Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) was an American novelist, short story writer and designer.
Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones to a wealthy New York family. She combined her insider's view of America's privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit to write humorous and incisive novels and short stories. As such, she was well-acquainted with many of her era's literary and public figures, including Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt. Her parents were George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. She had two brothers, Frederic Rhinelander and Henry Edward.
In 1885, at twenty-three years of age, she married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who was twelve years her senior. From a well-established Boston family, he was a sportsman and a gentleman of Miss Wharton's social class and shared her love of travel, although they had little in common intellectually. He began spending money on younger women and this began to take a toll on Wharton's mental health. They divorced in 1913, after he suffered a nervous breakdown and was confined to a hospital. Edith and Edward were married for twenty-eight years. Besides her writing, Wharton was a highly regarded landscape architect, interior designer, and taste-maker of her time. She wrote several influential books, including her first published work,The Decoration of Houses, co-authored by Ogden Codman, and Italian Villas and Their Gardens.
The Mount, 2006
In 1901 she built The Mount, her estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, which survives today as the supreme example of her design principles. The house and its gardens have been extensively restored and are open to the public from May through October although, as of the end of March, 2008, the house museum is threatened with foreclosure. There, Edith Wharton wrote several of her novels, including The House of Mirth (1905), the first of many chronicles of the true nature of old New York, and entertained the cream of American literary society, including her close friend, the novelist Henry James.
Although she spent many months traveling in Europe nearly every year, The Mount was her primary residence until 1911. When her marriage deteriorated, however, she decided to move permanently to France, living initially at 58 Rue de Varenne, Paris, in an apartment that belonged to George Washington Vanderbilt II.
Helped by her influential connections to the French government, primarily her lover Walter Berry (then president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris), she was of the few foreigners in France who was allowed travel to the front lines. Wharton described those trips in the series of articles Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort.
Throughout the war she worked tirelessly in charitable efforts for refugees, and, in 1916, was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in recognition of her commitment to the displaced. The scope of her relief work included setting up work rooms for unemployed Frenchwomen, organizing concerts to provide work for musicians, opening tuberculosis hospitals, and founding the American Hostels for Belgian refugees. In 1916, Wharton edited The Book of the Homeless, comprised of writings, art, and musical scores by almost every major contemporary European artist. When World War I ended in 1918 she abandoned the fashionable urban address for the delights of the country at the Pavillon Colombe in nearby Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt.
Wharton was a commited supporter of French imperialism, describing herself as a "rabid imperialist". After World War I, she travelled to Morocco as the guest of the Resident General, General Hubert Lyautey, and wrote a book In Morocco, about her experiences. Wharton's writing on her Moroccan travels is full of praise for the French administration and for Lyautey and his wife in particular.
After the war she divided her time between Paris and Hyères, in Provence, where she finished The Age of Innocence in 1920.
In 1927 She purchased a villa, Castel Sainte-Claire, on the site of an 17th century convent, in the hills above the city of Hyères in Provence, where she lived during the winters and springs. She called the villa "Sainte-Claire du Chateau" and filled the garden with cactus and subtropical plants. She returned to the U.S. only once after the war, to receive an honorary doctorate degree from Yale University in 1923.
Edith Wharton c. 1919
The Age of Innocence (1920) won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature, making her the first woman to win the award. She spoke flawless French and many of her books were published in both French and English.
Wharton was friend and confidante to many gifted intellectuals of her time: Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and André Gide were all guests of hers at one time or another. Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark were valued friends as well, and she was the godmother of Clark's second son, Colin (1932–2002), who wrote the book The Prince, the Showgirl and Me about his work as third assistant director of the film The Prince and the Showgirl. Her meeting with F. Scott Fitzgerald is described by the editors of her letters as "one of the better-known failed encounters in the American literary annals". She was also good friends with Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1934 Wharton's autobiography A Backward Glance was published. In the view of Judith E. Funston, in the entry she wrote for American National Biography about Wharton, "What is most notable about A Backward Glance, however, is what it does not tell: her criticism of Lucretia Jones , her difficulties with Teddy, and her affair with Morton Fullerton, which did not come to light until her papers, deposited in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Room and Manuscript Library, were opened in 1968."
Wharton continued writing until her death on August 11, 1937, aged 75, in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, France. She is buried in the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles, France.
Wharton's last novel, The Buccaneers, was unfinished at the time of her death. Marion Mainwaring finished the story after carefully studying the notes and synopsis Wharton had previously written. The novel was published in 1938 (unfinished version) and 1993 (Mainwaring's completion).
She died in 1937 at the domaine Le Pavillon Colombe, her Eighteenth century house on Rue de Montmorency in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, Val d'Oise (95). The street is today called Rue Edith Warthon.
Many of Wharton's novels are characterized by a subtle use of dramatic irony. Having grown up in upper-class pre-World War I society, Wharton became one of its most astute critics. In such works as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence she employed both humor and profound empathy to describe the lives of New York's upper-class and the vanishing of their world in the early years of the 20th century.
In The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Edith Wharton (Clare Higgins) travels across North Africa with Indiana Jones in Chapter 16, Tales of Innocence.
Edith Wharton is mentioned in the HBO television series "Entourage" in the third season's thirteenth episode: Vince is handed a screenplay for Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon by Amanda, his new agent, for a film to be directed by Sam Mendes. A musical version of The Glimpses of the Moon opened in January 2008 in New York City in the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room.
In the same episode, period films of Wharton's work are lampooned by agent Ari Gold, who says that all her stories are "about a guy who likes a girl, but he can't have sex with her for five years, because those were the times!" Carla Gugino, who plays Amanda, was the protagonist of the BBC-PBS adaptation of The Buccaneers (1995), one of her early jobs.
Suzanne Vega's seventh studio release Beauty & Crime contains a song named "Edith Wharton's Figurines."