Harvey S. Ladew
Few more colorful figures embellish American cultural history than the late Harvey S. Ladew (1887-1976). As traveler, artist, foxhunter and creator of an extraordinary garden, Ladew filled the nearly 90 years of his life richly, creatively, and above all, with great wit.
Born into privilege in New York City, Harvey Ladew spoke French before he spoke English and was treated to boyhood drawing lessons from curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1929, at the age of 43, foxhunting drew him to this property in rural Maryland.
Harvey Ladew purchased the 200+ acre Pleasant Valley Farm from the Scarff family in November 1929, which conveniently bordered The Elkridge- Harford Hunt Club. The old white farmhouse was in primitive condition- it had neither heat, electricity nor plumbing. Ladew said of his “new” house – “It was in shambles and the only garden consisted of a couple of old lilac bushes.” During the 1930s Ladew added wings to the house and renovated outbuildings before beginning work on the gardens. Then, with the help of local farmers, Ladew carved 22 acres of gardens out of fields previously used for crops and livestock and set to work transforming Pleasant Valley Farm into “the most outstanding topiary garden in America,” as described by the Garden Club of America.
Late in life, Ladew determined to find a way of preserving his creation for all to enjoy. The result is Ladew Topiary Gardens, Inc., a non-profit organization whose mission is “to maintain and promote the gardens, house and facilities in keeping with the creative spirit of Harvey S. Ladew for the public benefit and for educational, scientific and cultural pursuits.”
Ladew Topiary Gardens opened to the public in 1971. Since then, the Board of Trustees developed a variety of special events to assist in maintaining this uniquely beautiful historic house and gardens. Currently Ladew Gardens hosts approximately 80 annual events which include the My Lady’s Manor Steeplechase Races, Garden Festival, the Summer Concert Series, Children’s Nature Camps, Children’s Day, Christmas Open House and spring and fall educational programs.
Harvey Smith Ladew II, “gardener, sporting art patron and good companion” (as the English magazine Tatler dubbed him) was born at his parents’ New York City townhouse on April 6, 1887. His family was financially comfortable thanks to his grandfather’s leather business. Besides his younger sister, Elise, who married William Russell Grace, Ladew’s favorite relative was his uncle, E. Berry Wall. Nicknamed “the King of Dudes” by society gossip columnists, Uncle Berry lived in France and Ladew often visited him there.
In 1919, after having served in World War I, Ladew began a 20-year tradition of spending every winter fox hunting in England-”The most wonderful thing I’ve ever done,” he recalled later. In England, he hobnobbed with aristocrats, was a guest in numerous stately homes and visited countless gardens, many designed by Gertrude Jekyll.
World War II made Ladew’s English visits impractical and in 1940 he bought a Florida house near Delray Beach, which he named Pied à Mer. Ladew refurbished the house and gardens in his own unique manner and basked in Florida’s warm sunshine for the next 30 winters.
Thanks to Ladew’s dozens of interests-and assisted by his wit and love of life-his world was filled with an astonishingly varied group of friends. As Billy Baldwin wrote, “one of Harvey’s eccentricities was that he was not interested in society, per se. He was interested in all kinds of people.”
The pages of his guest books reverberate with names such as T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Somerset Maugham, Colette, Italian contessas, Belgian and French counts, and members of the English Royal Family. It is a tribute to Harvey Ladew’s charm and vibrant personality that so many different individuals chose to befriend him.