Early life and marriage
Edith Wharton was born to George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander at their brownstone at 14 West Twenty-third Street in New York City. She had two much older brothers, Frederic Rhinelander, who was sixteen, and Henry Edward, who was eleven. She was baptized April 20, 1862, Easter Sunday, at Grace Church. To her friends and family she was known as "Pussy Jones". The saying "keeping up with the Joneses" is said to refer to her father's family. She was also related to the Rensselaer family, the most prestigious of the old patroon families. She had a lifelong friendship with her Rhinelander niece, landscape architect Beatrix Farrand of Reef Point in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Wharton was born during the Civil War; she was three years old when the South surrendered. After the war, the family traveled extensively in Europe. From 1866 to 1872, the Jones family visited France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. During her travels, the young Edith became fluent in French, German, and Italian. At the age of ten, she suffered from typhoid fever while the family was at a spa in the Black Forest. After the family returned to the United States in 1872, they spent their winters in New York and their summers in Newport, Rhode Island. While in Europe, she was educated by tutors and governesses. She rejected the standards of fashion and etiquette that were expected of young girls at the time, intended to enable women to marry well and to be displayed at balls and parties. She thought these requirements were superficial and oppressive. Wharton wanted more education than she received, so she read from her father's library and from the libraries of her father's friends. Her mother forbade her to read novels until she was married, and Edith complied with this command.
Wharton began writing poetry and fiction as a young girl. She attempted to write a novel at age eleven. Her first publication was a translation of the German poem "Was die Steine Erzählen" ("What the Stones Tell") by Heinrich Karl Brugsch, which earned her $50. She was 15 at the time. Her family did not wish her name to appear in print because the names of upper class women of the time only appeared in print to announce birth, marriage, and death. Consequently, the poem was published under the name of a friend's father, E. A. Washburn. He was a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson and supported women's education. He played a pivotal role in Edith's efforts to educate herself and he encouraged her ambition to write professionally. In 1877, at the age of 15, she secretly wrote a 30,000 word novella "Fast and Loose". In 1878 her father arranged for a collection of two dozen original poems and five translations, Verses, to be privately published. In 1880 she had five poems published anonymously in the Atlantic Monthly, then a revered literary magazine. Despite these early successes, she was not encouraged by her family nor her social circle, and though she continued to write she did not publish anything again until her poem, "The Last Giustiniani", was published in Scribner's Magazine in October 1889.
Wharton was engaged to Henry Stevens in 1882 after a two year courtship. The month the two were to marry, the engagement abruptly ended.
In 1885, at age 23, she married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who was 12 years her senior. From a well-established Boston family, he was a sportsman and a 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 their estate The Mount. In 1908 her husband's mental state was determined to be incurable. In the same year, she began an affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist for The Times, in whom she found an intellectual partner. She divorced Edward Wharton in 1913 after 28 years of marriage. Around the same time, Edith was beset with harsh criticisms leveled by the naturalist writers.
In addition to novels, Wharton wrote at least 85 short stories. She was also a garden designer, interior designer, and a taste-maker of her time. She wrote several design books, including her first published work, The Decoration of Houses (1897), co-authored by Ogden Codman. Another is the generously illustrated Italian Villas and Their Gardens of 1904.
Travels and life abroad
Wharton made her first journey to Europe at the age of four, when her parents took her to Europe for six years. Her father loved traveling and it is thought that he passed on this wanderlust to his daughter. She would eventually cross the Atlantic sixty times. In Europe, her primary destinations were Italy, France and England. She also went to Morocco in north Africa. She wrote many books about her travels, including Italian Backgrounds and A Motor-Flight through France.
Her husband, Edward Wharton, shared her love of travel and for many years they spent at least four months of each year abroad, mainly in Italy. Their friend, Egerton Winthrop, accompanied them on many journeys in Italy. In 1888, the Whartons and their friend James Van Alen took a cruise through the Aegean islands. Wharton was 26. The trip cost the Whartons $10,000 and lasted four months. She kept a travel journal during this trip that was thought to be lost but was later published as The Cruise of the Vanadis, now considered her earliest known travel writing.
In 1902, Wharton designed The Mount, her estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, which survives today as an example of her design principles. Edith Wharton wrote several of her novels there, including The House of Mirth (1905), the first of many chronicles of life in old New York. At The Mount, she entertained the cream of American literary society, including her close friend, novelist Henry James, who described the estate as "a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond". Although she spent many months traveling in Europe nearly every year with her friend, Egerton Winthrop (John Winthrop's descendant), The Mount was her primary residence until 1911. When living there and while 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, she decided to move permanently to France, living first at 53 Rue de Varenne, Paris, in an apartment that belonged to George Washington Vanderbilt II.
