Isabella Stewart Gardner is known to most for Fenway Court, her palatial Boston museum from which $500 million in art was stolen in 1990. To some she is remembered for her unconventional behavior. She smoked cigarettes, walked a lion on a leash down the street, scrubbed church steps for Lent and showed up at the symphony with a headband that said, ‘Oh you Red Sox.’
And to even others she is thought of as a leader of Boston’s fin-de-siecle gay subculture. Though she had a high place in Brahmin society, she chose to surround herself with arty young men.
Douglass Shand-Tucci, chronicler of Bohemian Boston, wrote, “The gay mist that surrounded the chatelaine of Fenway Court is unmistakable.” And, he argued, she had a compelling reason for sympathizing with gay men. At least two of the three nephews she adopted were gay.
Isabella Stewart Gardner
Isabella Stewart Gardner was born into a wealthy family in 1840 in New York City, a descendant of the royal house of Stewart.
In 1860, she married Boston’s most eligible bachelor, Jack Gardner, also wealthy and also pedigreed. He was a Peabody, a Gardner and a Lowell.
The Gardners had a son, who died before his second birthday. Isabella then had a miscarriage, and doctors advised her not to get pregnant. To deal with their grief, the Gardners traveled extensively and collected art. She also collected artists, esthetes, professors and suffragists as friends.
The scandal sheet Town Topics called them “Mrs. Jack Gardner’s Little Brothers of the Rich.” They were also characterized as “Mrs. Gardner’s bachelors destined never to marry.’
The society press told only part of the story: Isabella Stewart Gardner led Boston’s new Bohemian set, which left an intellectual legacy on Boston and on American culture.
She closely associated with art critics Bernard Berenson and Charles Loeser, philosopher George Santayana and essayist Logan Pearsall Smith. The first two were Jewish, Smith a Quaker and Santayana half Spanish and Catholic. All but Berenson were gay.
She made friends with several men believed closeted: architect Ralph Adams Cram, curator Matthew Prichard and artist Dennis Bunker. She was close friends with John Singer Sargent. Novelist Henry James, another friend, based some of his most memorable characters on her: Milly Theale, Charlotte Stant and Adam Verver.
Shand-Tucci argues her sympathy for gay men stemmed from her love for her gay nephews. “Isabella Stewart Gardner’s experience of homosexuality was neither social nor trivial,” he wrote.
Her husband’s brother, Joseph Peabody Gardner, committed suicide in 1875, leaving three orphaned boys: Joseph Peabody, William Amory and Augustus Peabody. Jack and Isabella raised them as their own children.
In 1886, Joseph Peabody Gardner, Jr., committed suicide like his father. Shand-Tucci believes he killed himself because of his unrequited love for another man.
Augustus Peabody Gardner became a military officer, a U.S. congressman and son-in-law of Henry Cabot Lodge.
William Amory Gardner was probably the lover of Ned Warren, the benefactor of the Museum of Fine Arts. And Shand-Tucci recounts this anecdote about Amory, when he was a don at the then-new Groton School. A young boy brought a minister to William Amory Gardner’s room for a visit after chapel.
The visitors having arrived at what turned out to be Gardner’s bedroom, it was at once clear that not only was W.A.G. stark naked before the fireplace (except for a pair of voluptuous bedroom slippers) but also so was the young man reclining on the sofa…
Isabella Stewart Gardner died July 17, 1924.
With thanks to Boston Bohemia 1881-1900: Ralph Adams Cram Life and Architecture by Douglass Shand-Tucci. This story was updated in 2021.