The Lady of the House

Isabella Stewart Gardner left strict orders: The palazzo she built on the Fens should never, ever change. But museum director Anne Hawley has some strong ideas of her own. Inside her radical—and risky—plan to propel the beloved institution into the 21st century.

Isabella Stewart Gardner left a lasting impression on everyone she met. A larger-than-life Bostonian, she was actually a product of New York City, born in 1840 to a clan that had made its first fortune importing textiles and its second supplying iron to railroads. In 1860, she married Jack Gardner, the Brahmin scion of one of Boston’s last great shipping families. Gardner wasn’t a beautiful woman, but she brought a spirit of cosmopolitan glamour to Boston’s polite society. She caused a stir by smoking cigarettes in public and made her devotion to the Red Sox known by wearing a headband reading “Oh you Red Sox!” to the symphony (where, it was said, seats near hers commanded a premium). Gardner happily watched her mythology grow, even if it meant letting false accounts of her exploits go uncorrected in the press. After she paraded a borrowed circus lion at the zoo, she was tickled to hear rumors that she kept lions at her Beacon Street home. “Don’t spoil a good story by telling the truth,” she told a friend.

Gardner began to buy the work of Old Masters in the 1890s, and quickly distinguished herself as one of the world’s great art collectors. She and her husband regularly traveled the globe, sending home art and architectural pieces from monasteries and the dusty showrooms of dealers. If Gardner liked something, she would pursue it until it was hers. When she took a fancy to Titian’s Rape of Europa, then owned by a British nobleman and now considered perhaps the finest work of Renaissance art in America, she authorized her buyer to pay whatever price necessary. The Gardners came to think of their Back Bay house as a living museum, but as the collection grew so did the need for more wall space. Shortly after her husband died in 1898, Gardner bought a patch of land overlooking the Muddy River in the as-yet-undeveloped Fens. It was the one place in Boston that must have reminded her of Venice, where the couple had often summered.

Gardner spent three years building a palazzo fit for the Grand Canal to house her collection. Naturally, she was an exacting client, managing the process to such a minute level that her architect would later defer credit for the design to her. When the workmen painting the courtyard walls failed to achieve the effect she wanted, the society doyenne simply hiked up her dress, scaled a ladder, and showed them how to do it herself. She ran her finished residence, dubbed the Palace, as a salon, hosting dancers, famous painters like John Singer Sargent, and noted writers like Henry and William James. When she opened the doors to the public, which she would do several times a year, she’d roam the halls keeping watch. “‘Don’t touch,’ she had cried out angrily at intervals—whether anyone were touching anything or not,” wrote one of her biographers.

For decades after her death, museum guards whispered that Gardner’s ghost regularly returned to make sure her wishes were being followed. But more binding than any supernatural presence has been her last will and testament. In the 14-page document, Gardner explained in painstaking detail just how her museum should be managed. As an added measure of protection, Gardner selected its first director. “She did not want [the trustees] to give the impression that they were in the driver’s seat and might seek to impose their own ideas rather than adhere strictly to hers,” a relative wrote in 1971.

The museum, Gardner decreed, should remain open “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” And yet if the trustees ever bought new art, or even tried to change the “general disposition” of the works already there, she mandated a dramatic response: Harvard College would take control of the property, sell the art collection at auction in Paris, and keep the proceeds. Gardner would rather see her creation destroyed than altered.