Insider's Guide to Boston
James M. Stone—the founder and chairman of the Plymouth Rock Group, an enormous set of companies that writes and manages more than $1 billion in personal and commercial automobile and homeowner’s insurance policies across the northeast—doesn’t drive. Of course, Stone knows how to drive. He simply doesn’t need to. The former commissioner of insurance for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—the youngest person to hold that office in the history of the state, appointed at age 28—has arranged his life so that his home, his office and his recreation are all within walking distance.
Stone (he’s Jim—no one calls this trim, unassuming, non-CEO-type man Dr. or even James) lives with his family in an enormous, historic Beacon Hill home exactly one and a half miles from the main office of Plymouth Rock Assurance Corporation, where he works. “No weather can stop me—I am like the postal service,” says the fit and trim executive, who works out in his company’s two-floor onsite fitness center. Almost all of Stone’s favorite restaurants are within a 10-minute walk from home or work. If he wants to catch a train to New York, the walk across the street from his office to South Station takes two and a half minutes; for jaunts farther afield, a driver will deposit him at Logan Airport in seven minutes. Even Stone’s beloved Fenway Park—where he takes his son on opening day, allowing him to miss school so they can watch the Red Sox play—is a quick walk from home.
“I still love New York,” says Stone of the city where he was born, “but I found Boston to be the right size for the kind of life that I like. I lived in Washington and New York; in each place, there is a hierarchy that places one thing above all the others. In Boston, there are a lot of equal businesses.” Still, he admits that “things are pretty tough economically now” in Massachusetts. “There are a lot of people out of work, and it is not yet showing signs of changing. Things are worse this year: We haven’t started to come back, as some have, but I’m very optimistic about Massachusetts because this is an intellectual center. I’d call it the intellectual capital of the world, and that’s a good thing to be in a knowledge-based economy.”
Home insurance, Stone adds, has been affected in the worst-hit states financially, but his company is somewhat sheltered because auto insurance is a compulsory business. “You might not buy a new car this year, but you still have to insure that old car.”
Stone makes a visitor feel that he has the most brilliant and clever things to say. He hides a curious and intelligent mind behind a deep and sincere interest in others, whether they agree with his own beliefs or not. He doesn’t call himself an intellectual, yet the Harvard-educated, Phi Beta Kappa PhD in economics was selected as a graduate prize fellow in economics and was appointed a lecturer in economics by the faculty at Harvard, where he taught the economics of securities markets. The 62-year-old formerly served as the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, having been appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. And because he loves to travel, Stone also arranged for part-time consulting assignments on financial services in Indonesia, Gambia and Mongolia.
What does an accomplished fellow like Stone do for fun? Science. One of the photographs on the wall of his office shows two of his buddies, American biologist E. O. Wilson and Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of DNA’s structure James D. Watson. Because Watson is connected to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Stone is actively involved with that nonprofit, currently serving as a member of the board of directors and as the chairman of the Commercial Relations Committee. (He once took Wilson’s graduate course in human sociobiology “for fun.”) In addition, Stone is a board of directors member and the chairman of the Nominating and Governance Committee of Management Sciences for Health, a nonprofit that helps provide health infrastructure in many of the poorest countries in the world, with the mission of reducing unnecessary deaths. As if that weren’t enough, Stone is also a member of the Compensation Committee of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay. Most recently, he and his wife have devoted both their time and their money to helping two of Boston’s inner-city high schools.
When Stone schedules a rare business breakfast meeting, it’s held at the Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro, steps away from his home.
Instead of the standard executive trappings of a private room and chef, Stone’s favorite lunch option for guests is to order takeout from the plethora of ethnic restaurants within walking distance of his ofice: Kashmir for Indian food; Sultan’s Kitchen for Turkish; Ginza for sushi; Pierrot for French; Taiwan Café “for the adventurous guest; it’s no frills and has pig’s ears, organ dishes, jellyfish and such,” Stone describes; and the Peach Farm for Chinese food more familiar to Americans. He has these lunches served in a small conference room.
The Stones’ favorite spots for a dinner out include the Beacon Hill Bistro and the Hungry i, an intimate French eatery with a patio that reminds people of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden.’ They also enjoy Lala Rokh, a Persian restaurant that’s the namesake of Thomas Moore’s 1817 romance novel, and Toscano, an Italian eatery. All four places are on Beacon Hill, and their chef-owners all greet the Stones by name.
For a more formal meal, the couple walks a block or two farther up the hill to Mooo, the steakhouse in Hotel XV Beacon that replaced the Federalist Restaurant and is now “not as stuffy,” according to Stone.
Recreation and entertainment
Boston has good theater, but Stone admits that “we have teenagers, so we don’t go out a lot at night right now.” But he does find time for the Museum of Science. When the MOS hosted a popular anatomy, physiology and evolution exhibit called “The Human Body,” Stone invited a doctor and a scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to accompany him, in order to learn as much as possible from hearing their perspective.
Boston also boasts a serious music scene. Stone’s favorites are the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra and jazz pianist Bert Seager, a faculty member at the New England Conservatory of Music who plays regularly at the Four Season’s Bristol Lounge.
In this famously intense sports town, where “most people have three or four sports they care deeply about,” Stone says, “I care deeply about one: baseball. Fenway Park is one of the jewels of Boston.” He usually buys his Red Sox tickets at charity events and makes sure to go several times during the regular season, plus a few playoff games. His insider advice to visitors who come to town during baseball season: “Get seats either at the third-base line, near the visitor’s dugout, or the Monster seats, above the famous Green Monster Wall in left field.”
“I love to shop only to eat or to read,” says Stone, who gets through a book a week on his Kindle these days, meaning he doesn’t frequent bookstores as often as he did in the past.
However, he still loves to shop for food—or just check out what’s in stock—at Savenor’s, a Beacon Hill specialty gourmet food shop that was a favorite of Julia Child’s.
Logan Airport “is a clean, fast, modern airport with good shops and restaurants,” Stone says. “It’s as user-friendly as any airport of its size I’ve ever used, and the access roads to it haven’t been clogged since the Big Dig was completed.”
JULIE HATFIELD, now a freelance writer, was a staff reporter for the Boston Globe for 22 years.