The woman behind a cherished Naples charity event reflects upon her life and the passions that fuel it By Caroline Ridgway | Photography by Vanessa Rogers
any years ago, when philanthropist Jane Purdy Berger had a chance encounter on an airplane, she had no idea it would one day help her to establish an event that encapsulates Naples’ charitable essence. Equal parts chic and benevolent, this luncheon has largely contributed to the prosperity of a beloved Southwest Florida organization and the beautification of the community. At the time of that fateful flight, however, Berger’s sights were set on Columbus, Ohio. Relaying the story with her signature smile and spark, Berger explains that she was en route home from traveling abroad with her husband, Chuck, when she met famed designer Carleton Varney. “I didn’t know who Carleton was at first, but immediately noticed his style,” says Berger, who was in the process of relocating her family to Ohio. “He said that if I was going to ask him to change seats the least I could do was buy him a drink. We talked for hours.” Varney boldly inquired of his new acquaintance what she might do to stay busy in Columbus. Berger—with nary the first written word of an official plan but a lot of ideas, flair to spare, and superb instincts—shared her intention to bring a formal garden party with a fancy hats theme to the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. The concept, respectfully borrowed from New York’s renowned Central Park Conservancy bash of similar styling, would prove a great success. When the Bergers moved to Naples in 1999, she sensed that the burgeoning Naples Botanical Garden would be the ideal setting for a comparable event. New to town and still building a network of connections locally, she fought to get traction. “Those years were a challenge and very defeating at times,” she says. “But I knew it was a winner.” She ultimately succeeded in staging the first Hats in the Garden in 2004 along with co-chairs Leslie Fogg, Barbara Finn, and Anne LaGrippe. None other than Carleton Varney, by that time a friend, would help host. Although still several years removed from the garden’s official public opening, Hats in the Garden became a signature event. Berger and her cohorts were intent on delivering a magnificent experience that would establish a benchmark. The inaugural Hats, as it came to be known, took place under a tent in the parking lot adjacent to the administrative building. The salad course was served in vibrantly adorned hat boxes, and the tables 74
“If you want to have a life in Naples, you have to give,” says philanthropist Jane Purdy Berger, at home with her art and antiques.
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