“I started what is now as an international plant society about Gesneriads. That is the African Violet Family, you know.”
No, I don’t. In fact, I can’t distinguish an African Violet from a shrinking violet. As for identifying a Gesneriad….
The 78-year-old man is nonplussed by my ignorance. He smiles graciously. He explains when necessary. And in every gesture and turn of speech, he treats me as if I knew what he knows. I don’t.
“I was 13 and living on our family farm in Oklahoma when I wrote the letter to the Flower Grower magazine saying let’s start a society for Gesneriads. I was 14 when we published our first society journal. I was plowing a wheat field when my mother brought me the first copies from the printer.”
“Total books that I’ve written on gardening? Seventy-five all together, I think. I never pulled them all together until I was named Iowa Author of the Year by the Des Moines Public Library Foundation.”
The white-haired man gives a self-deprecating laugh as he remembers that event.
“I was invited to serve on the selection committee for author of the year. When I got there, they said if you vote for yourself, it will be unanimous — you’ll be the Iowa Author of the Year. The next thing I know I was on the board.”
Elvin McDonald looks every bit the Southern gentleman as he putters in his garden, dressed in a jacket, tie, and, yes, even a pocket handkerchief. He has been a garden writer and editor and educator his entire life, most recently for Meredith as senior editor for Traditional Home Magazine. But there is hardly a garden publication out there that he hasn’t somehow shaped or started or influenced. That he is the Botanical Educator and Ambassador Emeritus for the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is no surprise. In charge of the gardens at Terrace Hill? Of course he is.
But Elvin also had another life at another time. A society life that speaks of elegance and celebrity and bigger-than-life characters.
“I got a job at House Beautiful in New York as a garden editor. It was love at first sight. A southern Tennessee lady, with a capitol ‘L,’ was the editor. Sarah Tomerlin Lee. She was shapeless. She wore these tents. But she had this French chair and this big French desk and she’d lean back the whole time. She started the interview by saying, ‘Honey, I love you. I think you’re going to be very expensive, but we’ll work out something.’
“I did a story with C.Z. Guest, who was a famous socialite and sportswoman. And through C.Z., I met Oscar de la Renta. And I remember walking down Madison Avenue, seeing them, and they’d say, ‘It’s Elvin.’
“Eleanor Noall was part of old New York society. She was the last woman Paul Child dated before he married Julia. Not too long before Julia died, I did a story with her for Traditional Home, and I mentioned Eleanor Noall to her. And she said, ‘That Eleanor Noall, is she still around?’
“Audrey Hepburn was a darling person. She told me when she didn’t have a dime she wallpapered her apartment in New York with seed packets. Colorful pictures from seed catalogues. In the end, she had this fabulous property in Switzerland with a rose garden and orchard and kitchen garden. Robby Wolders, her last companion, was the nicest man in the world.”
We sit in his garden, Elvin and I, looking out over the early spring blooms. The white wicker chairs are comfortable and bright. The late afternoon sun is beginning to promise warmer days. And Elvin speaks of life and death and gardens and beauty… and the endless characters that have starring roles and guest appearances in his 78 years.
“The original purpose of the botanical garden was to contain in one place the knowledge needed to replant the earth in the event of a cataclysm. And the oldest one is in Padua, Italy. It dates from the 1500s. It is still alive and thriving. Mike LaValle’s favorite Italian cuisine is from Padua. And the Des Moines Metro Opera is performing an opera at the Botanical Garden in July that is set in Padua. Is that not great? All the pieces connecting.”
Now and again, Elvin chokes up as he speaks. A very small sob in the middle of a story. Almost an unnoticeable hiccup.
“Are you sad that many of these people have passed on from your life?” I ask.
“No,” he says, surprised that I don’t understand. “I am happy and in wonderment of the memory. That is why I cry.”
There’s a flower out on the market. A late-blooming white narcissus. It’s called Elvin’s Voice in honor of Elvin McDonald. You might want to go listen. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.