A Marriage of Convenience Becomes Love
Landscape of a Marriage
Gail Ward Olmsted
A marriage of convenience leads to a life of passion and purpose. A shared vision transforms the American landscape forever.
New York, 1858: Mary, a young widow with three children, agrees to marry her brother-in-law Frederick Law Olmsted, who is acting on his late brother’s deathbed plea to "not let Mary suffer”. But she craves more than a marriage of convenience and sets out to win her husband’s love. Beginning with Central Park in New York City, Mary joins Fred on his quest to create a 'beating green heart' in the center of every urban space.
Over the next 40 years, Fred is inspired to create dozens of city parks, private estates and public spaces with Mary at his side.
Based upon real people and true events, this is the story of Mary’s journey and personal growth and the challenges inherent in loving a brilliant and ambitious man.
I clung to the ship’s rail, staring out at the sea below, mesmerized by the thousands of stars and the sliver of moon reflected on its surface. This is what infinity looks like. The only sounds were the thrumming of the engine and the waves hitting the boat. No longer queasy, I had regained my sea legs. This was not my first trans-Atlantic crossing on the Persia, and it was unlikely to be my last.
I should return to our tiny stateroom and check on my three children, but they had fallen asleep, and I hated the thought of waking them. I had lain awake for hours on my narrow bunk before deciding to go on deck for some air. I pulled my black woolen shawl tighter as the sea mist sprayed my face. It was a welcome change from the stuffy cabin, and I relished the tangy scent.
I tried to recall what day it was and when the New York shoreline would be visible. We had been at sea for at least a week, so the journey from Liverpool was more than half over. We were almost home. That’s what my father-in-law had written to me earlier in the month. “Come home,” the telegram implored, and he had wired an ample sum to ensure it would happen.
Home. Where exactly was home? After my beloved husband John was diagnosed with tuberculosis, we had traveled all over Europe convinced we could find proper treatment. Our family grew in size, but hopes for a cure dwindled. Despite all of our efforts, we lost him at the age of only thirty-two! Since then, the children and I had continued to travel, staying nowhere for more than a couple of weeks. Heartbroken and lonely, I was unwilling to put down roots lest they, too, be broken. We had lived in a series of meager guesthouses and inns and were running out of money when my father-in-law made contact. Returning to the States made sense, but where would we live? The allowance from my grandfather’s estate was not enough to survive on and, other than a cousin in Boston, I had no family left.
I had hoped we could stay in Hartford with John Senior for a time, but he was raising a family with his second wife and I doubted there would there be room for us. There was the family farm on Staten Island that belonged to my brother-in-law Fred, but there were tenant farmers living in the farmhouse. Security was foremost in my thoughts. I knew that we would need to live simply, and as long as there was food on the table, I would be grateful. But someday? The chance to live in a large airy home with lots of sunshine? And a yard for the children to play in? That would be delightful. But how? Tension filled my shoulders and my arms tightened across my chest. As I imagined dear John looking down at us, I vowed to do whatever it took to keep my family safe.
I was strong, only twenty-eight years old. I was good with figures. Perhaps I could secure a job in an office somewhere. Or possibly a couple of rooms in a private home might be available, and I could help the family by watching their children in exchange for a reduction in rent. Maybe Fred would have an idea or know people that could help. He was planning a big public park in Manhattan and, according to my late husband, was a man “who knows everyone worth knowing.”
Ready for another sleepless night, I returned to our room filled with resolve. I would talk with Fred. Fred would know what I should do.
“Happy is the bride whom the sun shines on,” I whispered, smoothing the full skirt of my new gown. It was a lovely shade of lavender— perfect for a second wedding—and I thought it complemented my pale skin, blue eyes, and dark hair. It was a sunny day, and I was about to marry Fred, my brother-in-law. I had never thought my request for his help would result in a proposal of marriage, but here we were. Imagine that!
I had approached Fred for advice after returning to New York last year. He had been very busy with his park project, an 800-acre parcel of land in Manhattan. It was a veritable swamp: rocky, filthy, smelly and rife with both pigsties and slaughterhouses. It was a sow’s ear and Fred and his partner, a British architect named Calvert Vaux, were expected to turn it into a silk purse. John and I had shared a private laugh about ‘Fred’s Folly’, as we called the park project, wondering if he would ever complete the herculean task.
