Isabella Stewart Gardner was certainly no prude. She liked to tell risque jokes in public, and she did her best to shake up, startle, and rattle staid old Boston society. Her pleasure dome in the Back Bay filled with masterpieces for the public to enjoy was a reflectio of herself as a dashing individualist…
She disliked most women anyway, a feeling many of them returned with interest, making only a few distinguished exceptions for Emma Eames, Nellie Melba, Edith Wharton, and Julia Ward Howe, with whose attractive young nephew F. Marion Crawford she read Dante. His first novel was dedicated to her. Belle preferred men and she never made any secret of it. She had long since decided that “Money is the sixth sense which allows us to enjoy the other five,” and there is little question that her money enhanced her charms for musicians like Paderewski, Jean de Reszke, and Busoni, to name only three. At a German spa she acquired a photograph of Johann Strauss and Brahms, autographed by Strauss with a few bars from the Blue Danube.
However, proper Bostonians were least likely to be impressed by or interested in her money. For the most part, they had plenty of their own. Social Boston’s watchword was unostentatious good taste, but Belle loved siplay for its own sake. As a young matron, she kept two footmen, when a single coachman was good enough for everybody else. A little later she maintained two adjacent houses on Beacon Street, which she connected with unexpected doorways. Her gowns came from Worth; asked if she burned them at the end of every season, Belle replied: “don’t spoil a good story by telling the truth.” Even her carriages, which were usually driven faster than anybody else’s came from Binder of Paris.
She was driving in one of them once when she was halted by a crowd of striking streetcar employees. An Irish voice, roaring out of the crowd reassured her, “Don’t be afraid Mrs. Jack, I’ll see you get through.” It was John L. Sullivan. The crowd always seemed to sense she was on their side. And Belle was god’s gift to newspapermen in search of copy. Her movements were heralded by the press, and the way she entertained her friends and her vagaries, endeared and entertained the world at large. To most of the Gardner family except her husband, Belle was a hussy. And since Belle never did anything by halves, the dislike was mutual. Asked for a contribution to Boston’s Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary, Belle snapped that she didn’t know there was a charitable eye or ear in Boston.