Although he was born in New York City as the son of a prominent American leather manufacturer, Harvey spoke French before he learned English, since the fashion among the super-rich was to hire French nannies. He grew up in an atmosphere of extreme privilege, for at the time of his birth, his father’s manufacturing interests enjoyed a capital of $120,000,000 (in 19th century dollars, not adjusted for inflation) and more real property assets than any other industrial enterprise in the United States. Dozens of machine leather factories were spread across New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Tennessee.
The Ladew family owned a hundred foot long yacht, "not particularly large," according to Harvey, whose uncle had a yacht over 200 feet long. Among their homes were a lavish townhouse at 3 East 67th Street in Manhattan (since demolished) and Elsinore, a storied summer home in Glen Cove, the epicenter of Long Island’s so-called Gold Coast. The Elsinore estate boasted a full half mile of shore line. This area was the refuge of choice for turn of the century financiers, blue bloods of New York society and even some run-of-the-mill multimillionaires. Harvey’s father had enlarged the shore-front estate’s turreted Victorian mansion and added extensive greenhouses, gardens, kennels and stables. Harvey’s mother, an accomplished horse- and yachtswoman, oversaw the cultivation of rare orchids, roses and exotic plants inside the property’s dozen greenhouses.
When Harvey studied drawing as a child, his mother decided that only the finest curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be suitable teachers. He had genuine artistic talent and later in life kept a studio with materials for painting in all his homes. Much of Harvey’s youth was spent traveling with his parents, especially to Ireland, England and France. His favorite pastime was sitting on thrones inside European castles. By the time he was fifteen, he boasted that he had sat on more thrones than all of Queen Victoria's vast family put together. Although erudite and polished, Harvey never got around to acquiring a formal education, due to his family's extensive travels. However, there were a few private tutors along the way.
Harvey was in Europe at the outbreak of WW I, so he served as an Army liaison officer for the American forces. After returning to America, he left the family leather business and spent the rest of his life indulging his interests. Upon the death of both of his parents, he and his sister liquidated their parents' real estate and leather business to divide their vast inheritance, so that at the tender age of twenty-six, Harvey's motto became, "play now, work later." He decided to enjoy himself and explore the world until age 50, when he just might possibly think about getting a job. Never happened – because at age 50 he was barely halfway through having fun. Thus began a life filled to the brim with costume parties, months-long vacations and chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces. Throughout his life Harvey pressed full steam ahead with a cheeky disregard for convention.
Perhaps it was his mother who sparked his interest in horticulture, but Harvey became a self-taught master garden designer and topiary enthusiast. He had learned to appreciate topiary gardens during his annual fox hunting trips to England. For years he snipped away at yews and boxwoods on his 250-acre Maryland hunt country estate, Pleasant Valley Farm (above), executing astonishingly difficult feats of topiary brilliance, including a pack of hounds chasing a fox, swans, Churchill’s top hat and even a mounted fox hunter clearing a hedge. Amazingly, he designed, nurtured and maintained the topiaries all without professional help. There is a lot of whimsy here, such as a sculpture of Adam accepting the forbidden fruit from Eve while hiding two apples behind his back. Ladew transformed a London theater ticket booth into a garden tea house, decorated entirely in pink, a favorite color.
Purchased by Mr. Ladew in 1929, Pleasant Valley Farm was at the time derelict, a crumbling farm house without plumbing or electricity; the grounds were completely overgrown. Harvey was drawn to the property because of the beauty of the landscape and its potential for fox hunting. He doubled the size of the existing house, which consisted of a 17th century structure joined to an 18th century building, and he set about hacking away at the unkempt lawns and gardens.
In 1968 the home's oval library was rated as one of the 100 Most Beautiful Rooms in America, but Ladew used it as an escape valve. He had a special lever installed that would allow one of the bookcases to swing open to allow immediate access to the gardens when he was informed of the arrival of an unwanted guest. Of special note is that he constructed the room in an oval shape to mirror the lines of the large partner's desk he had purchased. When it was discovered that the desk would not fit into any other room in the house, he added a new room to the north end of the house to mirror its oval configuration. With his typical wit, he called it his "circulating library."
Below: a topiary horse and rider clear a gate in pursuit of hounds.
Harvey hobnobbed with the cream of high society. When visiting the west coast he rode horseback in the Hollywood Hills with Clark Gable. His most intimate friends, however, were "A-list" homosexuals and bisexuals such as Noel Coward, Billy Baldwin, Hugh Walpole, Somerset Maugham, Jean Cocteau, Beatrice Lillie and T. E. Lawrence – for starters. Harvey enjoyed a forty-year friendship with Edward VII, the Duke of Windsor; his wife, the former Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, was a native of Baltimore – both were bisexual renegades. Harvey played piano with Cole Porter, conversed in fluent French with writer Colette and partied with Elsa Maxwell. Add to the list of friends Terence Rattigan, Moss Hart, Clifton Webb, designer Anthony Hail and the renowned photographer Horst. Although Ladew was always discreet, he gravitated to friends who were male celebrity sexual rogues and "the women who loved them," if you get my drift.
