Massachusetts, Then and Now

Three women, two hundred years, one state. Get to know the Massachusetts of today by following in the footsteps of three extraordinary figures, all avid travelers: arts patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, chef Julia Child, and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

BY JESSEN O'BRIEN

Travel changes us—and great travelers bring those changes home with them.

For Isabella Stewart Gardner, an heiress born in 1840, travel was prescribed to soften her grief after losing a child—and it was while circling the globe that she forged a passion for the arts. For Julia Child, France was a culinary epiphany, propelling her to learn to cook and, in turn, teach a nation. As for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a junior year abroad in Paris fed her lifelong love for French fashion. It also, as she wrote, taught her “not to be ashamed of a hunger for knowledge.” She would bring a talent for combining style and substance to her role as first lady and especially to one of her signature achievements, a scholarly restoration of the White House.

When these three women returned home, they went to work. One built a museum, one wrote a cookbook, and one renovated the White House. All left a substantial mark on their communities informed by their travels. You can trace their legacies in Boston, Cambridge and Cape Cod today by eating at their favorite restaurants, taking in the views they adored and hearing their stories.

Isabella & Boston
At 27, Isabella went abroad on the urging of her doctor. She became enthralled, going as far afield as Asia and collecting art along the way with the intention of one day opening a museum. Which she did, in 1903. She found a spot she liked in Fenway, a neighborhood south of the Charles River, and had a crew come over from Italy to build the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (25 Evans Way; 617-566-1401; admission, $15) in the style of a Venetian palazzo. At the construction site she would climb ladders dressed in a corset and crinoline, picking up a paintbrush to demonstrate exactly how the walls should look. It’s no accident that the museum is still a testament to her vision; her will insists that everything be auctioned off if any piece is permanently moved from where she placed it. Isabella’s installations, which cleverly mingle art from different cultures and eras, have remained undisturbed, with one major exception: 13 works stolen in 1990—the world’s largest unsolved art theft. Empty frames signal where paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt and others once hung. But there’s plenty left to see. A portrait of Isabella by John Singer Sargent presides over the Gothic Room, and the museum’s pink-walled interior courtyard continues to delight visitors.

When Isabella built her museum, there wasn’t much else in the area. That would change. In April of 1912, Fenway Park (4 Jersey St.; 617-226-6666; tours, $20 a person) went up, and that October the Red Sox won the World Series. Two months later, one columnist wrote that Isabella almost caused a panic at Symphony Hall by wearing a hat band printed with a lyric sung by the team’s rowdiest fans: “Oh you Red Sox!” You can tour Fenway—Major League Baseball’s oldest ballpark—year-round. You’ll learn why there’s one red seat in the stadium, where to find Morse code on the scoreboard and what the Green Monster is.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra (301 Massachusetts Ave.; 617-266-1200; tickets, from $35) still plays in the Symphony Hall where Isabella shocked concertgoers. Sixteen replicas of Greco-Roman statues circle its upper level. For dinner beforehand, consider nearby Brasserie Jo (120 Huntington Ave.; 617-424-7000; dinner for two, $54*). Julia Child ate here, and a plate she signed hangs at the bar. (More on Julia next.) The restaurant dishes out cozy French fare such as coq au vin and roasted bone marrow. Or opt for a cultural mishmash in the spirit of Isabella at Ruka (505 Washington St.; 617-266-0102; dinner for two, $30). The Peruvian-Japanese menu runs the gamut from sushi to ceviche.

Julia & Cambridge
Julia didn’t learn to cook until moving to France in her mid-thirties during the 1940s. Eating there was a revelation, one she was determined to bring to the States, where frozen dinners were becoming all the rage. Along with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, she wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which led to her show The French Chef. Her cheerful disregard for mistakes and willingness to break down dishes made cooking approachable.

