When soldier Harvey Feinstein was stationed in Germany, he carried a very important book with him whenever he had a furlough.
It was called “Art in the Western World,” an art history book he’d read during his undergraduate career at New York University. In 1958, before leaving for the Army, he had packed the 977 bound pages and made it his mission to see every sight he’d studied.
Nearly 40 years later, he finally did, not thanks to his time in the military, but instead to an unsuspecting hobby—gardening—that Mr. Feinstein left behind with his childhood in Brooklyn and picked back up only when he moved to the East End in 1965.
On Friday, May 18, the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons will honor Mr. Feinstein—garden connoisseur, artist, writer, former fashion designer, president emeritus of the Southampton Rose Society and community figure.
“It’s shocking, surprising. Obviously, I’m very pleased,” Mr. Feinstein said of the recognition while at his home in Peconic Landing, a retirement community in Greenport, on Thursday, May 3. “It’s a good honor. It encapsulates my whole history, my life on the South Fork and the things I did.”
It could be argued that Mr. Feinstein inherited his green thumb from his father, Josef, who got his son’s hands dirty at just 5 years of age in his two gardens at their home in Brooklyn. The gardens were planted with a fig tree, cherry tree and a rose arbor twisted with honeysuckles.
“I used to go out and help him in the garden, and I remember the three things he would say,” Mr. Feinstein recalled, noting that he grew up during the Great Depression. “‘Now that you’re helping me, don’t stomp on the rosebushes. Don’t pick the petals off the roses.’ And, ‘I think your mother wants you because I hear her calling.’”
He burst into laughter at the memory.
“Those gardens were beautiful on a summer night,” Mr. Feinstein mused. “The breeze would blow through and you could smell the roses and honeysuckles, and I guess it stuck.”
After his high school years—during which he explored art and writing—Mr. Feinstein attended college, where he studied retailing and art history, and then enlisted.
While abroad in Germany for two years, he began writing poetry.
“I don’t know why I started,” he said. “I met a girl in college and we were corresponding. I started sending her poems and she would send me poems, and it went on like that.”
Some of the poetry dripped with vibrantly visual and olfactory floral imagery, full of his passion for nature. A few lines from one poem, “Romance,” which is the introduction to his book of short stories and poems, “Pardon My Shorts,” reads: “Could I choose where to spend eternity/and searched my paths of memory/I’d pick a garden without hesitation/where we passed a morning/of calm delight and meditation/fragrant with acacia and pale tuberose/near a tumbling stream where wood fern grows.”
When he returned to America, Mr. Feinstein was on the prowl for a retailing job, but just couldn’t seem to find one. He needed a little help from his aunt—the woman responsible for turning him on to fashion.
“She worked for Saks Fifth Avenue, so that’s where she got me a job,” he said. “She was a very glamorous lady and when she was going into the market when it was market week, she would invite me to come along with her. She’d get tickets for the theater, take me out to dinner. I was usually her young escort and I thought it was a very glamorous business.”
It didn’t take long for him to learn that fashion was glamorous only on the runway, he said. He soon broke into the design world and worked his own hours, bouncing from client to client, which included L.L.Bean and J.Crew, among others.
To get his mind off clothes, Mr. Feinstein, who lived in Manhattan at the time, joined the pottery scene in Greenwich Village. His “post-Columbian” pieces, three birdhouses—an English birdhouse, “The Grange;” an American birdhouse, “Rose Cottage;” and a French birdhouse, “Le Moulin,” or “The Mill”—and “Bad Tom,” a naughty cat with a stray bird feather hanging from its mouth, are on display in his home, which is also decorated with his paintings.
“I tell people I used to be in fashion, and now I’m glad I’m out of fashion,” Mr. Feinstein said. “But it was a good business and allotted me opportunities to travel to Europe and to finally buy a house in Southampton. So that’s what I did.”