A few weeks ago I went to see Julie/Julia – which was terrific by the way – and I was reminded again how much I enjoyed watching PBS when I was a boy, and, how formative good television could be on receptive little minds. But while Julia Child is certainly the best remembered of that generation of TV pioneers, she wasn’t the only great guru of the age. I refer in particular to Thalassa Cruso, the indomitable Brit who taught an entire generation of Americans, including me, how to garden. I will plainly admit to you: Thalassa Cruso was my hero when I was 10. I adored this woman, with her wonderful, no-nonsense approach to gardening that made you believe you could accomplish any horticultural feat if you really tried. Even the title of her show (and book) Making Things Grow, spoke volumes. You didn’t just let plants do their thing: you MADE them grow. If they weren’t ship-shape and all spit and polish, OUT they went in a brutal thwack of pot, or blaze of pruning shears. She was, in short, pure delight on the screen. I vowed I was going to be a gardener just like her, and one day at age 13, after years of watching, I summoned my courage to write to tell her so. Never in a million years did I expect an answer, but to my utter surprise, she wrote me back. My original letter to her is long-lost, but it’s obvious from the reply that I must have peppered my missive with multiple questions, which she kindly answered one-by-one in her usual methodical manner:
(For those interested, the story to the yellow clivia is explained in Thalassa’s indoor gardening guide, Making Things Grow, which by the way, I still use as a constant reference. And as another complete aside, I managed to track down an offset myself, which sits today among my proudest horticultural treasures – but that’s the subject for another post)
Of course, I could never have imagined that one day this little Wisconsin boy would wind up in Boston, working for the same television network; nor that one enchanted afternoon, I would find myself filming in the very same studio, in the very same spot, where my gardening mentor had stood four decades earlier.
That level of cyclic karma is simply too boggling to even contemplate.
Those few golden moments in the studio, however, were probably the apex of my Thalassa Cruso love affair, for it remains one of my life-long regrets that we never managed to meet. By the time I arrived in Boston, Thalassa had retired to tend to family illness; and despite so many common overlaps – in addition to gardening, she too, had worked in Classics and archaeology) our paths never crossed. She died in 1997.
For those of you who weren’t privileged to have watched Thalassa’s original programs on public TV, or to have witnessed her hilarious appearances on Johnny Carson (not to be believed!) the last 40 years have been a desert. The master tapes, locked in the archives at the Boston studios of WGBH, had been filmed in an archaic video format that would have cost countless thousands of dollars to restore. While I was there as the host of The Victory Garden, I inquired many times about bringing these episodes back to the small screen, only to be told there simply wasn’t the budget for such nostalgia. I was thoroughly disheartened. Then one day, our producer announced that she had a present for me: it seems that somewhere along the line, a single VHS copy had appeared.
Hallelujah! I immediately ran and popped in the tape, and suddenly before me reappeared the sounds and images of my childhood, just as I had remembered: the familiar tinkle of the harpsichord to a theme of Corelli; the broad smiling face topped with bangs and bun; those inevitable and equally incongruous pearls; the perfectly clipped British diction that tolerated no fools, human or horticultural; that wry sense of humor, which never failed to make me laugh; even those magical, rustic swinging sets that made you just want to run out and build your own potting shed. Best of all, I discovered to my delight that Thalassa had stood the test of time: unlike old outdoor gardening programs where such common admonitions as tucking “double orange French marigolds in about the foundation planting,” or dusting all your crops with Sevin – “just in case” – have long since become taboo, most of Thalassa’s tips (she was one of the earliest environmentalists, after all) remain as valuable, and viable, now as they were then.
In short pure gardening bliss. A piece of TV’s gardening past preserved.
Or so it was – more or less. The VHS tape too was showing signs of age, and this casual copy (probably never more than an editor’s preview tape and never meant for preservation) appeared to be a mishmash of episodes, with scenes out of order, terrible sound and much buzzing and whirling. Still, it was better than nothing.
Then this past spring, on an annual whim, I popped the tape back into my last remaining VCR player, and I realized to my utter dismay that the tired cassette too was starting to decay. The picture began to twitch, the sound warble, and I feared I was on the verge of losing the old girl all over again. To arms, I thought, to arms! But I was quickly thwarted. No ready transfer mechanism was at hand, and how to get this half-hour program into modern format? After months of technical aggravation with millions of digital bits teetering on the edge of virtual extinction, I finally managed to swap sections of the tape back and forth into a functioning version, restoring, more or less, a whole episode, Bonsai. (Two other episodes exist in fragmentary form.) And just in time, too: on the final pass, the VHS snapped and broke, never to be played again.
And so, by a single hair’s breadth (or rather tape breadth), for the first time in 42 years, may I share with you the indomitable, indefatigable, inimitable Thalassa Cruso!
Welcome back, my dear Thalassa. I’ve missed you.
(For a more complete bio of Thalassa Cruso, see her obituary in the New York Times, or this wonderful 1976 article in People Magazine (yes, People, when it still had content, imagine!!))