Despite constant demands for his time, Fred spent most evenings with us. What a relief to have another adult in the house! I was so lonely as other than Fred, I knew not a soul in New York. He had secured lodging for us on the second floor of an older home in Manhattan, and I looked forward to hearing his booming voice announcing his arrival each night. The children would run to him, begging for whatever treats or trinkets he had stored in his coat pocket. Although he had no experience with children, Fred was gentle and kind, listening to their endless chatter while I prepared supper. Soon it became routine for him to tuck the children in and read to them. On the nights they clamored for me, he washed and dried the dishes and tidied up the kitchen until I returned.
One night, I asked him to join me in a glass of sherry and that became our new arrangement. Fred was eager to give me updates on the park, and I enjoyed the chance to engage in adult conversation. I began to comprehend the sheer enormity of Fred’s task. It was far more than just the physical demands of the job, clearing the land and designing the walkways. As superintendent of the park, Fred was caught up in the political upheaval that the project had triggered. Politicians saw the promise of jobs as a means to ensure their own re- election and encouraged their constituents to seek employment. But Fred had high standards and wouldn’t allow unskilled laborers on the job site. Although he had already hired close to 3,000 workers, many more were turned away. One night, he had only half-jokingly admitted he feared for the future of the park if those “jackals and miscreants had their way.” He said, “and that’s just the elected officials.” I was proud of how Fred worked long hours to bring the dream of an urban oasis for all New Yorkers to fruition.
Never demonstrative, it surprised me one night a few months ago when Fred embraced me. He told me he was glad I was back home where I belonged and kissed my cheek as he said good night. I must admit I was having romantic feelings by then and I wondered if he could see me as anything more than a needy in-law. I still missed John terribly, but there was something so comforting about being with Fred. He had many of the same mannerisms and speech patterns as my late husband, and I loved to sit by his side listening to him and watching him play with the children. But I had no idea, until that first kiss, how he felt. Shortly after meeting Fred for the first time, I had overheard him confiding to a friend that “Mary was just the thing for a rainy day. Not to fall in love with, but to talk to.” At the time, his words had meant little to me as I was in love with his younger brother. But everything had changed since then.
So, I had begun to imagine a future with Fred and was thrilled when, just a few weeks later, he asked me to marry him. Or rather, stated that he was of the opinion we should get married, to which I agreed. Marriage was an opportunity to provide stability for my family. But could it also be a second chance for me? To live my happy ever after? I hoped so. But I didn’t fool myself with hopes of a passionate union. Fred’s love for me was more like that of an older brother, not a besotted bridegroom. He was thirty-seven years old, never married, and his engagement to Miss Emily Perkins had ended several years ago. All of his previous romantic relationships had been short-lived, and many in our social circle had assumed Fred would be a lifelong bachelor. And now he was marrying me, a widow with three small children!
From where I stood in the hallway of Bogardus House, a Victorian dwelling on the grounds of the park, I could peek unseen at my fiancé. He was talking with Mr. Daniel Tiemann, the mayor of New York City, who would officiate the ceremony. I heard the opening strains of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and at the organist’s nod, I walked slowly towards the front of the room. The wood floor was glossy and recently polished, so I stepped carefully to avoid slipping. I was excited, but tried to appear calm until I heard four-year-old Charlotte telling her younger brother Owen in a loud stage whisper, “Mama is marrying Uncle Fred right now.” I stifled a giggle, turning to smile at my children sitting together on a single chair. “Be good,” I mouthed and continued walking down the narrow aisle. Both men were smiling as I took my place facing Fred and set my simple bouquet on a side table. He looked attractive in his black morning coat and crisp gray trousers. He was only of average height with a slight build, but to me, he appeared larger than life. I had grown very fond of this man with the reddish brown hair and bright blue eyes. I looked forward to spending time alone with him, to falling in love.
Just the thing for a rainy day indeed! I would be the next woman that Frederick Law Olmsted fell in love with. As well as the last!
“You look lovely, my dear. Your gown is also lovely,” Fred stammered as he took my hands in his. His palms were damp and his cheeks were flushed. I smiled reassuringly, pleased that I was not the only one who was nervous.
“You look quite smart yourself, Fred. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you look so dashing.”
Fred beamed as Mayor Tiemann cleared his throat, signaling we were about to begin. He spoke in a deep and commanding voice about the sanctity of marriage and the importance of finding someone of the right status and temperament to grow old with. But what about love? Marriage without a firm foundation built on love was out of the question to me. A loving marriage and family; that was most important.
