Isabella Stewart Gardner was one of six children born to George Peabody Gardner and Rose Grosvenor Gardner, both of whom were from distinguished, affluent New England families. Gardner, who often signed her poems “Belle” or “Bella,” was the great-niece and namesake of Isabella Stewart Gardner (who bequeathed a museum to Boston) and a cousin of the poet Robert Lowell. Although several of Gardner’s poems reflect happy memories of summers spent with her siblings at her godmother’s summer home, apparently she soon set out to distinguish herself from her great-aunt, whom she strongly resembled physically and with whom she frequently was confused.
Gardner sometimes claimed to be self-educated, but in fact for two years (1931-1933) she attended the Foxcroft School in Virginia, and her earliest published poetry appeared in the school yearbook. After undergoing speech training to alleviate a slight stutter, she became interested in acting and enrolled in the Leighton Rollins School of Acting. In 1937, she was accepted by the Embassy Theatre Central School of Speech and Drama in London. During her brief career as a stage actress, she was cast primarily in character roles, many of them comic.
Although Gardner’s personal life was essentially chaotic, her professional life was generally successful. A brief first marriage to Harold van Kirk in 1938 produced a daughter, Rose; a subsequent marriage to Maurice Seymour (1943-1947) produced a son, Daniel. She was married and divorced two more times, to Robert H. McCormick, Jr. (1947-1957) and Allen Tate (1959-1966). After her children were born, Gardner returned to poetry writing and editing. Birthdays from the Ocean began a series of critical successes; three times, her books were nominated for National Book Awards. In addition, her five years as the associate editor of Poetry magazine (1951-1956) established her as a discerning and sympathetic critic of younger poets, and the Isabella Gardner Award for Poetry has continued that legacy.
After her divorce from Tate, Gardner returned to New York, where she occupied a suite at the Chelsea Hotel, which became a kind of salon for young writers, musicians, and artists. To encourage Americans’ appreciation of poetry, she also gave a number of poetry readings. Her posthumous volume, Isabella Gardner: The Collected Poems, reflects her growth as a poet throughout her life.