Chez Isabella, ca. 1990
“In March 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts was robbed by two unknown men. The thieves removed works of art whose value has been estimated as high as $500 million.” —FBI website
Sleepless nights are a malady that, for me, meander back in time over fifty years, all the way to my early twenties; but there are advantages to being awake in the long, dark, blue hours when quiet finally descends. Tonight, or rather this morning, with the news of Walter’s unexpected death earlier yesterday, and at this time of year too (late March), I’m grateful to be awake, suddenly recovering and unraveling memories from thirty years ago….
Walter was among the four of us who came together after the robbery, united in our grief. The museum had always felt like a second home to some of us, a home that is actually a palace, but a home nevertheless. The place is not very big as museums go, and so most of us who worked the day shift knew one another.
I was the one of the four of us who had been there the longest; I was twenty-six when I started and forty-seven at the time of the heist, which is still the largest in history: how time passes! Walter was hired the year after me, and so he and I went way back. We used to joke that we were the lifers, since most of the museum’s guards didn’t last long. The pay was so low ($7.35 an hour in 1990), but money was not the main reason we were there.
Walter had become friendly with Jason a few months before the heist; I think Walter had a little crush on Jason, truth be told. It was a bit sad to me though, not only because Walter was about twenty-five years older than Jason, but also because Jason was clearly straight. At first, our meetings consisted of just the two men and me. While all of us knew or had at least met Melissa, none of us liked her initially; we all thought that she was a spoiled brat, and pretentious, too—affecting a British accent the way Madonna used to do. She had been scheduled to work that morning after the robbery, and word got around that when Melissa arrived at the museum and saw the place surrounded by police, FBI, and yards of yellow crime tape, and then heard what had happened, she burst into tears. Eventually, she somehow learned about our get-togethers and asked if she could join us; and because we were so moved by how bereft she still was, we let her into the group.
The heist was all we could talk about for the longest time; we needed to debrief. Though almost immediately, we were instructed not to discuss it while on duty, whether among ourselves or with visitors; but in the early days, the robbery was just about the only thing most visitors wanted to talk about, especially because the spaces where the stolen paintings had been were left empty, a haunting reminder of their absence. We were also discouraged from talking to the media. Some of us watched as we were portrayed by actors on TV’s America’s Most Wanted! It was a heady time.
We couldn’t bear the thought of the thieves having full run of the galleries for over an hour, pillaging, while the two guards sat bound and gagged in the basement. Of course, the four of us speculated about the perpetrators, and just to get this out of the way—none of us knew or had ever even worked with either of the two guards on duty that night, since we had always worked only the day shift. But Walter and I didn’t think it was an inside job. The only one of us who had lived in Boston all his life, Walter was convinced that Whitey Bulger had something to do with it. And though I had seen the names of several infamous art thieves bandied about, I remained uncertain. Jason was mostly interested in ongoing theories involving one or both of the guards on duty that night, and/or the IRA, whereas all Melissa would say was that she “hadn’t a clue.”
We also talked about the stolen art, of course. And about the violence of the steal—paintings cut from their stretchers, stitches of canvas and flakes of paint left on the cold, tile floor. Melissa visibly shivered and said that it was as if she could feel the razor blade pierce her skin as she imagined the canvases being desecrated. But when we asked which of the stolen works meant the most to her, she grew somewhat stony and replied, simply, “All of it.” Whereas Walter, Jason, and I definitely had our favourites.
For Walter, it was the Manet, Chez Tortoni (ca. 1875) which depicts a mustachioed man in a top hat writing in a café; he looks straight out at the viewer with a black, impenetrable gaze, a glass of something amber by his writing hand. When we asked Walter why that one, he said that he had always identified with the man, that he himself often wrote in cafés; Walter fancied himself a writer and, to his credit, he had had pieces published in local periodicals. He added that whenever he walked by Chez Tortoni while on duty, he always experienced a certain frisson of recognition. And there actually was a resemblance: Walter was tall, thin, and somewhat pinched, though he didn’t have a mustache.
Jason couldn’t wait for his turn, he even spoke over the last few words of Walter’s. “The Rembrandt,” Jason announced. “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), his only seascape.” Jason said that he had always liked the “movement and the muscularity” of the painting, and also that it reminded him of a good action movie (I should add that Jason was only twenty-three at the time, just out of college, idealistic and naïve, an art history major taking a year off before starting graduate school.) He also liked, Jason went on, the fact that Rembrandt had included a self-portrait in the painting. And Jason actually had us laughing too, “about the guy in red, just to the right of Rembrandt, who looks like he’s hurling over the side of the boat.”
