Mrs. Jack And Her Back Bay Palazzo


If Fenway Court had collapsed, as the building inspector feared it would, on New Year’s night, 1903, it would have wiped out virtually the entire social, financial, and governmental establishment of Boston. As the guests alighted from their carriages, they were ushered into the music room, at the far end of which Mrs. Jack had installed a horseshoe staircase. On the landing stood Mrs. Jack, triumphant in all her pearls, with two huge diamonds, the Rajah and the Light of India, swaying gently on golden springs set in her hair. Her guests, friend and foe alike, climbed up one side of the staircase, paid their respects to the hostess, and went down the other. To heighten the suspense, they were then treated to an hour-long concert by fifty musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Finally, at ten-thirty, the mirrored door to the courtyard was rolled back and the guests beheld the fairyland that Mrs. Jack had created. The pink walls, broken by the balustrades from the Ca’ d’Oro, rose four stories to a glass roof. Here, in the midst of a bleak Massachusetts winter, was an enchanted garden of blooming flowers and tinkling fountains. Thousands of Japanese lanterns lit the courtyard and the art-filled rooms, still to be seen, that opened off it. Describing the reaction of the beholders, William James said that “it had a peculiar effect on the company, making them quiet and docile and self-forgetful and kind, as if they had become children” (although, as he added on second thought, children are just the reverse).

After her night of triumph Mrs. Gardner lived on at Fenway Court among her treasures for the twenty years that remained to her. After she had a stroke at seventy-nine she was carried about the palace in a Venetian gondola chair. Two years before she died, Sargent came again to paint the finest portrait of his old friend, by then a wraith, white of hair and skin and wrapped all in white clothing.

In her will she left Fenway Court to the public, with an endowment to keep it up and strict instructions not to change a thing. Fresh violets are placed each morning, as Mrs. Jack placed them, before Giorgione’s Christ Bearing the Cross . Fenway Court neither lends its paintings to other museums nor borrows theirs for display. And even pictures that have been downgraded by changing taste or revised attribution hang where Mrs. Jack hung them. The strict provisions of the will have had one great compensating value: they have preserved Fenway Court not as simply a museum but as the home and creation of one remarkable woman. Thanks to the shrewd collaboration of Mrs. Gardner and Bernard Berenson, most of the important paintings are still recognized as the work of the greatest masters. In the history of art collecting there has hardly ever been a better investment. It is likely that a single painting—either the Titian or the Vermeer—would today bring at auction as much as Mrs. Jack paid for Fenway Court and everything in it.