Most visitors to Houghton Mifflin editor Frances Mendelson Tenenbaum’s summer home on Martha’s Vineyard knew they would pay a price for enjoying her slice of seaside serenity in Aquinnah. They would have to help weed her garden, or perhaps haul up some seaweed for fertilizer.
Author Richard Raske, however, was sequestered in the house. Mrs. Tenenbaum had convinced Houghton Mifflin to take a gamble on his 1981 book, “The Killing of Karen Silkwood,” and she wanted to beat a competing author to the book stores.
“She put me in a bedroom with a typewriter and said go to work,” recalled Raske, who wrote about the suspicious death of the idealistic union activist later portrayed by Meryl Streep in the movie “Silkwood.”
Mrs. Tenenbaum proclaimed one of Raske’s detail-laden chapters “lousy” and sent him off to fix it before he could leave the island. “This is really good. You can go home now,’ ” Mrs. Tenenbaum told him, he said.
“Frances was a real bulldog. When she believed in something, she went for it,” Raske said. She later acquired Raske’s next book, “Escape from Sobibor.”
Mrs. Tenenbaum, 94, a Cambridge resident who became known as the grande dame of gardening book editing in America, died Sept. 24 at a Cambridge nursing home following a series of illnesses. Born in New York City in 1919, Mrs. Tenenbaum was a widower in her 50s when she began her 25-year career at Houghton Mifflin in Boston in 1974.
“She was really brave. She came up here and started a new life,” said her daughter, Jane, who is a book designer. Mother and daughter created Mrs. Tenenbaum’s first book, “Gardening with Wild Flowers,” in 1973. In 1979, Mrs. Tenenbaum turned her pen toward ageism and wrote the book, “Over 55 is Not Illegal.”
“I learned that our picture of aging is outdated, distorted, and often wholly inaccurate,” Mrs. Tenenbaum wrote in the introduction. “Our ‘facts’ are largely myths, and these myths have allowed us to create an image of an older person as an appendage to society, not a full participating member.
“Even older people who do not recognize themselves in the stereotypes accept them as true for others; assuming themselves to be the exceptions, they accept the opinions of an ageist society,” she wrote. At Houghton Mifflin, Mrs. Tenenbaum helped propel American gardening writers’ books onto the shelves.
She resurrected “Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Garden Plants” and edited books by acclaimed Washington Post gardening columnist Henry Mitchell. “Before Frances, the only garden writers known in America were British,” said Sara Hobel, director of the New York Horticultural Society when the society honored Mrs. Tenenbaum in 2011.
She co-wrote numerous gardening guides and was inducted into the Garden Writers Association Hall of Fame in 2002. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society presented her with its Gold Medal in 2000 for “thinking beyond the text and asking the pertinent gardening questions,” according to society president Katherine K. Macdonald .
Among Mrs. Tenenbaum’s books were, “Nothing Grows for Me: A Brown-thumb’s Guide to House Plants,” and “Plants from 9 to 5: Gardening Where You Work.”
In later years, she initiated the Secret Gardens Tour of Cambridge to benefit the city’s public library and edited a book about the tour.
Her last book in 2006, “Gardening at the Shore,” advised gardeners on both coasts how to choose and care for plants that would thrive along the sea. Mrs. Tenenbaum knew little about seaside gardening in the 1960s when she and her husband first started vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, she said.
She carefully planted a small dawn redwood whose heritage she admired. The tree soon withered and died. “I particularly like the story of how a clump of this presumably extinct tree, common when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, was found in China in 1941 and propagated for modern gardeners. What no one ever said was this was a good tree for wind, salt, and sand,” she wrote.
Photographer Jerry Pavia, who photographed the gardens featured in the book and worked with Mrs. Tennenbaum on other projects, said her knowledge of gardening was immense.
“It was always a pleasure to work with her. She knew her stuff,” said Pavia.
Out of 25 books named by the Garden Writers Association as the most influential works in the last 25 years, Mrs. Tenenbaum had edited four.
She grew up on the south shore of Long Island. Her parents were Regina (Muskatenblut), who emigrated from Poland, and Emanuel, who worked in clothing manufacturing.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1939, followed by a a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. She wrote for the New York Herald Tribune during World War II and later wrote features for other newspapers and magazines.
“The soundtrack of my childhood was her typewriter,” said her son, David, who is a science writer. In addition to her daughter Jane of Cambridge and son David of Madison, Wis., Mrs. Tenenbaum leaves two grandsons. A memorial will be held in Cambridge later this year. Burial will be at Abel’s Hill Cemetery on Martha’s Vineyard.
“She was a great hostess and a great editor. She was gracious but she was also straightforward. You knew where you stood with her,” said her friend Lisa A. White, director of guidebooks at Houghton Mifflin. White recalled pulling weeds during visits to Mrs. Tenenbaum’s island home where Mrs. Tenenbaum taught White’s children how to play blackjack, she said.
In addition to gardening, Mrs. Tenenbaum also enjoyed playing tennis and bridge.J.M. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org