In "Perfectly Delightful" (1999, Johns Hopkins University Press), a biography of Ladew by Christopher Weeks, the sexual orientation of Harvey Ladew is swept under the rug, yet it is always the elephant in the room throughout the book's nearly 300 pages. Not once is a personal relationship of any type mentioned, but there are hints. On page 58 Weeks relates that Harvey spent a “wonderful holiday in Venice with his longtime companion, the Belgian count François de Buisseret. A clutch of romantic-looking photographs exist as testament to that stay...” The mid-1920s photograph on page 59 shows Ladew and de Buisseret sitting knee-to-knee in St. Mark's Square in a romantic pose indeed. Weeks also mentions that there exists a photograph of the two men riding in a gondola, but I’m guessing that it was perhaps too suggestive to include in the book. Another hint appears on page 210: When the celebrated lesbian hostess Elsa Maxwell and her female partner Dorothy “Dickie” Fellowes-Gordon invited Harvey to accompany them on their long drive from the south of France to Venice, he invited a companion of his own, The Honorable John Young, who enjoyed a career in the diplomatic service. According to Weeks, “Perhaps it was the new friendship that made [Harvey] rave about the trip through Italy.” Weeks clearly idolizes his subject to the point that he omits anything overt that might cast shadows on Ladew's reputation.
On page 87 Weeks describes the close friendship between T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and Ladew. Although the author mentions Lawrence's homosexuality, he is mute on Ladew. Weeks writes of their similar and highly eclectic tastes and interests, culminating with, "Finally, neither man married. Nor...did either man apparently ever give the slightest indication of wanting to marry." Weeks relates that a NYC gossip columnist wrote in the 1920s, "the tall, good looking (Ladew) was the despair of the ladies, withstanding their melting glances without a quiver."
Well, there you have it.
In this vintage photograph, Harvey is in deep conversation with Consuelo Vanderbilt:
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 fascinating people.” He loved to travel, was an opera enthusiast, loved to throw elaborate parties, attended the theatre, was an expert raconteur, fox hunter, bridge player – and that was not the half. He dabbled in photography and writing, as well.
To say that he lived an outsized life is understatement. Harvey was once the houseguest of the Maharajah of Kapurthala, took a camel caravan across Arabia (with travel tips provided by his friend T. E. Lawrence/Lawrence of Arabia), spent weekends at dozens of the stately homes of England, and once lent a favorite horse to the Prince of Wales. His circle of friends included the likes of Edna Ferber, Richard Rodgers, Charlie Chaplin and Dorothy Parker – and assorted European royalty and nobility, who treated him as an equal.
The April 1938 issue of Vogue magazine featured Pied-à-Mer’s “House of Cards,” an annex on the estate used solely for entertaining. As indicated by its moniker, the structure was decorated in a playing card theme, down to the floor tiles in the lavatories. Ladew was a master bridge player, and his estate in Maryland boasted a card-playing pavilion, as well. In 1944 Harvey painted a nude portrait of society decorator Billy Baldwin's naked backside lying in repose on a beach chair on the grounds of Pied-à-Mer. Today that small painting resides at Pleasant Valley Farm in Maryland.
Harvey also bought a 20-room luxury cooperative apartment overlooking Manhattan’s East River, so it appears he was partial to water views. At about this time his sparkling social life reached its peak, and it didn’t hurt that his sister Elise was married to W. R. Grace III, the son of the mayor of NYC. Names entered into his guest books included all the aforementioned plus John and Jacqueline Kennedy. For the rest of his days Harvey entertained and befriended the most celebrated minds of the 20th century. It was all, as he often said, “perfectly delightful,” and Harvey lived to a ripe old age to enjoy life to its fullest. At age 80 he wrote to his sister Elise: "Today I clipped several miles of topiary for exercise and pleasure."
Harvey Ladew died in 1976 at age eighty-nine. Fortunately, a trust supports Ladew Topiary Gardens in perpetuity, since it costs approximately $400,000 a year to maintain the Maryland estate. After Ladew's death, several valuable artworks at Pleasant Valley farm were sold and replaced with reproductions. Proceeds from this sale vastly reduced insurance costs and allowed the trust to become more generously endowed.
Ladew Topiary Gardens
Today’s Ladew Topiary Gardens feature fifteen themed garden “rooms” that occupy 22 acres on the grounds. A nature walk meanders through 80 acres of woods and fields, and a boardwalk takes in a wetland area and marsh. Mr. Ladew’s manor house showcases antique English furniture, paintings, photographs and fox-hunting memorabilia. In the barn, Ladew's art studio houses a permanent exhibit outlining his life and career, and a carriage museum displays vehicles used in Ladew's time, from a hansom cab to an Irish jaunting car. The former stables have been repurposed as a café. Both house and gardens are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As well, Pleasant Valley Farm is today home to two 10-acre polo fields used by the Maryland Polo Club, so once more there is the sound of horses' hooves pounding the grounds of Harvey Ladew's estate.
Open daily April through October.