Former Designer Carolyne Roehm Makes a Cottage Industry Out of Flowers

Wearing brown cashmere and tweed, Carolyne Roehm was sorting through the mail on March 11 at her Manhattan apartment with deep East River views. “Hope you don’t mind looking at Queens,” she said as she walked toward a table against one of several floor-to-ceiling living room windows, looking out on the 59th Street Bridge. This is the Mica Ertegun-and-Chessy Rayner-decorated, two-bedroom flat where Carolyne Roehm settled after her Park Avenue marriage to financier Henry Kravis ended in 1994.

Ms. Roehm was opening mail with an assistant–she has two. Her long hands were laden with cards and letters. “I really can’t believe we’re still receiving them–about 90 this week,” she said, delighted. The missives come in a weekly dispatch from Harper Collins, publisher of her 1997 book, A Passion for Flowers . There was a card from a reader in New Jersey, another from a woman in Germany. From Jasper, Ind., a lady wrote, “Your book is my adviser and companion. The other day I was sad so I put on Pavarotti and read your book and my day got better.”

A nice kick from a coffee table book with a price tag of $50. Indeed, in its genre, the beautiful book is some kind of record setter. Now in its sixth printing, it has begotten a Carolyne Roehm cottage industry: The former fashion designer lectures around the country, judges flower shows, appears on Good Morning America and recently made a pilot garden show with Meredith Corporation’s Country Gardens magazine. Worldvision Enterprise Inc. is handling the syndication, which according to Ms. Roehm is going well. At least 60 percent of the 121 target markets have been sold and the weekly series is expected to air later this year.

In April, Harper Collins will publish Summer Notebook , the first of four seasonal, 100-page, spiral-bound notebooks by Carolyne Roehm. Expanding on themes from A Passion for Flowers , Summer Notebook includes chapters on roses, tomatoes–”a very big story with me,” Ms. Roehm said–corn, and peaches. A coffee table book on entertaining will be published in late fall.

“We’re having a vegetable salad with a crab salad,” Ms. Roehm said, putting her mail aside and settling herself at the table in front of the dazzling river view. Crammed, but cozy, like a tight shot in Ms. Roehm’s book, the table was topped with yellow daffodils and two antique globes flanking a bronze bust of Marcus Aurelius on a marble stand.

A maid brought the food. “I don’t know what’s happening in fashion anymore,” said Ms. Roehm, who was a clothing designer for nearly 10 years. She was much more inclined to talk about gardens and food, or the daffodils arranged throughout the saffron-colored room. “Just two or three cut daffodils in a simple glass will improve the quality of one’s life and is a fail-safe activity even for the most horticulturally challenged,” she said.

Ms. Roehm apologized if she looked puffy–she didn’t–”but I finally saw Life Is Beautiful last night and couldn’t stop crying.” She was headed to Paris that evening for the christening of a godchild. In 1994, when she and Mr. Kravis ended their marriage–on friendly terms as these things go–Ms. Roehm closed the struggling catalogue business she had gotten into after leaving Seventh Avenue in 1991 and went abroad. First she studied literature at Oxford, and later, decorated an apartment in Paris on the Left Bank. She took cooking classes and apprenticed with Henri Moulie, one of the most respected florists in Paris.

The daughter of educators from a small Missouri town, she has loved flowers since she was a child. Fresh blooms remind her of summer days on her grandmother’s farm. Even when she was an assistant to Oscar de la Renta, earning $126 a week in the mid-1970′s, she always budgeted for a few flowers.

Ms. Roehm paused when asked about Weatherstone, her treasured 1850′s stone house in Sharon, Conn., where she has spent the majority of her time since 1996, photographing and producing her books for Harper Collins. On Jan. 22, Weatherstone combusted in a freak fire and burnt to the ground. The first flame caught hold of a sofa and 10 minutes later the roof of the house caved in.

“I was in town,” Ms. Roehm recalled. “I’d just come out of a meeting at Harper Collins and I saw my driver waving frantically. ‘The house is on fire,’ he told me. My first reaction was, ‘Well, we better put it out.’ When I realized what he was telling me, he had to catch me.”

She still doesn’t know what caused the fire, although an electrical short is suspected. Two people working in the house tried to extinguish the fire when it was just flames on the sofa, but it had already caught inside the wall and then shot up to the roof. Luckily, no one was hurt and her three dogs were gotten out of the house in time. Ms. Roehm is living in a cottage on the property.

Antiques and paintings were lost as were most of her clothes and all of her Carolyne Roehm archives, the dresses she designed in her fashion days. “There are one or two Lesage embroideries I’d like to have, but I really never want to have that much stuff again,” she said. “After the fire, I went to Banana Republic and bought a few pairs of pants and some white shirts. I had a few things here in the apartment as well.” One of the very few things salvaged was a portfolio of watercolor sketches of her dogs. “I think this was an omen,” she said, “to rebuild.” But Mr. Kravis still owns the property and, under the terms of their divorce, Ms. Roehm only has lifetime rights to live there. Weatherstone will eventually revert to his estate. Will he rebuild?

“I hope so,” Ms. Roehm answered.

“Do you know, I actually watched Gone With the Wind soon after the fire,” she said. “Not because I identify with Scarlett, but because so many friends said I should leave this place. But I still love it. The former owner told us he believed there was a ghost, but I always thought she was friendly and a frustrated decorator because we’d always find furniture moved which no one could ever explain.” She said Mr. Kravis rolled his eyes with disbelief when the previous owner of Weatherstone told him the house had a ghost. “Well, I don’t want to sound like Shirley MacLaine myself, but I guess I’m preaching to the choir today.”

The maid returned bearing vanilla ice cream in powdered chocolate. “I’m going to be very brutal,” Ms. Roehm warned her, “just get that ice cream away from me!” She laughed. “Just because I have skinny arms, people think I am skinny. I’ve gained so much weight, but it’s O.K. I was too bony, I think, in the 1980′s. Oh, I ate. I was a nervous person who ate like a horse and ran like a lunatic. Nowadays,” she smiled, “I like to think I’m learning not to push the river.”

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. Six and half million dollars is:

a. the amount the Queen Mother supposedly has overdrawn from her royal accounts.

b. the amount of money raised at the Vogue -Christie’s sale of Oscar dresses March 18.

c. Tom Ford’s bonus last year from Gucci.

2. What product was advertised on the wind-lashed banner that wreaked havoc in Times Square on March 18?

a. Izod Baby.

b. Calvin Klein mesh thongs.

c. Nokia cellular phones.

3. What did Stella McCartney wear when she attended her father Paul McCartney’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 15?

a. A pretty floor-length skirt and a T-shirt that said, “About Fucking Time!”

b. A Chloe gown with a Lesage top that read, “No More Fur!”

c. One of her mother Linda McCartney’s vintage Yves Saint Laurent couture smoking jackets and pants.

Answers: (1) a; (2) c; (3) a.