Synopses & Reviews
Born in 1915 to one of New England’s elite wealthy families, Isabella Gardner was expected to follow a certain path in life—one that would take her from marriageable debutante to proper society lady. But that plan was derailed when at age eighteen, Isabella caused a drunk-driving accident. Her family, to shield her from disgrace, sent her to Europe for acting studies, not foreseeing how life abroad would fan the romantic longings and artistic impulses that would define the rest of Isabella’s years. In Not at All What One Is Used To, author Marian Janssen tells the story of this passionate, troubled woman, whose career as a poet was in constant compromise with her wayward love life and her impulsive and reckless character.Life took Gardner from the theater world of the 1930s and ’40s to the poetry scene of the ’50s and ’60s to the wild, bohemian art life of New York’s Hotel Chelsea in the ’70s. She often followed where romance, rather than career, led her. At nineteen, she had an affair with a future president of Ireland, then married and divorced three famous American husbands in succession. Turning from acting to poetry, Gardner became associate editor of Chicago’s Poetry magazine and earned success with her best-received collection, Birthdays from the Ocean, in 1955. Soon after, her life took a turn when she met the southern poet Allen Tate. He was married to Caroline Gordon but left her to wed Gardner, who moved to Minneapolis and gave up writing to please him, but after a few short years, Tate fell for a young nun and abandoned her.
In the liveliest of places at the right times, Gardner associated with many of the most significant cultural figures of her age, including her cousin Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Virgil Thomson, Tennessee Williams, and Robert Penn Warren. But famous connections could never save Isabella from herself. Having abandoned her work, she suffered through alcoholism, endured more failed relationships, and watched the lives of her children unravel fatally. Toward the end of her life, though, she took her pen back up for the poems in her final volume. Redeemed by her writing, Gardner died alone in 1981, just after being named the first poet laureate of New York State.
Through interviews with many Gardner intimates and extensive archival research, author Marian Janssen delves deep into the life of a woman whose poetry, according to one friend, “probably saved her sanity.” Much more than a biography, Not at All What One Is Used To is the story of a woman whose tumultuous life was emblematic of the cultural unrest at the height of the twentieth century.
"July 7, 2011, will mark the 30th anniversary of the death of Isabella Gardner at the age of 64. Unlike Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg--all male stars of the American poetry firmament of the 1950s, and Plath, the tragic female among them--Gardner's reputation, Janssen suggests, suffers from not being taken seriously, perhaps not even by herself. Once her fourth marriage collapsed in 1966, the patrician Gardner began to decline, moving into New York's ultra-bohemian (and ultra-rundown) Chelsea Hotel. After her troubled son, Daniel, a prominent photographer and filmmaker in the downtown scene, died under mysterious circumstances, and her daughter Rose, whose drinking had gotten out of hand, admitted herself to an institution, Gardner drifted through a series of alcohol-fueled dead-end relationships in California until finally returning to the Chelsea Hotel to spend a few final years in relative peace. In telling Gardner's story, Janssen avoids the arcane, particularly when dealing with her rebellious years, when Gardner fought against her white-glove upbringing to pursue a career in the theater. But when she became involved with Poetry magazine, she realized her true calling. The association led to her first and best collection, Birthdays from the Ocean, and these narrative threads breathe vivid life into a highly accessible biography. Photos. (Dec.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
“This is a great biography that will give Isabella Gardner’s poetry the attention it has long deserved. Compellingly written, deeply researched, learned, lucid, funny, and wise, this book is more than a mesmerizing page-turner. It allows us to understand Gardner and her milieu with new specificity and insight. This is one of the very best biographies of a mid-twentieth-century poet yet written.”—Steven Gould Axelrod, author of Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words and coeditor of The New Anthology of American Poetry
“A very well-written biography. A truly compelling story of a woman who both wants to live her own life and wants badly to please others, particularly men, particularly her husbands, and most particularly her fourth husband, Allen Tate—who betrays her in the end. Janssen’s portrait of Gardner is sympathetic, but it is not uncritical.”—Fred Hobson, author of Mencken: A Life
In "Not at All What One Is Used To," Janssen tells the story of American art collector, philanthropist, and patron of the arts Isabella Gardner, a passionate, troubled woman, whose career as a poet was in constant compromise with her wayward love life and her impulsive and reckless character.
Born to an elite family, Isabella Gardner was expected to follow a certain path, but that plan derailed when she caused a drunk-driving accident. Being sent to Europe fanned the romantic longings and artistic impulses that would define her life. She became associate editor of Poetry; poet Allen Tate left his wife to marry her but then abandoned her for a young nun. Gardner associated with many of the most significant cultural figures of her age, but connections couldn’t save her from herself. Her life was emblematic of the cultural unrest at the height of the twentieth century.
About the Author
Marian Janssen serves as head of the International Office of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. She is the author of The Kenyon Review, 1939–1970: A Critical History.