I was drawn to the story of Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO) and his wife Mary for a couple of reasons. The primary one is that Olmsted is a distant relative of my husband. There were two brothers born in the mid 1700s — Benjamin (FLO’s grandfather) and Aaron (my husband’s great, great, great, great grandfather). That makes my husband and FLO, 2nd cousins four times removed.
My family and I have visited many Olmsted parks, but I never really knew much about the founder of American landscape architecture. When I discovered he had married his late brother’s widow, adopted her three children, was married over 40 years, and, with her, had four more children (two of which did not survive infancy) … that’s when I thought– a marriage of convenience leads to a life of passion and purpose. That’s a story worth telling!
My first step was to find out everything I could about the lives of FLO and Mary Perkins Olmsted. I reviewed countless resources while researching Landscape of a Marriage. There are several beautifully written books on Olmsted. Two that I highly recommend are A Clearing in the Distance (Rybczynski) and Genius of Place (Martin).
I made careful notes and drafted an outline, filling in the most significant events happening during the tumultuous years of the second half of the 19th century in America– the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, the women’s suffrage movement, the Gold Rush and the Second Industrial Revolution.
Then I moved on to the Olmsteds themselves. I began with their marriage, the births of their children and added significant personal and professional milestones along the way, including such notable projects as Central Park in New York City, Mount Royal in Montreal, the Chicago World’s Fair and the reopening of Niagara Falls. The Olmsteds moved from New York, to Washington, DC, to California and back to New York before dividing their time between Brookline, MA and Deer Isle, Maine. Each location had a significant impact on their lives together and needed to be researched to identify how.
During their forty-fours years together, the Olmsteds faced challenges in their relationship that are quite relevant today- balancing the needs of a family with professional goals, maintaining a close relationship during long periods of separation, dealing with grief and loss… to me, these themes are timeless. I chose Mary as the narrator of my story, as I identified with her and found her perspective to be unique.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my story.
Gail Ward Olmsted’s novel, Landscape of a Marriage: Central Park was only the beginning, was published on July 29, 2021. It continues to rank in the top 100 titles in biographical fiction.