Wharton was preparing to vacation for the summer when World War I broke out. Though many fled Paris, she moved back to her Paris apartment on the Rue de Varenne and for four years was a tireless and ardent supporter of the French war effort. One of the first causes she undertook in August 1914 was the opening of a workroom for unemployed women; here they were fed and paid one franc a day. What began with thirty women soon doubled to sixty, and their sewing business began to thrive. When the Germans invaded Belgium in the fall of 1914 and Paris was flooded with Belgian refugees, she helped to set up the American Hostels for Refugees, which managed to get them shelter, meals, clothes and eventually an employment agency to help them find work. She collected more than $100,000 on their behalf. In early 1915 she organized the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which gave shelter to nearly 900 Belgian refugees who had fled when their homes were bombed by the Germans.
Aided by her influential connections in the French government, she and her long-time friend Walter Berry (then president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris), were among the few foreigners in France allowed to travel to the front lines during World War I. She and Berry made five journeys between February and August 1915, which Wharton described in a series of articles that were first published in Scribner's Magazine and later as Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort, which became an American bestseller. Travelling by car, Wharton and Berry drove through the war zone, viewing one decimated French village after another. She visited the trenches, and was within earshot of artillery fire. She wrote, "We woke to a noise of guns closer and more incessant...and when we went out into the streets it seemed as if, overnight, a new army had sprung out of the ground".
Throughout the war she worked tirelessly in charitable efforts for refugees, the injured, the unemployed, and the displaced. She was a "heroic worker on behalf of her adopted country". On 18 April 1916, the President of France appointed her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, the country's highest award, in recognition of her dedication to the war effort. Her relief work included setting up workrooms for unemployed French women, organizing concerts to provide work for musicians, raising tens of thousands of dollars for the war effort, and opening tuberculosis hospitals. In 1915 Wharton edited The Book of the Homeless, which included essays, art, poetry and musical scores by many major contemporary European and American artists, including Henry James, Joseph Conrad, William Dean Howells, Anna de Noailles, Jean Cocteau and Walter Gay, among others. Wharton proposed the book to her publisher, Scribner's. She handled all of the business arrangements, lined up contributors, and translated the French entries into English. Theodore Roosevelt wrote a two-page Introduction in which he praised Wharton's effort and urged Americans to support the war. She also kept up her own work during the war, continuing to write novels, short stories, and poems, as well as reporting for the New York Times and keeping up her enormous correspondence. Wharton urged Americans to support the war effort and encouraged America to enter the war. She wrote the popular romantic novel Summer in 1916, the war novella, The Marne, in 1918, and A Son at the Front in 1919, (though it was not published until 1923). When the war ended, she watched the Victory Parade from the Champs Elysees' balcony of a friend's apartment. After four years of intense effort, she decided to leave Paris in favor of the peace and quiet of the countryside. Wharton settled ten miles north of Paris in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, buying an eighteenth-century house on seven acres of land which she called Pavillon Colombe. She would live there in summer and autumn for the rest of her life. She spent winters and springs on the French Riviera at Sainte Claire du Vieux Chateau in Hyeres.
Wharton was a committed supporter of French imperialism, describing herself as a "rabid imperialist", and the war solidified her political views. After the war she travelled to Morocco as the guest of Resident 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.
During the post war years she divided her time between Hyères and Provence, where she finished The Age of Innocence in 1920. She returned to the United States only once after the war, to receive an honorary doctorate degree from Yale University in 1923.
The Age of Innocence (1920) won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature, making Wharton the first woman to win the award. The three fiction judges—literary critic Stuart Pratt Sherman, literature professor Robert Morss Lovett, and novelist Hamlin Garland—voted to give the prize to Sinclair Lewis for his satire Main Street, but Columbia University’s advisory board, led by conservative university president Nicholas Murray Butler, overturned their decision and awarded the prize to The Age of Innocence.
Wharton was friend and confidante to many gifted intellectuals of her time: Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau and André Gide were all her guests at one time or another. Theodore Roosevelt, Bernard Berenson, and Kenneth Clark were valued friends as well. Particularly notable was her meeting with F. Scott Fitzgerald, described by the editors of her letters as "one of the better known failed encounters in the American literary annals". She spoke fluent French, Italian, and German, and many of her books were published in both French and English.
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.
On June 1, 1937 Wharton was at the French country home of Ogden Codman, where they were at work on a revised edition of The Decoration of Houses, when she suffered a heart attack and collapsed. Edith Wharton later died of a stroke on August 11, 1937 at Le Pavillon Colombe, her 18th-century house on Rue de Montmorency in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt.She died at 5:30 P.M., but her death was not known in Paris. At her bedside was her friend, Mrs. Royal Tyler. The street is today called rue Edith Wharton. Wharton was buried at the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles, "with all the honors owed a war hero and a chevalier of the Legion of Honor....a group of some one hundred friends sang a verse of the hymn "O Paradise"...." She is buried next to her long-time friend, Walter Berry, in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France.