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Mrs. Jack And Her Back Bay Palazzo

July 2024
11min read

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?

“I knew not then whether it was lost or won. What I did know was that the Atalanta of that Sunday morning was Mrs. Jack Gardner and Melanion Mr. John S. Sargent.”

Sargent and others who were inspired to immortalize Mrs. Jack in paint did not find it an easy task: she was a rather homely woman. But though her features were plain, she had some good points: sparkling eyes, fine arms and shoulders, and a magnificent presence. Sargent’s best-known portrait of her, which hangs in the place of honor at Fenway Court, shows her standing regally in a plain black dress with a rope of pearls about her waist. The dress is tight and the neckline is cut a little lower than was the style of that day, but modern visitors to Fenway Court are usually at a loss to understand why the painting was regarded as so daring that her husband locked it up for his lifetime. The truth is that he had some provocation. John Lowell Gardner loved his wife, indulged her whims, and generally paid no attention to the gossip about her. But when the new Sargent painting was hung in an exhibition at one of his Boston clubs, some man made a remark that alluded, first, to the rumor of a previous affair with the writer F. Marion Crawford, and second, to a well-known geographical feature of the White Mountains. What the bounder said was, “Sargent has painted Mrs. Gardner all the way down to Crawf ord’s Notch.” It was when he heard of that remark that Gardner finally lost his temper and ordered the painting put away. Belle was unperturbed, although she did remark, when asked for a contribution to the Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary, that she did not know there was a charitable eye or ear in Boston.

No matter how much they gossiped and carped at Mrs. Jack’s behavior, proper Bostonians seldom refused her invitations. For she gathered into her circle not only the most brilliant of the talented young men but also the established intellectual luminaries of Boston and Cambridge. Among her closest friends and admirers were Henry and William James, Henry Adams, Charles Eliot Norton, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The literary lions were as dazzled as anyone else by Mrs. Jack, and more gifted than others in their elevated flattery. Henry Adams began a letter, “Wonderful Woman!” Henry James wrote: “I think of you as a figure on a wondrous Cinquecento tapestry—and of myself as one of the small quaint accessory domestic animals, a harmless worm, or the rabbit who is very proud and happy to be in the same general composition with you.”

If Boston’s social matrons felt it necessary to keep an eyebrow perpetually raised at Mrs. Jack, other elements in the population were quite delighted by her. Their sense of propriety was not offended when, on a Sunday morning in Lent, she drove down to the Church of the Advent with a mop and bucket and did her penance by swabbing down the steps of the church. When her carriage was caught in a mob during some labor troubles in South Boston, a voice rang out, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Jack. I’ll see you get through.” It was her friend John L. Sullivan, then heavyweight champion of the world.

Foreigners, understandably, were sometimes taken aback by her customs. Once, during a trip to Italy, she dispatched a handsome bouquet of yellow roses with her compliments to the king, Umberto. Unused to receiving presents from ladies, His Majesty sent an equerry to ascertain just what the lady’s intentions were. It took not only her husband but also the U.S. ambassador to Italy to convince the court that Mrs. Jack was not an adventuress with designs on the king but simply an American who was accustomed to sending flowers to men she admired.

Mrs. Jack’s male admirers, young and old, were of great help to her in what soon became the serious business of her life, the collection of great works of art. Sargent became her adviser on purchases, as did James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who had drawn a portrait sketch of her in London. Henry Adams found for her the magnificent stained-glass windows which may once have graced the abbey of Saint Denis. Henry James and others kept an eye out for noble English families that might be ready to part with the family treasures. Most important of all to Mrs. Jack was Bernard Berenson, whom she had taken up when he was a young fine-arts student at Harvard with long, curly hair and soft eyes. Berenson went on to become the world’s leading authority on Italian Renaissance art and Mrs. Jack’s adviser and agent for years.

At first the paintings were intended—or so she said—simply for her own house on Beacon Street. But they were purchased with a care and a sure judgment of quality that were seldom matched by buyers for the world’s great museums. “I haven’t enough money to buy second-rate things,” she once said. “I can buy only the best.”

