Mrs. Jack And Her Back Bay Palazzo

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Today we would consider her eccentric; in her own time, many proper Bostonians thought that she was scandalous, but her friends were charmed by her free spirit. Henry James, for instance, once wrote to her, “I envy you, who always, even at your worst, loved the game, whatever it might be, and delighted in playing it. “But regardless of any judgment about her character, there is no question that Mrs. Jack Gardner, shown at left in about 1905, bequeathed to America a unique treasure—Fenway Court. This excerpt from The Magnificent Builders and Their Dream Houses by Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr., presents one of the book’s enchanting stories of wealthy dreamers who were able to indulge their passion for building. The book, richly illustrated, is being published this month by American Heritage Publishing Company.

One of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s girlhood friends remembered a visit they made to the Poldi-Pezzoli palace in Milan when they were sixteen. Belle Stewart was enchanted by the Italian Renaissance paintings, the heavy carved furniture, the rich hangings, and ornate silver. “If I ever have any money of my own,” she declared, “I am going to build a palace and fill it with beautiful things.”

In later years, when she was Mrs. John Lowell Gardner, friends learned to take Belle’s fancies seriously. “What Mrs. Jack wants,” one of them said, “you can be pretty sure she is going to get.”

Belle Stewart was the daughter of David Stewart, an enterprising New York businessman of recent fortune. At a finishing school in Paris she became a friend of Julia Gardner of Boston and, when they returned to America, was introduced to Julia’s brother Jack. No one ever said that Belle Stewart was a beauty, but she had a magnetism that captivated Jack Gardner as it captivated many men (but few women) throughout her life.

In both fortune and social standing Jack was the heir of two Massachusetts families that had prospered in the China trade, the Gardners of Boston and, on his mother’s side, the Peabodys of Salem. After he and Belle were married in 1860 he settled contentedly into the life of a proper Bostonian, looking after his investments, lunching and often dining at his clubs, fussing over the wines for dinner parties at their Beacon Street house, growing more staid and more portly with the years. He was also intelligent, industrious, affable, and, fortunately, tolerant.

Belle Gardner required a lot of tolerance. To the eagle eyes of Boston matrons her dresses always seemed to be fitted a little too tightly, the necks cut a little too low, the strings of pearls a little too long and showy. Where other ladies were content with a coachman, Belle drove out with two footmen on the box. The ladies found it unsettling when she once rode about with two lion cubs on the seat beside her. They professed shock when she invited them to tea in a drawing room where Sandow the Strong Man stood on exhibition behind a thin curtain, wearing only trunks—or, as some remembered, a fig leaf.

What scandalized Boston the most, however, as “Mrs. Jack” grew older, was her evident fondness for young men, usually young men connected with the arts. Whether any of Boston’s suspicions were true is impossible to know, because if Mrs. Gardner bestowed favors she bestowed them on gentlemen, who did not talk. The evidence is limited to such appealing scenes as one that Ellery Sedgwick witnessed in the gymnasium of Groton School at a time when Mrs. Gardner was forty-eight and John Singer Sargent, the most fashionable painter of the day and her lifelong friend, was thirty-two. Sedgwick, later editor of the Atlantic Monthly but at that time a Groton undergraduate, was sitting behind some wrestling mats, reading Ben Hur , when “suddenly the gymnasium door was thrown wildly open and a woman’s voice thrilled me with a little scream of mockery and triumph. Cautiously I peeked from my concealment and caught sight of a woman with the figure of a girl, her modish muslin skirt fluttering behind her as she danced through the doorway and flew across the floor, tossing over her shoulder some taunting paean of escape. But bare escape it seemed, for not a dozen feet behind her came her cavalier, white-flanneled, blackbearded, panting with laughter and pace. The pursuer was much younger than the pursued but that did not affect the ardor of the chase. The lady raced to the stairway leading to the running track above. Up she rushed, he after her. She reached the track and dashed round it, the ribbons of her belt standing straight out behind her. Her pursuer was visibly gaining. The gap narrowed. Nearer, nearer he drew, both hands outstretched to reach her waist. In Ben-Hur the chariot race was in full blast, but it was eclipsed. ‘She’s winning,’ I thought. ‘No, she’s losing.’ And then at the apex of my excitement, ‘He has her!’ But at that crucial moment there came over me the sickening sense that this show was not meant for spectators, that I was eavesdropping and, worse, that I would be caught at it. There was not one instant to lose. The window was open. Out I slipped and slithered to safety.

 

“For me that race was forever lost and forever won. The figures go flying motionless as on the frieze of the Grecian urn.

“What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

“What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?