I was next, and it was easy because I had felt the same way for a long time: “The Concert” (ca. 1664), I said. “One of only thirty-six surviving works by Vermeer.” “Because?” Jason wanted to know. “Because—well, first of all, my husband Philip is the first violinist in a chamber music ensemble.” I focused on Jason and Melissa as I said this, since it was old news to Walter. “But it’s more than that, too.” The three of them were staring at me, waiting. I thought about how often visitors to the museum had told me they heard music when they looked at the painting, whereas I had always only heard silence, and I loved that, so I said it aloud: “The painting is called The Concert, but I think it’s before the concert.” I cleared my throat. “The painting is so calm and balanced, and as always with Vermeer, there’s that extraordinary quality of light.” We were in a café on Beacon Hill at the time, and as I was speaking I suddenly pictured our quartet from afar, gathered around the table in a pool of light—as if in a Vermeer painting.
Of course, the four of us got to know each other somewhat during those meetings, too. Melissa had grown up on the Connecticut coast (primarily New London), the only child of wealthy parents, but when her parents divorced (Melissa was in her teens then), she and her mother had gone through some hard times. “Anne, you actually remind me of my mother,” Melissa said. I assumed this was a compliment, or that was how I took it anyway, and so I thanked her. Three years younger than Jason, I think Melissa was still finding herself, thus the intermittent faux British accent. Whereas Jason was Jason, an outsized personality writ large, and because of that we all felt like we already knew him. We had met his girlfriend Sarah, too, and heard about their dog Vans (a play on Dutch painters and a brand of sneakers Jason favoured), and also about their fights over having children: Jason wanted them, but Sarah didn’t. I’d be very surprised if Jason and Sarah are still together.
Walter, the oldest among us, somewhere in his late forties at the time (he would never say), was also the most circumspect. Perhaps this was because he was gay and of a certain generation? He said that he lived alone in an apartment in Back Bay, that he had a handsome tuxedo cat named Butley who he imagined as his butler, and that he liked to think of himself as a writer; but that was the extent of it. Our friendship, Walter’s and mine, was never personal; our conversations were mostly about the arts.
I told Melissa and Jason what Walter already knew: that Philip and I were childhood sweethearts, that we had been married for almost twenty-five years, that we were childless by choice (Jason glowered upon hearing this), and that in addition to Philip’s involvement with the chamber music ensemble, he worked for the Post Office. “Ours is a miniature life,” I said aloud, surprising myself, “and we like it that way.”
Those get-togethers became more sporadic and began to taper off during that winter, just as the case itself grew cold; and by the following spring we had stopped meeting altogether.
Jason was the one to leave the job first, no surprise; I think it was within a year or so after the heist. Melissa stayed on for several more years, before quitting to follow the man who became her first husband across the country to California. That left Walter and me, the lifers, until both of us retired at around the same time approximately ten years ago.
And now, poor Walter is dead. Philip (no longer the first violinist) had a performance earlier this evening and so, though I’m sad, we had to go. Afterward, we went out for a drink and toasted Walter, and I couldn’t help but think of Chez Tortoni.
Back home, as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror applying cold cream to my face, a lifelong ritual, I just happened to see the clock out of the corner of my eye: it was after one in the morning, the time of the robbery. As I slowly wiped the cleanser over my face and examined the crows feet, and the marionette lines around my mouth, I thought about the effects of time, and of the lines as cracks in my façade; and then I thought about the tiny pieces of the paintings as they lay on the museum floor.
Looking back on the moment of the heist from this sleepless night in my seventy-seventh year, I realize that I was still young then. Now Walter’s gone, and I haven’t a clue about Jason or his whereabouts, but I did hear from Melissa not long ago; her mother had died recently, and she said she thought of me. She’s back in Connecticut, divorced, remarried, and she has a daughter. Meanwhile, the stolen art has never been recovered.
Robin Lippincott: "I have published six books, most recently Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell. My novel Our Arcadia was likened to a pointillist painting. For ten years I reviewed mostly art and photography books for The New York Times Book Review. I teach in the MFA Program of the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University, and live in the Boston area."
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