International Garden Club founder and Bartow mansion preservationist Zelia Hoffman (1867–1929) was definitely not a shrinking violet. The hard-charging Newport hostess, transatlantic horticulturalist, country house chatelaine, philanthropist, and political candidate was described by the pseudonymous Old Guard gossip columnist Cholly Knickerbocker in 1929 as “Zealous Zelia.” This visionary woman with a get-it-done attitude was much more than a mere grande dame with lots of ideas. Today she would probably be making headlines as an elected official or a CEO.
Zelia Krumbhaar Preston was born in Evansville, Indiana, in 1867. Her father was a bank president, and the family lived in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Europe, and New York. At nineteen, Zelia attended Oxford, not long after the first women’s colleges were founded there. It is unknown whether her mother hoped to marry her off to a British aristocrat like other wealthy Americans who traded cash for titles, but as an enthusiastic Anglophile, Zelia “used a number of her American dollars later in life to lease a great [British] establishment” (in Knickerbocker’s words).
On December 29, 1900, thirty-three-year-old Zelia married forty-four-year-old Charles Frederick Hoffman Jr. (1856–1919) in a yuletide ceremony at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Tuxedo Park, a blueblood enclave north of New York City where the couple had met. The New York Times reported that the bride wore “old family lace, a diamond collar, the gift of the bridegroom, and a diamond spray of flowers, a gift of the bridegroom’s mother,” and proceeded down the aisle on her brother’s arm as the choir sang the wedding chorus from Wagner’s Lohengrin. It was the first marriage for the bride and the second for the groom, whose first wife had died in 1895.
Zelia’s husband was a very rich man. His father, Rev. Dr. Charles Frederick Hoffman, Rector of All Angels’ Episcopal Church in New York City, and his father’s brother, Rev. Dr. Eugene Augustus Hoffman, Dean of the General Theological Seminary, had inherited an immense fortune from their father. When Charles Hoffman died in 1919, the New York Times announced that he had left an estate of five million dollars, stipulating that $50,000 a year be devoted “to the education and maintenance” of the couple’s only child, seventeen-year-old Marian, so that she could “keep up the state of life which is suitable to one in her station.”
Marian Hoffman Johnson recounted that her parents had built a home in New York City at 620 Fifth Avenue designed by Carrere and Hastings (further research needs to be done on this now-demolished building). The Hoffmans spent the summer season at their palatial Newport estate, Armsea Hall (also demolished), where they enjoyed a lavish social life among posh people such as the Astors and Vanderbilts.
Along with other progressive well-to-do women at the time leading up to World War I, Zelia must have grown tired of a life limited to running the household, making trips to the dressmaker, and planning the next party, so she took on leadership roles in a number of philanthropic organizations and social causes. Among her projects was the creation of the International Garden Club (IGC) and restoration of the Bartow mansion to serve as the organization’s clubhouse. Zelia had a longtime interest in horticulture and had beautiful gardens in Newport, where she was a founder of the Newport Garden Club.
The story of the IGC starts with two women—Zelia Hoffman, an American who was in love with Britain, and Alice Martineau, an Englishwoman who was in love with America. It was a match made in gardening heaven.
In 1913, Mrs. Martineau published The Herbaceous Garden and sailed to America that autumn to “give a course of drawing-room lectures in New York . . . for the purpose of increasing interest in fine gardening among wealthy society people,” as the New York Times reported. It is unknown exactly when and how the two women met, but at Alice Martineau’s suggestion, Zelia sprang into action to create a new organization modeled on the Royal Horticultural Society. By the spring of 1914, Mrs. Hoffman had enlisted an impressive array of wealthy and influential people to join the new garden club, restore the historic Bartow mansion, and create a variety of gardens. Their ambitious vision included publishing a serious horticultural journal, establishing a library, and organizing lectures and flower shows, among other activities. In May 1914, the New York Tribune gushed: “The International Garden Club, which was formed as a result of Mrs. Martineau’s enthusiasm, has already grown to a size which promises that the club will be able to do the great work it has set itself.”
Astoundingly, the IGC was only one of Zelia’s many activities around this time. She was also Secretary and Vice President of the Diocesan Auxiliary of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; Acting President of the National Special Aid Society (a World War I women’s service group); active in the Red Cross; and President of the Newport Garden Club. Not surprisingly, she supported women’s right to vote and attended a suffrage ball for 1,500 people in Chicago in 1916. She must have had boundless drive and energy.
In 1919, Zelia’s husband died at Armsea Hall in Newport. The wealthy widow moved to England a few months later, eventually settling at Blickling Hall, a grand historic Norfolk estate with extensive gardens that is now part of the National Trust.
Mrs. Hoffman became a British subject and ran for Parliament in 1929, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow American-turned-Brit Nancy Astor, who was the first woman MP in the House of Commons. During her campaign, Zelia did not mince words when asked about her strong but surprising stance on Prohibition, saying in the New York Times: “‘Prohibition—for Americans, yes; for England, no. In England, there is no need for prohibition at all. It is a peaceful, law-abiding country.’” She went on to say: “‘No, I do not agree with Lady Astor. I should hate to give Englishmen raspberry frappé and sundaes instead of beer.’” (Lady Astor was sympathetic to anti-drinking laws.) Although Zelia wanted to “inject a new brand of American pep into the sedate Parliament,” according to the Pittsburgh Press, she lost her bid as the Liberal candidate for North Norfolk.
A few months after her political defeat, Zelia Hoffman died at the age of sixty-two. The Bishop of Norwich presided at her funeral service at Blickling Church, and she was buried in New York alongside her husband at Trinity Cemetery in Upper Manhattan.
As we recognize Bartow-Pell’s 102nd anniversary, we celebrate the remarkable Zelia Hoffman, the irrepressible force who started it all.
Margaret Highland, Historian