Green Scene

From books to plants, exploring Elizabeth Kals Reilley


The LuEsther T. Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden has a rare book and folio room, which requires special access.

For example, I was able to attend a lecture a few months ago sponsored by the Torrey Society, and the rare book room was opened for a short time to the participants. Stephen Sinon, the library’s head of special collections, research and archives, was the only person allowed to handle the various journals.

One of the items displayed was a “Catalogue of Plants, Growing Spontaneously Within Thirty miles of the City of New York,” much of which was hand-written by Columbia College professor John Torrey before he died in 1873. The society is intended for anyone “interested in plant life,” and may be the oldest botanical society in America, having begun unofficially in the 1860s and officially in 1870.

At that time it began publishing the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, which has become today’s Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society quarterly. Archives of the society are held at the botanical garden library.

However, I already had been introduced to the room when I was asked to research Elizabeth Kals Reilley, who had donated 458 beautiful leather-bound volumes related to plants published between 1500 and 1996. It is officially named the Elizabeth Kals Reilley Collection.

She was a woman of sophisticated tastes whose singular wish was to leave a legacy that could be used by scholars evaluating the development of landscape design, hydraulics, waterworks and fountain design, and botany of the past through the lens of the present. These volumes were written in English, French, Dutch and Italian, with the occasional volume in German.

The earliest work was printed in 1505, called “Gli Asolani di messer Pietro Bembo,” with the latest called “Serial Publications, Essential Parts of the 19th Century Imagination: From the Collection of Robert H. Jackson,” which was printed in the mid-1990s.

There are 19 volumes from the 1500s, 59 volumes from the 1600s, 157 from the 1700s, 109 from the 1800s, and 94 from the 1900s.

Elizabeth (Lisl) was born in Vienna, Austria, on Sept. 8, 1907, to Otto and Irma Katz (Taussig). Otto was a banker while Irma was a well-known society painter. Governesses privately educated Elizabeth until she studied painting in Paris at École des Beaux-Arts, and later at the University of Vienna.

She became interested in ethnology (cultural anthropology) and did work on the spread of culture by the horse nomads of Central Asia at the University of Vienna. In those years, she rode as an amateur jockey in European horse races.

Years later in the United States, Elizabeth took courses in architecture and garden design at Yale University. And in 1963, she received a degree in library science from C.W. Post.

Elizabeth had one younger brother, Wilhelm Stephan, who was later to write numerous books on navigation, the stars and boating under the name W.S. Kals.

Although the family was originally Jewish, they converted sometime before the death of Irma on May 8, 1933. It is believed Otto died shortly after his wife.

With the further rise of anti-Semitism, the family changed their name from Katz to Kals. In 1938, Elizabeth and first husband, architect Hans Soffer, together with her brother Wilhelm and Wilhelm’s wife Marie Terese Panzer and their two daughters, were forced to flee Austria.

They spent a year in France awaiting visas to the United States, and arrived in America a year later. They separated shortly after, however.

Elizabeth married a second time. But her longest and happiest marriage was to Ewing Willard Reilley, a founder of McKinsey & Co., who she married in 1967. He died in 1988.

Elizabeth worked as a librarian for a metallurgical plant, a freelance photographer, and then a researcher-reporter for Time magazine, and later for Fortune.

We will continue to explore Elizabeth’s influence further in my next column.

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