Ms. Ternes made her feelings known, I didn't have the courage to suggest there might be an alternative to both begonias and lantana, whatever lantana is. I simply asked for the check. "Begonias are the flower that best withstands the toil and the dirt; it's hard to be a plant on Park Avenue," Ms. Ternes stated flatly. "This year they'll be red."

Write to Ralph Gardner at

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