The Blog

It Takes One To Know One

Teresa keeps company with a persnickety, rich widow who doesn't seem to like her husband much.

8:00 PM, Jul 28, 2004 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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Boston

ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER has been dead for 80 years. Too bad, because last night, she would have been proud of Teresa Heinz Kerry.

Isabella was a rich, obstinate widow who didn't hesitate to snap up a nice property when she saw one. She spent her life years travelling the world, collecting art and cramming a four-story mansion with paintings, tapestries, historical documents, and ancient marble. She was famous for irritating the press, shocking her friends, and refusing to censor her speech or letters. Sound familiar?

Teresa had one big line last night: "My right to speak my mind, to have a voice, to be what some have called 'opinionated,' is a right I deeply and profoundly cherish. My only hope is that, one day soon, women--who have all earned the right to their opinions--instead of being labeled opinionated, will be called smart or well-informed, just as men are." It might as well have flowed from Isabella's pen.

So it's fitting that on Monday, the DCCC hosted a reception at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. A fountain burbled behind Nancy Pelosi as she burbled out a tribute to "strong women." As she spoke, she was surrounded by women who were A-list. Some even rose to the rank of goddesses. No, attendees Madeleine Albright, Ann Richards, and Louise Slaughter haven't been elevated to goddess status--yet. Instead, Pelosi was flanked Diana, the goddess of the hunt often depicted with a quiver of arrows, and a lovely, though unarmed Persephone. Those in the market for a female role model need look no farther than Diana. We're talking about a chick who turned a man into a stag and then set his own hunting dogs on him to tear him limb from limb, just because he happened to look her while she was bathing in the forest.

During the event, which was an afternoon tea, the assembled opinionated ladies--excuse me, the "smart and well-informed" women--were encouraged to wander around the gallery munching scones, tarts, petits fours, and yes, watercress and cucumber sandwiches. If goddess worship wasn't quite in their bag, several portraits of queens offered themselves as objects of genuflection or meditation. A severe depiction of "Marye the Queen" stares across the cluttered, dark-paneled Dutch Room at Queen Isabella of Austria. A striking portrait of Gardner by John Singer Sargent hangs against brocade in the Gothic Room directly below.

In fact, the Gardner museum fairly overflows with portraits. But there's one portrait you won't see: A likeness of Isabella's husband, John. As in Teresa's speeches on Wednesday, husband John was nowhere to been seen. Inquiries revealed that Isabella's John is currently on display in the temporary Gondola Days exhibit, mounted elsewhere. Inquiries at Teresa's offices failed to reveal where she had stowed her John.

For approximately the last 100 years, John Gardner's likeness has been jammed in a corner, behind the door, in the less-than-grandly-named Short Gallery. And it is to that corner that he will return when his Gondola Days are ended. In her will, Isabella stipulated that no single object in the museum could be permanently moved from the location she placed it in before she died. She died knowing that she hadn't just put her husband in an obscure corner, she had done so in perpetuity.

She didn't leave Jack all alone in his corner, though. There were several small portraits nearby. Ben Franklin is there, and so is George Washington. In a case below is part of Isabella's collection of presidential signatures--she had one from every chief executive up to Taft (including Jefferson Davis). Isabella's husband was a successful businessman, but he didn't have political ambitions. Perhaps the company she chose for him suggests that Isabella had high hopes for him. Alas, there was no time for those hopes to be realized. "His death seems to have shocked her into an awareness that she, at 58, was no longer young" says the museum guidebook. Teresa has expressed similar sentiments, saying that she hopes her John wins the White House, because she's not getting any younger, after all.

Gardener didn't remarry, preferring to focus on her philanthropic ventures, but Teresa had no such qualms about her ability to multi-task. Gardner's (self-designed) shield bears a phoenix, the symbol for immortality, and the legend "C'est mon plaisir." Teresa might consider adopting it as her own--I'm sure Isabella wouldn't mind.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter for the Weekly Standard.