Before she died Mrs. Jack had acquired the finest collection of Italian Renaissance paintings in the United States; it still ranks second only to that of the National Gallery, which received the collection of Andrew Mellon. Its single greatest treasure is Titian’s Rape of Europa , bought through Berenson’s skillful agency for twenty thousand pounds (then one hundred thousand dollars) from Lord Darnley. Rubens thought it the greatest picture in the world and painted a copy of it, which is now a treasure of the Prado in Madrid. Later Van Dyck, who had never seen the original, painted a copy of Rubens’ copy, and Mrs. Jack bought that .

Perhaps the greatest bargain she ever got was Jan Vermeer’s The Concert , one of only about thirty-six existing paintings by the Dutch master. When the picture came up for auction in Paris in 1892, both the Louvre and the National Gallery in London wanted it, but Mrs. Jack outbid them and got it for six thousand dollars. It was added to a collection that eventually included works by Rembrandt, Raphael, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Rubens, Simone Martini, and Mantegna.

In 1898 Jack Gardner died of a stroke at his club. Between the inheritances from him and from her father, Belle found herself in possession of a fortune estimated at upwards of $5,000,000, sufficient to realize the ambition she had cherished since girlhood. Now she would build her palace.

During their travels in Europe the Gardners had been picking up not only paintings but bits and pieces of old houses, palaces, and monasteries. Among these trophies were the mosaic floor of the palace of the Empress Livia near Rome, a doorway and two stone lions from Florence, and eight balconies from the Ca’ d’Oro, most resplendent of Venetian palazzi. All of these would be used in the palace she planned to erect on the newly filled land of Boston’s Back Bay. Since the land had recently been salt marsh, the palace would have to rest on pilings, even as the palazzi of Venice itself did. The first pilings were driven in the summer of 1899.

Mrs. Gardner left the driving of the piles to the contractor while she took off on a final buying tour of Europe, but by spring of 1900 she was on the scene to supervise construction. First off, she decreed that the brick walls could not rest on a flat foundation but must be laid on an irregular surface of rough blocks so that they would seem to rise directly from the earth. Almost at once she ran into trouble with the building inspector in Boston, who insisted that such a large structure must have a steel frame. Mrs. Jack insisted that if marble columns would support a palace in Venice they would do so in Boston. At length, knowing that all of Boston was looking forward to seeing her “Eyetalian palace,” she informed the inspector: “If Fenway Court is to be built at all, it will be built as I wish and not as you wish.” As usual, she had her way.

During the next three years friends found Mrs. Jack a changed woman. Where she had spent money freely, she began saving pennies. The big rooms of her Beacon Street house were closed off in winter to save fuel, and guests accustomed to her lavish lunches found themselves facing a single lamb chop. Mrs. Jack had money for nothing but Fenway Court.

Although she employed an architect, Mrs. Jack was the true designer. She did not hesitate to turn window casements inside out, to put capitals of Roman columns under the columns they originally crowned, or to stick Victorian wooden tracery on a Renaissance wall. Thanks to her almost unerring taste, it all worked.

In fair weather and foul, it seemed that Mrs. Jack was always on the building site. She took her lunch with the workmen, bringing her sandwiches and contributing ten cents a day for oatmeal to clarify the drinking water. When the workmen had trouble getting the right pink-and-white effect on the walls of the courtyard, she seized two sponges and showed them how to slosh the paint on. On another occasion she wielded a broadax to demonstrate just how the timbers of the ceilings should be rough-cut in the old Italian style.

Among the Italian workmen who had been recruited for the job she took a liking to an ex-gondolier from Venice, one Theobaldo Travi, nicknamed “Bolgi,” who impressed her as having the proper respect for the materials he worked with. Bolgi became her superintendent, and when Mrs. Jack found that he was also a cornet player, she worked out a series of signals for summoning the workmen she wanted: one toot for masons, two for steam fitters, and so on. Later, in her will, Mrs. Jack provided that Bolgi should be lifetime superintendent of Fenway Court.


During construction Mrs. Jack allowed only a handful of friends to take a coveted glimpse at the future palace, knowing that their reports would tantalize Boston society. Finally the palace was finished, and she sent out invitations to a grand opening.

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.

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