Isabella Stewart Gardner was rich, lovely and talented, but her compass was stuck on tragedy.
Google Isabella Stewart Gardner and you'll get plenty of hits, all right, but you'll have to scroll down awfully far to find the subject of this dense, fascinating biography. Google's alpha Isabella is the American arts patron and John Singer Sargent portrait subject, the aunt of this book's Isabella, an American poet who published only four volumes in her tumultuous, tragic life.
Born in 1915 into a wealthy Boston family, lively, lovely Isabella grew up amid privilege and dysfunction; became a globe-trotting actress whose first lover was Erskine Hamilton Childers, the future president of Ireland; had four husbands and two children; edited Chicago's influential Poetry Magazine; gave away millions of dollars to friends and sycophants; was abused by ill-chosen lovers; lost her children to horrific events; aged rapidly via heavy drinking, and died alone in a hotel room in 1981.
Author Marian Janssen encountered Gardner's letters while researching the Kenyon Review, a journal founded by John Crowe Ransom, a poetry peer of Gardner's fourth husband, Allen Tate. She was fascinated by Gardner, and wondered why such a gifted poet had sunk into oblivion.
The answers were complicated, perhaps best explained by the subordinate female role predominant in midcentury America. Gardner felt that it was more important to love and serve than it was to write and publish; she advanced the careers of many poets while subjugating her own. Oscar Williams, her era's chief anthologist, blithely failed to include her in his collections, which led to her obscurity.
Janssen examines a great deal of Gardner's poetry, and it is fine, but, ultimately, not as interesting as her life, a largely grim drama that starred scores of characters -- patricians and poets, artists and activists, wannabes and wastrels, ad men and madmen.
Most interesting to Minnesota readers may be the chapters set in Minneapolis. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gardner lived on Irving Avenue S. as Tate's briefly content, then badly cuckolded wife (he left her for one of his students, a young nun). The bits about drinking, sexual adventurism, mental illness and feuds in the "vitriolic" and "bacchanalian" University of Minnesota English department and among Minnesota poets, including John Berryman, James Wright and Robert Bly, are hair-raisers.
Throughout her chaotic life, Gardner found solace in her autobiographical but transcendent poetry, in which she sought to celebrate "the democracy of universal vulnerability." This comprehensive, sophisticated biography honors her well. But the greatest tribute -- one sadly unlikely to occur after all these decades of neglect -- would be the addition of a poem or two of hers to anthologies of American poets of the past century.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.