Edith Wharton (/ˈiːdɪθˈwɔːrtən/; born Edith Newbold Jones; January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, and designer. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, 1928 and 1930. Wharton combined her insider's view of America's privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit to write humorous, incisive novels and short stories of social and psychological insight. She was well acquainted with many of her era's other literary and public figures, including Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1885, at 23, she married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who was 12 years older. From a well-established Philadelphia family, he was a sportsman and gentleman of the same social class and shared her love of travel. From the late 1880s until 1902, he suffered acute depression, and the couple ceased their extensive travel. At that time his depression manifested as a more serious disorder, after which they lived almost exclusively at The Mount, their estate designed by Edith Wharton. In 1908 her husband's mental state was determined to be incurable. She divorced him in 1913. Around the same time, Edith was overcome with the harsh criticisms leveled by the naturalist writers. In 1908 she began an affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist for The Times, in whom she found an intellectual partner.
In addition to novels, Wharton wrote at least 85 short stories. She was also a garden designer, interior designer, and taste-maker of her time. She wrote several design books, including her first published work, The Decoration of Houses of 1897, co-authored by Ogden Codman. Another is the generously illustrated Italian Villas and Their Gardens of 1904.
The Mount, 2006
In 1902 she built The Mount, her estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, which survives today as an example of her design principles. There, Edith Wharton wrote several of her novels, including The House of Mirth (1905), the first of many chronicles of the 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 living there and when traveling abroad, Wharton was usually driven to appointments by her longtime chauffeur and friend Charles Cook, a native of nearby South Lee, Massachusetts. When her marriage deteriorated, however, she decided to move permanently to France, living initially at 53 Rue de Varenne, Paris, in an apartment that belonged to George Washington Vanderbilt II.
Helped by her influential connections to the French government, primarily through Walter Berry (then president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris), she was one of the few foreigners in France allowed to travel to the front lines during the First World War. 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 Honour in recognition of her commitment to the displaced. The scope of her relief work included setting up workrooms 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, composed of writings, art, erotica and musical scores by almost every major contemporary European artist. When World War I ended in 1918 she abandoned her fashionable urban address for the delights of the country at the Pavillon Colombe in nearby Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt.
Wharton was a committed supporter of French imperialism, describing herself as a "rabid imperialist", and the war solidified her political conservatism. After World War I, she travelled to Morocco as the guest of the resident general, Gen. 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.
In 1927 she purchased a villa, Castel Sainte-Claire, on the site of a 17th-century convent, in the hills above Hyères in Provence, where she lived during the winters and springs. She called the villa "Sainte-Claire du Chateau" and filled the garden with cacti 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.
In 1934 Wharton's autobiography A Backward Glance was published. In the view of Judith E. Funston, writing on Edith Wharton in American National Biography,
What is most notable about A Backward Glance, however, is what it does not tell: her criticism of Lucretia Jones [her mother], 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.
Edith Wharton died of a stroke in 1937 at the de Le Pavillon Colombe, her 18th-century house on Rue de Montmorency in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt. The street is today called rue Edith Wharton. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France.
The Marriage Playground, a 1929 talking film adaptation (70 minutes) (of the 1928 novel The Children) directed for Paramount Studios by Lothar Mendes, starring rising star Fredric March in leading role (as Martin Boyne), Mary Brian (as Judith Wheater), Kay Francis (as Lady Wrench) ...
Strange Wives, a 1934 or 1935 film adaptation (8 reels / 75 minutes) (of the 1934 short story Bread Upon the Waters) directed for Universal by Richard Thorpe, starring Roger Pryor (as Jimmy King), June Clayworth (as Nadja), Esther Ralston (as Olga) ... It is considered to be a lost film
The Old Maid, a 1939 film adaptation (95 minutes) (of the 1924 short novella) directed by Edmund Goulding starring Bette Davis.
Looking Back, a 1981 TV US loose adaptation of two biographies of Edith Wharton: A Backward Glance, Wharton's own 1934 autobiography & Edith Wharton, a 1975 biography by R.W.B. Lewis (1976 Bancroft Prize-winner).
Edith Wharton is mentioned in the HBO television series Entourage in the third season's 13th 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. 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.
"Edith Wharton's Journey" is a radio adaptation, for the NPR series Radio Tales, of the short story "A Journey" from Edith Wharton's collection The Greater Inclination.
The American singer and songwriter Suzanne Vega pays homage to Edith Wharton in her song Edith Wharton's Figurines, from her studio album Beauty & Crime.
The Letters of Edith Wharton (R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis, eds.) ISBN 0-02-034400-7, particularly the editorial introductions to the chronological sections, especially for 1902–07, 1911–14, 1919–27, and 1928–37, and the editorial footnotes to the letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald (8 June 1925)