Edith Wharton: The Beckoning Quarry

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If so, it is not the fault of Edith Wharton. She could envision and she greatly resented (as she said in a diary note of 1924) “the things people are going to assert about me after I am dead,” and in a part of her she honestly wanted as much as possible of the truth about herself to be available to her biographer. She alluded frequently to that latter functionary, with a mixture of apprehension and hopeful expectation.

Even so, she didn’t want to make it too easy. There were rules of combat, she appears to have felt, between subject arid biographer; one had to earn one’s way. There was endless digging to do, and interviewing, and incessant travel in this country and across the Europe Edith came to know intimately, especially in the time before the First War. Clues were there to be found, but in scattered places and oddly shaped; they had to be carefully fitted together.

My major discovery about Edith Wharton’s personal life was made on a January morning in 1967, and it took about thirty minutes—though years were required fully to credit and understand it and to explore its ramifications and consequences. I had come to The Hague to spend a few days at the home of William Royall Tyler, American ambassador to the Netherlands. Mr. Tyler is the owner of the Wharton estate and of a large collection of Wharton papers, inherited from his mother, Elisina Tyler, who had been Mrs. Wharton’s residuary legatee. Getting down to work, I attacked what the inventory called “brown leather case,” and I was soon staring at a letter of 1946 to Elisina Tyler signed by one Morton Eullerton. Mrs. Tyler at that time had been contemplating a biography of her old friend Edith Wharton, and Eullerton had words of advice: “Please seize the event, however delicate the problem, to dispel the myth of your heroine’s frigidity.” The letter went on to speak, extravagantly and as though rerniniscently, of Edith Wharton’s unrestrainedly passionate nature and of her generosity and ingenuity as an erotic companion, comparing her in this regard to George Sand.

The author ofthat letter, I thought, could be nothing but an untrustworthy old braggart. But later the ambassador, with a sort of rueful willingness, identified Fullerton for me: an American journalist a few years younger than Edith Wharton, who had spent most of his adult life in Paris and who had indeed at one time—Mr. Tyler was vague about details—had an affair with my heroine.

The following week I interviewed Fullerton’s much younger cousin Hugh Fullerton, director of the American Hospital at Neuilly. Hugh confirmed the affair, and with his help Morton Fullerton’s character and career began to take shape. Hugh also turned over a pocket diary kept by Morton in the i Sgo’s in which his intellectual and his sometimes bizarre sexual interests were readily discernible.

But old legends die hard; Fullerton, I still assumed, was only of transient importance. Among the pile of documents at The Hague that Ambassador Tyler had Xeroxed for me was a narrative journal written in Paris by Edith Wharton in 1908. It was addressed to her lover, who is never named, and describes their meetings and excursions together and—with the utmost candor—Edith’s evolving feelings, desires, and gratifications. Despite other evidence I took it stubbornly for granted that it was Walter Berry to whom the diary was speaking so ardently.

It was not until nine months later that (back in New Haven) I began to take in certain little chronological and geographical facts. I noticed that on the day in May, 1908, when, according to the journal, Edith went with her lover and Henry James to Beau vais, James and Edith wrote and mailed a post card to Walter Berry back in Washington. And during the whole of 1909, while the love affair in Paris was moving toward its climax, Berry was toiling away on the International Tribunal—in Cairo.

So Fullerton was the man, and he became at once the object of supreme attention. As the result of superb and long-drawn-out detective work that took her half across France and through the labyrinthine bureaucracies of Paris, my research associate Marion Mainwaring came up with a hoard of documents relating to Fullerton. They were an almost disconcertingly informative assortment: highly charged love letters, around 1890, from the Rani of Sarawak; Fullerton’s divorce decree in 1904 from a French opera singer; exceedingly moving letters from Katharine Fullerton during the two decades when she thought she was Morion’s sister, through the moment when she learned to her wild excitement that she was in fact his first cousin, and the period when she was engaged to be married to him—a period that coincided precisely with that of Morion’s warmest pursuit of Edith Wharton; a melodrama of scandal and blackmail involving his Paris landlady-mistress.

With the 1908 love journal in hand, and to this small extent reliving their lives, I followed Edith and Fullerton along the highways of their expeditions: to Châteauroux and the home of George Sand; to the preternaturally quiet old town of Provins; to Beauvais, Senlis, Fontainebleau, Montfort 1’Amaury. Hugh Fullerton, after several years’ gentle fencing, sent me his cousin’s copy of the long poem Edith had written after a night of love in the Charing Cross Hotel (Suite 92, a note to the poem avers). It begins directly enough:

Wonderful was the long secret night you gave me, my Lover, Palm to palm, breast to breast, in the gloom. …