The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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August 7, 2010

Homes and haunts: Tea with Mrs. Jack

I had planned to drive to Lenox this weekend to visit The Mount, but fate (and Twitter) intervened. Instead, I was lucky enough to have tea today (complete with scones and cucumber sandwiches) with Isabella Stewart Gardner, who just happened to be visiting Beauport, one of my favorite places.

Beauport was the summer home of Henry Davis Sleeper (1878-1934), a Boston bachelor who became a society decorator and a collector of antiques.  Starting with an eight-room cottage, he added rooms to house different collections (from green majolica to colonial pewter to French toleware) and eventually created a rambling 40-room house that prompted one of his neighbors to build a 20-foot-high stone wall to guard his property line. (His neighbor on the other side was a woman friend who lived in perpetual mourning after the death of her fiancee; on that side, Sleeper planted purple flowers and displayed his collection of purple glass in her honor).  It's a beautiful, quirky and fascinating house, with a stunning view of Gloucester Harbor (some of the rooms are built over the water, so when you look out the window, or imagine yourself eating a seafood dinner in one of Henry's five dining rooms, you almost feel like you're on a boat with the water just below you. And then there's the book tower...)

Henry was one of a group of friends who built houses along Gloucester's Eastern Point, and Isabella Stewart Gardner (we learn) was a frequent visitor:
Mrs. Gardner had a great curiosity about Eastern Point -- a rocky peninsula covered with cat-brier, blueberries and a few wild cherry trees. The place had recently been taken over by young or youngish maiden ladies, all suitably chaperoned by one or more parents -- and by bachelors similarly chaperoned. ...

Henry Sleeper, whom Mrs. Gardner already knew fairly well, lived just beyond. He had decorated Miss Sinkler's house; her dining room with a real trellis covered with artificial roses on the wall; her drawing room painted pale pink, deepening to rose with a red carpet. Harry was sweet, gentle, affectionate. He was devoted to his mother, who protected him from the ladies when he feared they had designs on his celibacy.
-- Louise Hall Tharp, Mrs. Jack:  a biography
of Isabella Stewart Gardner

{Beauport is one of the 40 or so house museums operated by Historic New England (formerly known as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities). The houses cover a wide range of historic periods. The families that lived in them are fascinating in themselves, and some of the houses have literary connections. Codman Place, near me in Lincoln, Massachusetts, was the family home of Ogden Codman, Jr., who was Edith Wharton's co-author for The Decoration of Houses, and Historic New England also maintains Sarah Orne Jewett's home in South Berwick, Maine. In addition to regular house tours, they often present special events like this one. Earlier this spring, I went to a lecture at Codman Place comparing the 'House of Codman' with Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth; that's partly what set me going on re-reading EW. I thought Jessa Piaia, who portrayed Isabella Stewart Gardner, did a wonderful job. }

Mrs. Gardner mentioned during her talk that she knew Henry James, so, just for fun, I asked her if she also knew Edith Wharton, and if she liked her.  She pursed her lips, and became very polite, and mentioned that Edith had attended the opening of her house-museum, Fenway Court, on January 1, 1903, but that they were not close friends.

A private car, chartered from the New Haven Railroad, brought New York guests to Boston, Edith Wharton being among them. A 'supper was served at small tables in the Dutch Room' and Mrs. Wharton, according to a report, said in French that the refreshments were about what you would get in a railroad restaurant in provincial France. She had known Mrs. Gardner in Paris, had written a book on interior decorating full of rules Mrs. Gardner had just broken. The two ladies, similar in some respects, were not fond of each other, so that, in bidding Mrs. Wharton goodbye, Mrs. Jack told her sweetly that it was nice she could come, but she needn't expect another invitation to eat in this railroad restaurant. Mrs. Wharton had apparently assumed that Mrs. Gardner's French was not good enough to understand her comments.
Delicious stuff.

1 comment:

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Ooh, this gossip is delicious! I LOVED visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston a couple of years ago -- I love how they're not allowed to move anything at all, per a stipulation in her will. I actually just started reading THe House of Mirth as well!

Thank you for visiting!

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