How many of us women, when we were little girls in the days of princes and princesses, declared that when we grew up we were going to build a palace? For how many of us, did this declaration become a reality?
Our book club has just discovered one such American woman, Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose biographer, Louise Hall Tharp, delighted all of us with her meticulously researched and lovingly written book, Mrs. Jack.
Isabella Gardner is best known for the creation of the Gardner Museum of Boston, completed in 1903 to house her collection of great masters and artifacts collected in her extensive travels. Over their lifetimes, she and her husband, John Lowell Gardner, Jr., purchased more than 2,500 works of art. After his death, in keeping with his wishes, she had built a five-story “palace” in the Italianate style in which she lived and displayed her considerable art collection.
Mrs. Jack was a remarkable woman (1840-1924). Her adult life, spanning the Civil War through WWI, placed her square in the period that Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age.” It was an era of great wealth building, exclusive “social circles,” elaborate entertainment, travel and exploration, self-indulgence and. opulence. Mrs. Jack, we felt, epitomized that age of wealth and privilege with her trend-setting wardrobe furnished by her Paris designer, her famous pearls, rubies and yellow diamonds coveted by the King of Cambodia, her part-time residence on the Grand Canal in Venice, along with extensive travel in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
She was a rebel – unconventional, daring, fearless, and fun. She had red hair and a temper to match. She delighted in being the center of attention and never denied any of the wild stories that circulated about her and that the gossips and the press loved to embellish. She preferred the company of young men, her protégés, which invited considerable speculation. At such moments, her adoring husband Jack generally took her abroad for months-long adventures.
She began her most colorful life wearing hoop skirts and being transported in carriages and ended with driving her own car, drinking beer, smoking Turkish cigarettes and cheering the Boston Red Sox. A darling of all who enjoyed her vivaciousness and ingenuousness, she stood at the center of the social scene of her time. A friend of Henry James and the artists Whistler, Sargent, and Zorn, each of whom painted her portrait at least once, she also socialized with leaders in the field of art, such as Bernard Berenson, who guided her toward many of her acquisitions. What made her a stand-out was her devotion to the arts, her benevolent support of the young and talented, and her legacy in both art and music.
The members of our book club, which was organized in the mid-1950s by women sailors at the Larchmont Yacht Club, ended the discussion of Mrs. Jack by each one answering the question: “Is there an event or an experience in Mrs. Jack’s life that you would have liked to have experienced yourself?” Readers, what would you choose?