Early life and marriage
Wharton was born to George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander in New York City. She had two much older brothers, Frederic Rhinelander and Henry Edward. 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, which is the reason the family traveled throughout Europe. From 1866 to 1872, the Jones family traveled in France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. Along with English, she was fluent in French, German, and Italian. When Wharton was ten years old, she suffered from typhoid fever while the family was at a spa in the Black Forest. She was not impressed with New York when the family came back to the United States when she was 10. 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 her family was in Europe, she was educated by tutors and governesses. She rejected the standards of fashion and etiquette that were expected of women at the time, intended to enable women to marry well and to be able to be well 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 teenager. In 1877, at the age of 15, she secretly wrote a 30,000 word novella "Fast and Loose" and some poetry. When she was 16 she had two poems published. One of them was in the Atlantic Monthly and the other, Verses (a collection of 29 poems) was privately published by her mother in 1878.
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.
In 1888, the Whartons and the Van Alens took a cruise through the Aegean islands. They sailed on their friend James Van Alen's, yacht. The trip cost the Whartons $10,000 and lasted four months.
In 1902 she 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, the novelist Henry James. 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 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, 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.
Aided by her influential connections to the French government, primarily 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. Her relief work included setting up workrooms for unemployed French women, 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, which included writings, art, erotica and musical scores by many major contemporary European artists. 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.
After the war she divided her time between Paris and Hyères, Provence, where she finished The Age of Innocence in 1920.
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.
The Age of Innocence (1920) won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature, making Wharton the first woman to win the award.
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 (as well as several other languages), 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.
Edith Wharton died of a stroke in 1937 at 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.
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