“Pomps and vanities”

Hedwiga Gray diary1
Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, entries for 5-7 February 1864. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

Two of Dr. Francis H. Gray’s uncles married Gardners, so the Grays’ web of family connections included Mr. and Mrs. John L. Gardner Jr. – better known to contemporaries as Mr. and Mrs. Jack Gardner. I was interested to see that Mrs. Gray did not mention Isabella Stewart Gardner (“Mrs. Jack”) in her diary until February 1869, following the grand ball the Grays had given for their debutante daughter Mary Clay Gray (1848–1923) in December 1868.

The Grays were invited to two of Mrs. Jack Gardner’s receptions in February and March 1869, but owing to a friend’s illness they only attended the second one. The next mention of Mrs. Gardner comes in February 1872, and it is notably positive:

Sunday, 25 February 1872: The last “Snapping Turtle” of the Season was a leap year party – carried out with much spirit. The ladies sent bouquets to their partners – having invited them – led them to supper &c. Mrs. Jack Gardner led the German, and seeing Dr. Frank Greenough and Willie Stackpole were without partners, she remonstrated with Mrs. Powell Mason & Mrs. Knyvet Sears, who were also looking on, and begged they would ask the gentlemen at once – it seemed awkward for them to be left while any ladies who could dance were also unsupplied with partners!! & in that style the whole thing was well carried out, and pretty keen lessons given in a lady like way to many a selfish, conceited beau![1]

There are wheels within wheels in every social group, however, and Mrs. Gray’s view of Mrs. Jack – and some of their contemporaries – was more nuanced than at first appears. The following entry is a crash course in the social code of the day:

Thursday, 19 February 1874: Miss Lena Baird is staying at Mrs Edw. Gardiner’s; a Philad[elphia] girl, engaged to Howard Gardiner; on dit [i.e., it is said] this is her 3d or 4th engagement! and if such men as Howard G. can satisfy her heart’s needs, she might easily go through a score of such entanglements. Just now she is flirting desperately with Willie Dorr, another unpopular little fool, who is one of the young beaux of our crême de la crême this winter. And Howard does not like it and threatens pistols for two &c.[2]

And Miss Lena has joined the party of ladies, Mrs. Charlie Joy, Mrs. Jack Gardner, & Mrs. Charles Minot, who have gone into retreat for religious contemplation[,] fasting & prayer & personal service among the sick & poor, during the first three weeks of Lent, under the guidance & authority of the English “East Grinstead sisters”!![3]

Lena whose health is not strong is to have a special dispensation to walk an hour a day with Howard Gardiner! The other ladies are not to be allowed to walk or talk in the street with any one – or to receive company at home; and are to mortify the flesh and the spirit by dressing in dowdy shabby clothes for the whole three weeks of their retreat; & this will be their real pennance [sic], and to my mind the only genuine, honest, part of the whole business, for they are all very toplofty dressers.

So these women, 2 of them – Minot & Gardner, notedly fast women,[4] are to “faire Court penitences” [observe short penances] for three weeks – and then emerge again into fine linen & sumptuosity at the Mi. Carême[5] with all the alacrity of a long abstinence – and plunge into all the gaiety they can find or make. Mrs. Jack gave a German on Tuesday night, which ran far into Ash Wednesday! And proposes on dit to have a masked ball in Mid Lent to celebrate her emancipation from religious restraint, into her beloved pomps & vanities once more.

What a blasphemy against the Holy Ghost it does seem![6]

Just as January in Boston was a month for opera and the theatre, so February – in the days leading up to the observance of Lent – was marked by an exhausting social round. It is not surprising to find Mrs. Jack at the center of such events, and it is certainly interesting to read one older contemporary’s assessment of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s character in the days before she became a Boston legend.


[1] Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections. Mrs. Gray is remarking that Mrs. Jack Gardner, as the impresario of the ball, was asking Mesdames Mason and Sears to set a better example than the men of their acquaintance, who would routinely leave an unpartnered lady out of the dance.

[2] Mrs. Gray means a duel with pistols.

[3] The Society of St. Margaret in East Sussex was founded in 1854. The Boston chapter had a house and chapel at 17 Louisburg Square, just down the hill from the Grays in Beacon Hill Place (George E. Ellis, Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston… [1886], p. 369).

[4] To be “fast” was to disregard the rules of decorum. For ladies, this might mean walking with a gentleman who was not one’s father, brother, or other trusted relative, since who knew where such intimacies might lead. Mrs. Gray assumed that Mrs. Charles Minot, named in this entry, had for years been having an affair; elsewhere in the diary she mentions acquaintances who kept mistresses in Paris or New York and pensioned them off when they wanted to marry in Boston.

[5] The mid-point of Lent.

[6] Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

4 thoughts on ““Pomps and vanities”

  1. This diary has been such fun, along with your interpretations. Thanks so much for sharing your reading of it with us. Looking forward to the book!

  2. Just loved reading this article and to see the name of Isabella Stewart Gardner. I just finished reading the book the “The Art Forger” by B.A. Shariro, and it was all about her, her art collections in her museum. How fun was this reading the excerpts from the diary.

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