Harvard is America’s most famous university and, in many ways, the most prestigious in the world. It was established by the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 under the name ‘New College’ until John Harvard, a not-so -poor clergyman tipped in half his estate and all of his vast book collection to dramatically expand the campus. As a thank-you, the name was changed to Harvard University in 1639.
In order to honour John Harvard, a bronze statue bearing his name was created by Daniel Chester French for the Harvard Yard in 1884, but because of a previous engulfing fire in the building that had housed John Harvard’s books and memorabilia, there was no image of him available as reference. This did not deter French who buttonholed a fellow called Sherman Hoar to sit for the head of the bronze. The result is a fine statue of John Harvard that doesn’t look anything like John Harvard.
Lining up for a tour on a bracing afternoon we found the place to be quite magical. We walked through and around many of its old, elegant buildings, all kept in perfect order. The university is so large that some of the departments such as medicine and business are elsewhere in Boston. Harvard’s $34.5 billion financial endownment is the largest of any academic institution. The Harvard Library, which is the world’s biggest academic and private library system, comprises 79 individual libraries with over 18 million books. Harvard’s alumni includes eight US presidents, 62 living billionaires, 359 Rhodes Scholars, 242 Marshall Scholars and 130 Nobel laureates. Maybe I should have gone there instead of dropping out of Melbourne University.
Some of the better known alumni include Barak Obama, Matt Damon, Bill Gates, John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger and Tommy Lee Jones. When famous people are invited to make speeches at Harvard they often get an honorary doctorate for their trouble. This year Mark Zuckerberg (he founded Face Book while at Harvard) is due to give an address to graduates, but there is some controversy over giving him a doctorate because, as a Harvard student, he didn’t finish his degree. What a pity. Think of how successful he could have been if he’d got right through economics or business.
To bring us down to the more fundamental function of eating we stopped off at the Harvard branch of Mike’s Pastry to load up a box of sweet not-good-for-you totalling about half a million calories. This was a typical have-to-do when you go somewhere famous and you cannot risk the shame and ridicule of arriving home without having ticked the box. Another such box involved eating a famous and delicious Boston lobster role which we ordered as a delivery to the hotel at the cost of a silver service dinner.
And speaking of remarkable food, we saddled up for the tasting menu at the Japanese Uni restaurant. It comprised 11 courses, all diminutive and all superb. As each plate arrived, sometimes with the food appearing as a few specks in a vast, white porcelain landscape, the waiter would passionately and minutely describe what we were about to eat. The actual eating took far less time than the verbal delivery. My favourite was ‘spicy tuna and foie gras’ which is as un-photogenic as it is delicious. Although many of the portions were barely there, 11 of them in total managed to slay our appetites and we waddled away convinced that this was the best meal we’d ever eaten.
Our last day in Boston, and indeed the U.S., was spent in cultural pursuits. We visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, supposedly one of the finest in the US – but not because of size or numbers of pieces. Isabella (1849 – 1924) was left $1.6 million dollars when her father died in 1891 and she commenced putting together a remarkable collection art, artefacts, tapestries and furniture from all over the world. She then had built a sort of Spanish style palace in downtown Boston to house it. The palace itself sits inside a plain brick building and surrounds a garden courtyard where the sounds of frogs and birds are piped in. The entire project is simply stunning as you walk from room to room, some of them of hall proportions, to look at groupings of pieces and paintings that go back as far as the first century. Isabella was not only a collector but patron of the arts and music. Paderewski played concerts in her music room where you can also see a plaster cast of Liszt’s right hand.
The art collection, which also includes 13 empty frames, covers some of history’s great artists. The empty frames are where paintings had been when, on March 18, 1990, two men dressed up as coppers tied up the guards and pinched the works. The haul included four Rembrandts, (one was the only seascape he’d ever painted) several Vermeers, and others by Degas, Manet and some priceless Chinese vases. Despite the museum offering a reward of $5 million for information leading to their recovery, they’ve never been found. This means that they are hanging somewhere in the world, on somebody’s walls, and that somebody knows they are hot. I’d like to think that the descendants of the illegal collectors will hate what grandpa did, package them up, the leave them outside the door of the museum one spring morning.