Grace Marchant started planting her world-famous garden on Telegraph Hill in 1949, working the steep hillside day in and day out for 33 years. Gary Kray began working with her in 1979 and took over the responsibilities of the garden after her death in December 1982. Gary in turn died in 2012. Paula Mc Cabe, who had helped Gary for ten years, assumed the gardening responsibilities at that time, with assistance from her husband, Larry Habegger.
Grace was born in 1886 in a small town in South Dakota and migrated with her young daughter Valetta to Southern California in 1912. To make ends, meet she worked a variety of jobs, including as a stuntwoman in silent films and later as a wardrobe mistress for RKO and 20th Century Fox. Valetta danced as a chorus girl for RKO and the Fanchon and Marco vaudeville troupe before they both moved to San Francisco in 1936. During World War II, mother and daughter both worked building Liberty Ships in Sausalito.
Before Grace moved to the Filbert Steps, she lived a block away on the Greenwich Steps with Valetta and Valetta’s husband, Des Heslet. Grace began the beautification of Telegraph Hill at age 63 in 1949 when she moved into the house at the corner of Napier Lane and the Filbert Steps. At that time the area was an unsightly garbage dump full of an astonishing variety of debris: old tires, bedsprings, discarded furniture, even the remains of dilapidated cottages that had been demolished and left to decompose. Despite suffering from spinal arthritis, Grace cleaned up the hill herself, hauling debris to the cliff’s edge (Telegraph Hill had been quarried for ships’ ballast in the 19th century) and tossing it over the side. Her effort to reclaim the hillside started small, with just one handful of baby tears ground cover.
Year in and year out, she worked steadily planting roses, fuchsias, gladiolus, any flowers she could get her hands on. As the garden grew, her health improved, and always a creative type, she took on other projects, installing a potter’s wheel, kiln, and rock polishing equipment in her basement “studio” (what had been a general store until the 1920s). She produced art into her nineties.
She continued to garden until her last few months, dying at home in 1982 at age 96. But in her last three years she had help from her next-door neighbor, Gary Kray. Grace taught Gary how to garden, and he took over after she died, spending the rest of his life tending her garden for the benefit of the community and anyone lucky enough to discover this oasis of calm on a secluded hillside in a busy city.
Garden Saved from Development
In the mid-1980s the garden was threatened by a real estate development. To save Grace’s life’s work, the neighborhood banded together and formed the organization Friends of the Garden (FOG) and conducted a vigorous political and fund-raising campaign to convince city agencies and the developer to allow us to buy the property and conserve it in perpetuity. The effort drew extensive media attention, involved the Trust for Public Land (TPL), and was endorsed by Mayor Dianne Feinstein. To read about the successful campaign, see Larry Habegger’s story in the Spring 2016 issue of The Semaphore, the quarterly newsletter of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, commemorating the 30th anniversary.
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Learn more about Gary Kray in the San Francisco Chronicle obituary and in an article written by Larry Habegger, published in the Fall 2012 issue of The Semaphore.
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