When Miss Isabella Stewart of New York went to Boston for the first time in 1858 to visit Miss Julia Gardner, a friend acquired at finishing school in Paris, she was taken driving in a furlined sleigh known as “Cleopatra’s Barge.” This hedonistic side of Boston, not its most conspicuous, was one she would luxuriate in after her marriage to her hostess’s brother, rich jack Gardner, and until she died at eighty-four in the Venetian palace she had had built in the Fenway where, in her last years, enfeebled (she did not admit to her enfeeblement and contrived a multitude of reasons why she could not go abroad) but nimble-witted, swaddled in white scarves to veil the signs of her decay, she was carried from room to room in a gondola chair, balancing thus the vehicular fillip of her entrance into the Hub with another at her exit. She built her palace, now a museum partly to house her imposing collection of virtu as a treat to the public, but mainly, for the last twenty-odd years of her life, to house herself, an eccentric, who combined in her person the same variety of worth and caprice, grandeur and sentimentality, sure-footed authority and luck, that mark the pictures and tapestries hanging on her walls and the statuary crowding her hallways, the rare books behind glass and the bibelots on tabletops. Fenway Court is kept, down to the least detail, as it was in her quirky, imperious lifetime: her will sternly stipulated that if so much as a chair were moved or if a new picture or an alien oddment were insinuated into the premises, if there were the slightest infraction of any of the rules she had laid down, the Museum and the land it stands upon, the whole kit and caboodle, would pass into the hands of Harvard College to be sold, and the income from the trust fund she had left for its maintenance would be diverted to the increase of salaries for professors of “said college, or in sustaining scholarships.”
Louise Hall Tharp, who specializes in the lives of accomplished Americans of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (she has written about the Peabody sisters, Julia Ward Howe, Horace Mann, the Agassiz family), has now come out with a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Considering the abundance of engaging fact and legend at her disposal, she could have made this book ten times as attractive as it is; she tends to pussy-foot around her anecdotes, archly pulling her punches, or to gush them out, putting her exclamation marks in the wrong places. There is almost nothing so limp and sorry as a badly punctuated Boston joke. And this is a pity because many of Mrs. Tharp’s involve such performing lions as Henry James, Bernard Berenson, Edith Wharton, John Singer Sargent, Henry Adams. The musty, girlish jocularity of manner suggests a series with titles like “Isabella Goes to Boarding School,” “Isabella Abroad,” “Isabella sur la Plage …
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