Julia moved back to the States in 1961 and for 40 years kept a house in Cambridge. These days it’s privately owned, and her kitchen—the set of so many episodes—was moved to the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C. Yet Cambridge is filled with echoes of Julia. She would pick up meat at Savenor’s Butcher & Market (92 Kirkland St.; 617-576-6328), a short walk from her house. Founded in 1939, Savenor’s is an institution thanks in part to Julia, who raved about her butcher, Jack Savenor, on air and off, and signed “Bon Appétit” in wet cement in front of the store. Ron, Julia’s butcher after his father passed away, recalls how grounded she was in the community. “She felt strongly about shopping local,” he says. “I think that’s one of the things she loved about us: We were the neighborhood place.”

JTo do a little French cooking, try a recreational class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts (2020 Massachusetts Ave.; 617-354-2020; classes, $150 a couple). The Cooking Couples French class makes for a fun date night. One of the kitchens displays a photo of the school’s founder, Roberta Dowling, with Julia, as well as two letters from the Childs.

When Julia was in Cambridge, she’d eat at Harvest (44 Brattle St.; 617-868-2255; dinner for two, $72) once or twice a week, and her spot along the window became known as “Julia’s corner.” “Even in those later years, she’d come in and talk to every single person who wanted to speak with her,” says owner Chris Himmel. The menu may have changed since then, but there’s still an emphasis on seasonal ingredients that dates back to the restaurant’s founding, in the 1970s, when Julia started eating here and legendary chefs such as Lydia Shire ran the kitchen. In My Life in France, Julia wrote lovingly about roast chicken, and her words could describe Harvest’s rendition today: “[I]t should be so good that even a perfectly simple, buttery roast should be a delight.”

Jackie & Cape Cod
Travel gave Jackie a chance to shine: She spoke Spanish, French and Italian with ease and charmed even Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who asked to shake her hand before John F. Kennedy’s. And it was in Colombia that she saw a presidential palace filled with connections to the past. This would become a model for her restoration of the White House.

You could go to Washington, D.C., to see it, but in Cape Cod you get a sense of Jackie stripped of the mystique that can undercut her achievements as historic preservationist, goodwill ambassador and champion for American culture. Jackie would regularly retreat to the Kennedy compound here in Hyannis Port. It’s not open to the public, so instead take the self-guided Hyannis Kennedy Legacy Trail. It kicks off at the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum (397 Main St., Hyannis; 508-790-3077; admission, $12), this year dedicated to an exhibit on loan from D.C.’s Newseum: “Creating Camelot,” a series of images by JFK’s personal photographer, Jacques Lowe.

John Allen, the museum’s president, points out a favorite photo of Jackie lounging in a wicker chair and talks about how Ted Kennedy worked with Jackie on the museum. “She insisted it be established in a building that existed during JFK’s presidency.” This fall, a new auditorium and community and media rooms will complement the museum’s programs and activities.

Down the street, travelers dine on Atlantic cod or mussels cooked in white wine at Tap City Grille (586 Main St., Hyannis; 774-470-4588; lunch for two, $40). Bay Spirit Tours (180 Ocean St., Hyannis; 508-771-0107; 75-minute tours, $24 a person) leads sunset cruises in nearby Hyannis Harbor. JFK taught Jackie to sail aboard his boat, the Victura, here.

Now the Victura sits at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (Columbia Point, Boston; 617-514-1600; admission, $14), on the edge of Boston. Several exhibits feature Jackie. “The challenge in telling [her] story is that she’s such a glamorous person,” says curator Stacey Bredhoff. “But there’s so much more substance to what she did as first lady.” The library displays Jackie’s dresses on rotation (it has about 60 in total) while emphasizing her roles as arts advocate and traveling ambassador. A replica of the red suit Jackie wore for her televised White House tour is always on view, drawing visitors to a display detailing her pioneering work in historic preservation. Currently, a special exhibit, “JFK 100,” honors JFK’s 100th birthday through 100 artifacts, which include a watercolor Jackie painted for her husband that sat in the Oval Office. Based on a 19th-century engraving of the White House, it’s a postcard-size distillation of Jackie’s ability to imbue beauty with meaning.

*Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.

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