The other Isabella Gardner

Marian Janssen’s new biography deliriously reveals the wild life of Boston bad girl ‘Belle’

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / December 21, 2010

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A while back, I was standing in front of a movie poster for “Ahead of Time’’ with my friend Ben Birnbaum. “Ahead of Time’’ tells the story of Ruth Gruber, a groundbreaking foreign correspondent who took a special interest in the fate of the European Jews during and after World War II. “It’s funny,’’ I said. “I have a friend named Ruth Gruber who is a foreign correspondent and who has written books about Jewish culture in Central Europe. But for lots of people, she is ‘the other Ruth Gruber.’ ’’

I know how that feels, explained Birnbaum, an editor and essayist at Boston College, whose work is sometimes confused with that of Ben Birnbaum, a writer and blogger for the New Republic.

Omigosh, Alex. You’re not going to write another “same names’’ column, where you breathlessly announce that there were two William Welds in the Harvard Class of 1966, or that journalist Michael Hudson was recently debating economist Michael Hudson over at the Huffington Post?

Relax. I am writing about the other Isabella Stewart Gardner.

A friend passed me a copy of Marian Janssen’s just-published biography, “Not at All What One Is Used To: The Life and Times of Isabella Gardner.’’ To say I was taken aback — in a good way — is an understatement. It is less a biography of the now-forgotten poet and more of a social chronicle of the 20th-century Brahmins, viewed through the eyes of an addictively interesting black sheep. It rivals Geoffrey Wolff’s memorable “Black Sun,’’ the biography of blue blood bad boy Harry Crosby, as best-ever book about Bostonians Behaving Badly.

“Belle’’ Gardner, the goddaughter and great-grandniece of her namesake who created the beautiful museum in the Fenway, started life like any witless Boston aristocrat. Educated at Park School and Beaver Country Day, her lavish coming-out party received fulsome coverage in the society pages of the Globe. A red-headed beauty not yet 20 years old, she was solidly on track to marry a well-heeled Harvard dullard, spew forth healthy children, and perform occasional roles in Vincent Club theatricals.

But something happened. Already too fond of champagne, she crashed her family’s automobile one night, and may have killed one of the aristos in the car. (The accident was successfully hushed up.) “She became a marked woman,’’ Janssen told me. “She was no longer Grade A marriage material.’’

Too bad for Belle, but thank heavens for the book. Gardner had a brief career as a character actor, then plunged into an operatic life that saw her married to four husbands, including a reaper-rich Chicago McCormick and the poet Allen Tate. She was, for a moment, a successful poet whose work was quickly eclipsed by the more famous Tate, and then by her cousin Robert Lowell, and by the “confessionals’’ — Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, & Co. Gardner’s great pal, the self-aggrandizing anthologist Oscar Williams, left her out of his “Pocket Book of Modern Verse,’’ cementing her place in oblivion.

Cursed by beauty, a healthy libido, and a bottomless trust fund, Gardner spiraled ever-downward. Her final paramour was the African-American doorman at Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, with whom she tried to start yet another life, this time in the hippie-theosophist mecca of Ojai, Calif. “At almost sixty, she was an alcoholic, living with a black illiterate hustler, spending her days watching television and desultorily growing corn and avocados,’’ Janssen writes.

Could it get any worse? Yes. When Governor Hugh Carey inexplicably anointed Gardner as New York’s first poet laureate after her death in 1981, a newspaper caviled at the selection, noting that Gardner was “dead, out of print, and from Boston.’’

The tragic story of her two children would be a book in itself. Her wild-living daughter lost her mind, possibly in a black magic-voodoo rite gone wrong at the Chelsea. Rose lived out her life at an insane asylum in Hartford. Gardner’s talented son, Danny Seymour, was probably tossed overboard by his drug-running confederates in the Caribbean. Janssen reports that agents for “the Octopus,’’ as the Boston-based United Fruit Co. was called, likely tracked down Danny’s killers and exacted justice. Danny’s uncle George was on the board of United Fruit. Don’t mess with the Gardners.

Janssen, who is Dutch, writes with perfect pitch, and with a gimlet eye for “Boston’s world of intolerant moralism and outward appearances.’’ Did I mention that she married a man named Janssens? Or that both Gardner’s former husband and his brother had their names legally changed to Maurice Seymour, for reasons too complicated to explain?

Oh. Never mind.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is