I hadn’t heard of Jean Hersey, our next lost lady of garden writing, until Susan M. left a comment on my post about month-by-month books suggesting I might like Jean’s book, The Shape of a Year (1967).
I quickly looked up this book and decided I might indeed like it. I also discovered I could get a copy through my library, so I reserved it for pick up later.
Then, even though I am methodically going through all my books to catalog them and get rid of those I think I’ll never read, telling myself the whole time that I should not buy one more book, I bought a good used copy of The Shape of a Year.
I’m glad I did because I discovered on the back flap of the cover of this book that Jean also wrote several gardening books.
(Insert the sound of me tumbling down a rabbit hole.)
Off I went to look for Jean on the internet to see if I could learn more about her.
For starters, here’s a list of her books and the year they were published based on my research:
I Like Gardening (1941)
A Garden in Your Window (1949)
Carefree Gardening (1961)
Wild Flowers to Know and Grow (1964)
The Woman’s Day Book of Houseplants (1965)
Cooking with Herbs (1972)
Flowering Shrubs and Small Trees, 169 Varieties for Your Garden (1974)
The Woman’s Day Book of Annuals and Perennials (1977)
Gardening and Being (1982)
She also wrote a book about a trip to Guatemala, Halfway to Heaven: A Guatemala Holiday (1947), another month-by-month book, A Sense of Seasons (1964), A Widow’s Pilgrimage (1979), and The Touch of the Earth (1981).
In 1972, she and her husband, Robert, co-authored Change in the Wind, and in 1979, they wrote These Rich Years: A Journal of Retirement. In 1977, Jean and probably her husband too, wrote Happy Retirement: The Best Years of Your Life!
Why had I never heard of Jean Hersey? Here’s what the internet told me about her.
(insert sound of crickets… virtually nothing).
On that back flap of The Shape of a Year, her biography is short, other than the list of books. “Born and brought up in New York City, Mrs. Hersey now lives in Weston, Connecticut.”
Finding Jean online was not easy. When she passed away in 1997, there was no obituary, at least not that I could find via digitized newspaper archives. On Ancestry.com, I was finally able to break through and find a few records that provided a bit more information.
As always, here is a little disclaimer that I could have found the wrong Jean, but I don’t think so.
Jean was born Jean McKelvey in the Bronx, New York City on September 29, 1902. She married Robert Hersey in 1925. They had three children; a daughter and two sons. This is based on census records from 1940 which also noted they lived in New York City at that time. Her husband was an “advertising manager” who made $5,000 a year, and she was a writer earning $1,200 a year. They employed a cook who made $600 a year and a children’s nurse who made $960 a year. (In today’s dollars with some rounding… $107,000, $26,000, $13,000, $21,000)
I also found some information on Jean in The Once & Future Gardener, edited and with an introduction by Virginia Tuttle Clayton (2000). Clayton notes that Jean was a prolific writer and at one time made her home in Kennett Square, PA, and in 1962 she “was honored with the Asta award for best garden writing of the year…” There is a footnote on the statement about the Asta award leading to another reference which I don’t have access to, so I assume that it is correct, but I have no idea what the Asta awards were and who handed them out. I also couldn’t confirm the part about her living in Pennsylvania. That would take more searching through census records.
My last discovery was a record of her death. Jean passed away on August 22, 1997 at the age of 94 in North Carolina. How she ended up there is anyone’s guess, and why there was no obituary published for such a prolific garden writer is mystifying as well. Perhaps it was published in a newspaper that isn’t yet available to search online.
Regardless, I think Jean Hersey is a garden writer worth knowing, and I’m happy to have found her to add to my list of lost ladies of garden writing.
I’ve just started to read The Shape of a Year and will add it to my list to read month by month.
Perhaps someday, I’ll find more of Jean Hersey’s books to read. Who knows? I might have an undiscovered copy here in my own library. I’ll keep looking!