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Book Review: The Lioness of Boston

Norman Mailer got it right describing a major difference between nonfiction and fiction. Nonfiction, he wrote, emphasizes facts, fiction, truths, the latter, relying on facts but going further and deeper into psychological motives and significant wider effects. Award-winning novelist and poet Emily Franklin, a long-time visitor to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, knows the difference, and it shows in her upcoming novel, The Lioness of Boston.

She notes her extended research into the “tragedies, travels and relationships” of the museum’s founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner, the extraordinary woman who built a “phenomenal” home for art in a swamp in a conservative city hostile to independent women --no surprise, given the time – the late 19th and early 20th century. Gardner died in 1924 at the age of 84.

Franklin also asserts a “novelist’s freedom”. She wants to explore her protagonist as a “strong, quirky, determined, brash, and ahead-of-her-time person who triumphed over personal loss,” and the then limited opportunities for women.

As to the museum, ISG, as she sometimes signed her letters, created a gorgeous Venetian-looking palazzo with a central courtyard of flowers and trees that she designed brick by brick where her artistic passions could and would be seen by the public forever. Known originally as Fenway Court, the museum opened five years after her husband’s death on January 1st, 1903, and was a sensation. Here were rooms of paintings, drawings, furniture, ceramics, sculpture, archival objects, tapestries, rare books, decorative arts --European, Asian, and American – realism, impressionism, and post-impressionism. The museum also included John Singer Sargent’s painting of her that created a scandal – plunging black neckline and pearls wrapped around her waist pointing down.

Her story is told as a first-person narrative, including letters created by Franklin and written in Isabella’s style –simple, direct, playful. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was dazzlingly intelligent, witty, eccentric, attracting famous literary and artistic friends in this country and abroad. Her wealthy and powerful husband, the highly conventional Jack Gardner put up with her, admiringly, even when she dallied with men or when she defied, maybe dared, the tabloids to follow her audacious behavior, such as promenading with lions from the Boston Zoological Gardens.

For years she was ostracized by the Back Bay Boston Brahmins, but she didn’t care; in fact, she was proud of her outspoken nature, smoking, engaging in male intellectual worlds, and yielding to sensual impulses that at least on one occasion caused wagging tongues. As Franklin has her say: “I had money. I had lust. I had something to give to other people, what women or girls who wandered the vast nothingness unfurled to us at birth.” Originally from NY and traveling constantly, she changed Boston as much as it changed her. She collected artists, art, and art historians, even as she carried out obligatory social events. Losing a young child and unable to have any more, she also lovingly looked after her three orphaned nephews.

This remarkable personal and cultural history would be reason enough to read The Lioness of Boston, except that now, the name “Isabella Stewart Gardner” is also associated with a shocking event that occurred on St. Patrick’s Day 1990, which Franklin notes at the end of her book. Thieves pretending to be police got into the Gardner Museum and stole 13 objects, among them the only seascape Rembrandt ever painted. Today, despite a $10 million-dollar reward and years of investigation, the case remains cold, with suspicions aplenty but no one charged. Coincidentally a 2021 documentary about the crime called “This is a Robbery” is running as a four-part series on Netflix. Given ISG’s fierce, implacable nature, it’s reasonable to speculate that had she been alive that March, the case might now be solved.

I’m jb

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.