"He was a thin, gangling youth," confided Elizabeth Hall, his secretary who has worked with him 50 years.
"Ah, you have met Miss Hall?" said Thomas Everett, venerable plant authority at the New York Botanical Garden. "Remarkable woman. Sees all, knows all and tells all."
What a thing to say. Miss Hall is good at ignoring Mr. Everett when he is being a bad boy as (it may be) he often is.
"You have written a heroic 10-volume encyclopedia of gardening," I began, "and the astonishing thing is you wrote all the 3 million words yourself. Usually there would be committees for the petunia and so on, each one contributing an article. Why and how did you do it all yourself?" I ventured.
He rared back, the better to show off his large frame, crowned with snowy white hair and anchored with a good solid middle such as bishops used to have before they all started jogging and eating just bran.
"I wrote it myself because I found out garden authorities cannot write. And while 3 million words sounds like a lot, you have to remember I took seven years to do it, and it's not all that remarkable. It's like walking to San Francisco, you do 10 miles today and 10 miles tomorrow and then you're there."
A hell of a lot of 10 mileses, of course, went into the New York Botanical Garden Illustrated Encyclopedia of Horticulture (Garland Publishing Inc., New York).
You might assume Everett was designed by providence to lead bungling home gardeners to the light?
"No. I was determined to be a sailor. I grew up outside Liverpool, my father was a wholesaler. They say Liverpuddlians look always west, and certainly the romance of the ships got to me early. I was all set, but my mother went down to look at the ship and saw a gun mounted on the stern. There was no way her little boy--I was 13--was going to be around guns, so I was set to gardening.
"I wound up at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, where I fell in love with tropical plants. One reason I wanted Kew in the first place was that in those days of Empire the men from Kew were stationed all over the tropical world and I wanted to travel.
"Well, one day I was summoned by the director, along with a few others. We had all committed crimes, needless to say, but no crime in common that we could think of. Let's take off and visit the rock garden and get out of this office Miss Hall ignored that but I guess I better finish about Kew. Anyway, I had a chance to go to the tropics to work with rubber. So then I said no thank you--I won't go into all of it, but I had some good advice.
"Well, here I was, a specialist in tropical plants, turning down a Kew appointment to the tropics, so clearly they weren't going to ask me a second time. I got a job in America, at the estate of Hiram Manville in New York. You know of Beatrix Farrand, who designed the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks; well, she got me the job. Mr. Manville was the uncle of Tommy Manville, the playboy. The Manvilles always rather groaned about him.
"That was in 1927. Five years later I came to the New York Botanical Garden and have been here ever since."
We went outdoors and Everett had a few scathing remarks about some flowering cherries (they have ravenous roots, undistinguished foliage, and flower for five days in the year, and Everett growls at them every time he passes them, but contrary to what is believed by idiots who think plants respond to praise and blame, the cherries long ago said to hell with Everett and have never looked back).
"I started working on this rock garden a half-century ago," he said, stationing himself in a position to show off a spectacular old Hinokoi cypress, "so many of the plants are now mature. The only plan I ever made of this garden was on the back of an envelope."
"My God, look at that rock," I cried, in wonder at a natural boulder 40 feet long, meaning to congratulate him on his luck at so favorable a natural site for the rock garden.
"Oh, well," he said, "I didn't move that one by myself. Had a lad to help me."
As we poked about ("I think those are weeds by that label that says Cotula, but see if you can get down there. It may even be the plant it's supposed to be," he said like a tycoon who has given up picking up pennies on the sidewalk; and it either was or was not a cotula, and the world won't stop spinning in either case) Everett artfully led us past the main treasures, knowing they would speak for themselves, and pausing always at just the points where the man-made rockwork is particularly skillful and stunning.
"I never thought," I said, "I'd ever see a garden encyclopedia as good for the amateur gardener as the Royal Horticultural Society's four-volume dictionary, but I find yours better, which is incredible, really incredible."
Everett, who is used to praise from reviewers who really do not know whether his book is any good or not, is pleased (as he should be) by a gardener's praise, especially when it favorably compares his own work with the august Gibraltar of the London dictionary.
"This garden was somewhat run-down when I came here. They gave me a lot of latitude. I only fired one man, though. They were married men, with families. Besides, it finally occurred to me I wasn't going to find gardeners in New York any more than you're going to find sailors in the middle of the Sahara."
We walked back through a great avenue of yellow poplars ("Yes. Of course they are beautiful. But it seems to me there's not a week of the year they aren't dropping something.").
Settling into his chair, leaning back again and addressing the world, the press and the ceiling, Everett went on:
"We were going to have to train gardeners. We started a lecture series. Out here we didn't have enough heat at night, and besides, who was going to come all the way out to the Bronx, so we started teaching in the city in the rooms of the Horticultural Society. They said they had to have one of their staff members present whenever anybody else used their rooms, so I said fine, and they said we had to pay for the staffer's supper, and I said fine (it was a dollar) and they said we had to pay for the dinner tip, too (which was a dime) so I agreed to that, too. Well, the staffer used to only tip a nickel, and just pocketed the other nickel and got rich that way. And THERE SHE IS," he said.
"If that isn't the greatest false nonsense I ever heard," cried Miss Hall. "I always tipped the full dime."
Privately, for Everett believes Miss Hall would turn worthless if she ever heard him openly speak of the admiration in which he holds her after 50 years, he said, "She is maybe the best garden librarian in the whole country. Talks a lot, of course. But then-- "
"She talks a lot because she's curious and because unlike many secretaries she wants to be helpful. Instead of just telling me you were out when I phoned a few weeks ago, she snooped about to find exactly what I wanted, when I wanted to do it, and for whom and for what reasons. As a result, it took one phone call instead of the usual 14."
"Well," he said. "She has her merits."
"I've made it my business to find out how the men fared, who took the Kew appointments. He summarized their life stories. I'm glad I turned it down, and came to America. All through life you come to points at which you can do this or do that, but you can't do both. When you're young, you think how much rides on your decision or on the luck of the draw.
"Believe me," he said, peering past Miss Hall, who was in animated conversation on the phone, and looking towards some rather nice Hall's magnolias, "usually it makes no great difference."