The party was to showcase her new palace, now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
It was the crowning achievement in a life that began in 1840.
She was born into a well-to-do New York family that indulged all her whims and passions. She married John Lowell ‘Jack’ Gardner – yes, from that Lowell family – at 19. They lived in a large home on Beacon Street, where the young bride made a splash in Boston society. She paraded down the street with a pet lion on a leash, drank beer, scrubbed church steps for Lent and showed up at the symphony wearing a headband that said, ‘Oh you Red Sox,’ according to Louise Hall Tharp’s Mrs. Jack: A Biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner. The press called her 'the Bohemian Millionairess.'
The Gardners traveled all over Europe, Asia and America collecting art. Eventually, their growing collection required larger quarters. They planned to build a museum for their art, but Jack died suddenly in 1898. Isabella bought land in the undeveloped Fenway and started building her dream home, modeled after a 15th-century Venetian palace. She tormented the architect and builders for years until they achieved her version of perfection. Then she spent a year arranging her artwork.
Finally in 1903, ‘Fenway Court’ was ready for viewers. She invited more than 150 of her oldest friends to the party, which began at 9 pm, ‘Punctually.’ The guests were treated to a concert by 50 musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. When it was over, the doors to the Palace Court were opened. The guests gasped and then fell silent, awed by the palatial candle-lit, flower-filled courtyard.
Dinner was served at small tables along with the champagne and donuts. Edith Wharton had arrived by private railcar with other guests from New York. Wharton, not knowing Isabella spoke French, said in that language the food was what you’d expect from a provincial railroad station in France. When Wharton got up to leave, Isabella said it was nice of her to come, but she needn’t expect another invitation to eat in this railroad restaurant.
Isabella Stewart Gardner continued to invite musicians and artists to Fenway Court during her lifetime. She died in 1924, leaving $1 million to continue operating the museum and stipulating that nothing at all was to be changed. On March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as Boston police officers made an unwelcome change by stealing 13 works of art. The paintings, worth an estimated $500 million, were never recovered.
In 2002, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s board of trustees decided a new wing was needed. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts agreed in 2009 that their plan was consistent with Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will. The wing was added in 2012.
This story was updated from the 2013 version.