It seemed the mayor would drone on forever, when his tone suddenly changed and he turned towards Fred.
“Do you, Frederick Law Olmsted, take this woman as your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward?”
“I do,” Fred responded. “Yes, I do.”
“And do you, Mary Perkins Olmsted, take this man as your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward?”
“I do.” My heart was beating so loudly that I worried the mayor had not heard me. But he smiled and continued.
“Then by the power vested in me by the state of New York, I hereby pronounce you man and wife. Fred, you may kiss the bride.”
Fred cleared his throat and leaned forward as I raised my lips to his. Kiss me, Fred. I’m your wife. You can kiss me. And he did. His lips were warm and firm and he drew me closer, his arms encircling my waist. When he pulled away, I saw a gleam in his eyes. He looks happy. Happy to be married to me! Warmth flooded through me. I was happy too.
As Mayor Tiemann congratulated Fred, I looked back at my children and saw John and Charlotte still had Owen wedged between them. When they saw me looking, they hopped up and began waving. “Mama,” six-year-old John said, “I’ve been watching the little
ones. Just like you asked.”
“You look pretty, Mama,” Charlotte said.
“Pretty,” Owen echoed, and I thought my heart would burst with joy. My three darlings. I rushed towards them and they clambered about, each trying to claim me as their own.
“Now, now, children,” Fred boomed, and I looked up to see my new husband smiling down at us. “Let’s allow your poor mother the
chance to catch her breath,” he implored. Seeing a new target for their affection, the children deserted me and climbed into Fred’s open arms. They tussled for a few moments like affectionate puppies until Fred set them down and pulled himself to a standing position. “Well, if this is the level of energy that I should expect from the lot of you, I had better ask about a tonic to maintain my strength,” he said with a smile. “Come now, children. We can’t keep our esteemed Mayor waiting.” He took my arm and led me towards the back of the room, where a young woman was setting up refreshments.
“I’m afraid I’ve started without you, Fred,” Mayor Tiemann said with a wink as he raised a glass with a flourish. “To the bride and groom,” he proclaimed and brought the glass to his lips.
“Thank you, Daniel. Mary and I are grateful for you being here today.” I nodded in agreement, but realized no one was looking at me. I forced a smile and clung to Fred’s arm, unsure what to do.
“Think nothing of it, my good man. It’s the least I can do, what with you designing a park that will make me the envy of every other mayor in the U.S.,” Tiemann said. “So, what is the latest? Bring me up to date, won’t you? I can’t get a straight answer when I run into your boss. Who’s it? Green?” Fred winced at the sound of his supervisor’s name, but recovered quickly.
“I’m happy to fill you in,” he said. “Let’s let Mary and the children have their refreshments and I’ll join you in a glass.” He poured himself a thimble of sherry and topped off the mayor’s glass. They made themselves comfortable in over-sized leather chairs in a far corner of the room.
I wished John Senior had joined us, or that I had thought to invite one of my friends from school. It had been so difficult to maintain contact while traveling with an ailing husband and a growing family. This past year had been quite a change, and since agreeing to marry Fred two months earlier, I’d had no time to reach out to old friends. Until that very moment, I had not realized I could feel lonely on my wedding day.
I assumed the men would be engaged for some time, so I led the children to the sideboard laden with a crystal punch bowl and silver
trays of tiny sandwiches and pastries. A white cake decorated with fondant flowers garnered their full attention. John tugged at my hand. “It’s sponge cake,” he said. “I would like a big piece as I’m the oldest.”
“Can I have a piece with two flowers? Please,” Charlotte whined. “I like cake,” Owen announced to no one in particular. “Sandwich first,” I said and watched as the server prepared a plate for each child. They brought their bounty over to a small table and began devouring their meal. The stays of my dress were digging into my sides and I knew I didn’t have room for much, but a tiny deviled egg sandwich and a sliver of cake were in order. And a nice glass of punch.
It was time for a proper celebration. It was my wedding day, after all.
Gail Ward Olmsted was a marketing executive and a college professor before she began writing fiction on a fulltime basis. A trip to Sedona, AZ inspired her first novel Jeep Tour. Three more novels followed before she began Landscape of a Marriage, a biographical work of fiction featuring landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, a distant cousin of her husband’s, and his wife Mary.
For more information, please visit her on Facebook and at GailOlmsted.com.