Friday, February 26, 2010



Friday, February 26, 2010


By Polly Guerin

It was many years ago when I first visited Edith Wharton's former Berkshire estate, “The Mount” in Lenox, Massachusetts---a pilgrimage of sorts to pay homage to Wharton's amazing oeuvre producing over forty books during her lifetime. 
    The library at that time (2010) was rather barren of books save for a few first editions, less than I expected. However, I had my picture taken there by her desk and commanded this moment to memory and asked Wharton to be my muse. Her characters, such as Ellen Olenska in the Age of Innocence and the charming but ill-fated Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, are the most memorable among her books that I have read. These personalities still resonate with readers, even today.
    Wharton's life and the society that she wrote about stand as a testament to the obstacles that she encountered to find happiness and self fulfillment.  She broke through polite society's restrictions to become a Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist, short story writer and interior designer.
Wharton’s life spanning the years (1862-1937) was truly amazing era which put her in an ideal position to chronicle the lifestyles and the social ambitions of the newly rich of the Gilded Age. As a participant in fashionable society and a keen observer of the regime set by the old money set, she was in an enviable position to combine an insider’s view of America’s privileged classes.
     With a brilliant, natural wit Wharton also wrote humorous incisive novels and short stories. In this privileged position Wharton witnessed the variegated changes in Old New York and in Newport, Rhode Island where she summered and observed the cognoscenti of the era.
     Eventually, seeking a different venue, she built her own house, The Mount, in Lenox in 1902.
Literary legal eagle, Louis Auchincloss in a talk in 2002 at the New York School of Interior Design had quite a bit to say about Edith Wharton. “Shy, yes,” he said, but she had a definite aggressiveness, too. In Newport circles, she was considered a little fast---I know my grandmother thought that!” Although Edith Wharton had a rather strained relationship with her mother she was not without early support. Her mother had her poems privately printed when she was sixteen and the copy that Auchincloss gave to the Morgan Museum had Wharton’s own pen corrections in it. 
      In 1885, at 23 year of age, Edith Newbold Jones married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, from a well-established Boston family who was 12 years her senior and a gentleman of her social class. Wharton at that time had very little knowledge of what to expect in marriage and she bitterly remembered that her mother refused to answer any questions that she may have posed. This fact wasn’t the only reason why it wasn’t a happy union, and aside from travel the couple had a lackluster relationship and more importantly, little in common intellectually. She divorced Teddy Wharton in 1913.
Edith Wharton’s writing career as an interior decorator may have been launched with the publication of her first book, The decoration of Houses, (1897) written with her architect friend, Ogden Codman, but it was just the forerunner of this born storyteller’s oeuvre. The two taste masters denounced Victorian decorating practices and advocated the elimination of overstuffed furniture, artificial plants, festoons of lace on mantelpieces and dressing tables, heavily curtained windows. They endorsed a style of minimalism, bringing a breath of fresh air into interiors by stressing rooms based on simple, design principles, stressing symmetry and balance in architecture and thereby launched the careers of professional decorators to interpret the new style.
Heading frequently to London and Paris she forged friendships with Bernard Berenson, the painter John Singer Sergeant and scores of French writers and artists including Jacques-Emile Blanche, Andre Gide and Jean Cocteau, always writing and managing to produce a volume a year. 
     In Paris, one of the most romantic cities in the world she began an affair in 1908 with Morton Fullerton, a journalist on the London Times, and all that she painfully missed in her marriage, love and intellectual communion, was fulfilled. However, Auchincloss described Wharton’s lover, Morton Fullerton as follows: “It is always sad to see a first-rate human being temporarily in the grips of a fourth-rater.” Wharton herself finally wrote that she would have been better off had she never met him. 
In Paris, Wharton on her own terms and newly divorced became part of the intellectual circles where the artists mingled with the rich and high-born interlopers. She settled in Paris, in the historic Faubourg Saint-Germain arrondissement on the Left Bank. Life was a whirlwind of visiting Americans as well, including Henry James, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Adams. 
     But World War I was looming and Wharton became fiercely dedicated to the Allied cause. Traveling to the front lines, unusual as it was for the time, she often in the company of Walter Berry and her chauffeur, made excursions in her automobile into the front lines to observe the fighting. 
     An early war journalist she wrote reports for American publications in which she urged the United States to join the war effort. In addition, Wharton helped establish workrooms to employ women who had no means of support and tirelessly led the committee to aid refugees. 
     During the war years she also collaborated on war charities with ElisinaTyler (Countess Elisina de Castelvecchio), for which the French Academy in 1920 awarded them jointly a gold medal inscribed with both their names.
The final stage of Wharton’s life was spent in two beautiful houses in France---the summers at Pavillion Colombe, in a small village just north of Paris, and the winters at Chateau Saint-Claire at Hyeres---where she continued to write and enjoy the company of her beloved miniature dogs that were always a key element of Edith’s intimate household. 
     In recognition of her accomplishments the grand dame of American letters was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence, and an honorary Doctor of Letters from Yale University in 1923. The lifestyle of the social and moneyed world in which she lived and depicted in her fiction may have vanished, but her books and authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design and travel have survived the test of time. Her achievements continue to leave a lasting impression of a remarkable woman who gave us a peak into the Gilded Age and other venues of witty storytelling.
RESTORING THE MOUNTAfter further touring The Mount several years ago, I was disappointed at the time that Edith Wharton’s boudoir and bedroom were empty, the furnishings long gone, but somehow her spirit lingered on. I was happy to learn recently that the NYC based designer, Michael Simon will soon be restoring these areas so that it reflects the time period in which she lived. The Mount is in every aspect of the estate, including its gardens, architecture and interior design, evokes the spirit of Edith Wharton who created an environment that would meet her needs as a designer, gardener, hostess, and, above all, as a writer. Within a year Wharton wrote: "Lenox has had its usual tonic effect on me, and I feel like a new edition, revised and the very best type.” In a letter to her lover Morton Fullerton, she revealed how much of herself she put into The Mount. “I am amazed by the success of my efforts. Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than a novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth.” The Mount, located on a hillside in the Berkshires overlooking Laurel Lake was designed according to the principles stated in Wharton's 1897 book, The Decoration of Houses. The house and the restored Italianate gardens can be visited from May through October. Ticket Office: 413.551.5107. www.edit

1 comment:

  1. Polly--Speaking both as a longtime Wharton lover and as someone newly affiliated with the Mount, I am delighted to read this post! You've brilliantly hit the highlights of Wharton's life and work...and why she so very much matters as a literary and cultural figure. The Mount is thrilled to be moving ahead with our plans to recreate Wharton's bedroom suite, as you note above. We hope you'll visit this summer; we have lots lined up, including our first annual literary festival, July 23-25. All best wishes--Audrey Manring