In the year 1914, while America was dancing the foxtrot and running to the movies to see Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Mrs. Lorenzo E. Woodhouse founded the Garden Club of East Hampton (GCEH). A hundred years later, the current Garden Club president, Gigi Mahon, acknowledges her predecessor with a series of events celebrating the club’s 100 year anniversary, themed “Mrs. Woodhouse Presents.”
The centerpiece of the festivities will be a flower show at Mulford Farm, which will be open to the public free of charge on July 24, from 3–4:30 p.m. Even non-gardeners will be charmed by the displays of floral design, exhibits on conservation and other educational information, photography and botanical arts. Additionally, there will be an exhibit, “Trees Through Time,” focusing on 100 years of Hamptons trees, along with thoughts for sustainable planting applicable for a large space or a backyard garden. As this is a Garden Club of America event, other Garden Clubs from neighboring regions will be on hand to show off their blooms and exhibits.
“She was formidable,” Mahon says, admiringly, of the indomitable Mrs. Woodhouse. “She was a huge part of the character of East Hampton.” Woodhouse was also the founder of Guild Hall and, along with her stockbroker husband, a generous benefactor to East Hampton. Woodhouse’s own Hamptons home on Huntting Lane no longer exists, but the playhouse she built across the road for her theatrically minded daughter is still standing and has found a new life as a home for the Playhouse Project, a series of master classes in classical music.
As the Garden Club of East Hampton prepares for their July 24 centennial celebration flower show, titled “It’s About Time,” Mahon commented on the inaccurate image of a Garden Club as a group of ladies in fanciful hats having meetings. “So much of the beauty you see is the work of the Garden Club,” Mahon said, referring to the small gardens and benches that year-rounders and visitors enjoy around East Hampton. “We are very involved in environmental issues.” Right now, GCEH interns, East Hampton High School seniors Jacqueline Smuszinski and Andrew Dixon, are involved in an extensive study of Big Reed Pond. The data will be presented to the Third House Nature Center in Montauk.
Mahon reflected on how gardens have changed from Mrs. Woodhouse’s day. “Flowers were more formal, more stylized.” A person of Mrs. Woodhouse’s social stature could have as many as 16 gardeners on staff, maintaining not only outdoor gardens, but all the interior blooms and potted palms that were popular during that era. A portrait of Mrs. Woodhouse, painted by Albert Herter, show the lady herself, seated with regal bearing, wearing a champagne-colored dress and pale coral scarf alongside a bouquet of matching zinnias.
Mahon talked about her choice of “Mrs. Woodhouse Presents” as the theme of the centennial celebration. “I’m fascinated by Mrs. Woodhouse,” she admits. Apparently, Mrs. Woodhouse was a dynamo in family matters as well as community philanthropic efforts.
In 1922, The New York Times reported on a lawsuit for alienation of affection directed against Mr. and Mrs. Lorenzo E. Woodhouse by their daughter-in-law, Dorrit Stevens Van Deusen Woodhouse. The plaintiff claimed that her mother-in-law, disapproving of little Dorrit, threw C. Douglas Woodhouse into the amorous path of another lady, one who was presumptively, mother-in-law approved. Dorrit won her suit, and was awarded by a jury the very tidy sum of over $400,000—a previously unheard of award in that day. Even though The Times estimated the Woodhouse’ wealth to be somewhere between $11 and $15 million, losing out so publically to their disgruntled daughter-in-law had to sting.
Regardless of Mrs. Lorenzo E. Woodhouse’s dubious style of mother-in-lawing, there is no doubt that her contributions to East Hampton have been numerous and beneficial to the entire community. Looking back on all that the Garden Club of East Hampton has accomplished, beginning with Mrs. Woodhouse’ tenure, current president Mahon says, “Mrs. W, as I call her, I just adore her.”
As long as she’s not your mother-in-law.