Arts and Leisure

Isabella Stewart Gardner Throws a Champagne and Donuts Party on New Year’s Day

At a grand New Year’s Day party in 1903, the legendary Isabella Stewart Gardner served her two favorite foods: donuts and champagne.

She held the party in her lavish new palace, Fenway Court, now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She had spent years perfecting the building, its furnishings and its artwork. The party was supposed to inspire awe in her guests. It didn’t work on one: the novelist Edith Wharton.

Despite Wharton’s snarky comments about the food, Gardner’s party celebrated the crowning achievement of her lifetime.

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice by Anders Zorn (courtesy Gardner Museum)

Isabella Stewart Gardner

She was born into a well-to-do New York family that indulged all her whims and passions, and she had a lot of them. At 19, she married Boston Brahmin John Lowell ‘Jack’ Gardner. 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 and scrubbed church steps for Lent. She 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.

Rembrandt, age 23

Isabella then bought land in the undeveloped Fenway neighborhood 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.

Fenway Court

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.’ Fifty musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra treated her guests to a concert. When the music stopped, the doors to the Palace Court opened.

The guests gasped and then fell silent, awed by the palatial candle-lit, flower-filled courtyard.

Gardner Museum Courtyard

Gardner Museum Courtyard

Isabella Stewart Gardner had dinner 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.

Edith Wharton

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. But she stipulated that nothing at all was to be changed.

On March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as Boston police officers made an unwelcome change. They stole 13 works of art worth an estimated $500 million. No one has recovered them.

In 2002, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s board of trustees decided to build a new wing. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts agreed in 2009 that their plan agreed with Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will. They added the wing in 2012.

This story about Isabella Stewart Gardner was updated in 2021.

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