Edith Wharton: The Beckoning Quarry

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One of the silliest and most characteristic of the stories—and one finds it solemnly stated in print—was that a secret stairway connected Edith Wharton’s apartment on the Rue de Varenne in Paris with that of Walter Berry. It was used, presumably, to creep up and down for assignations. The picture conjured up is not without attraction; but in fact Edith and Berry never had apartments in the same building. Berry succeeded to the lease of Edith’s apartment in 1920. I had a guided tour of the rooms (as I did of Mrs. Wharton’s other homes in France and New England, and to very good effect) and suspect that a back-stairway entrance combined with the all-powerful Berry legend to generate this canard.

When I began the enterprise, there were still a good many people alive who knew Edith Wharton, though one of the sadder aspects of the experience has been the periodic news that one or another of them has died at a great age. But of course they knew Mrs. Wharton only in her later years, in her sixties and seventies; the earliest fullscale report I received came from a zestful eighty-six-yearold French countess, whose recollections go back to about 1921. Even so, one of the great rewards of the work was meeting and talking with these men and women—an impressive number of them, I have been almost embarrassed to realize, persons of title and distinction, and hence another composite reflection of Edith Wharton’s social and intellectual world.

As a fledgling biographer I had to learn something that must be familiar to other biographers. The first congenital response of anyone approached for information is: I should be happy to see you, but I’m afraid I have next to nothing to give you. Such was the message of the singularly gracious Marchesa Iris Origo, the former Miss Cutting of New York, who now lives with her husband in a palazzo in Rome and a villa outside Siena. She would see me with pleasure, she said over the phone in the Roman spring of 1969, but she had very little of use for me. I went around to the palazzo, and after two hours of enthralling talk—mostly about old New York society and the lowly status in it of writers and artists—I came away, trembling, with a suitcase literally full of materials. They included immensely precious recollections of Edith Wharton by more than two dozen persons, all written at the solicitation of the marchesa’s stepfather, Percy Eubbock, when he was preparing his Portrait of Edith Wharton . The incident was not untypical.

Everyone interviewed had a special angle of perception and nugget of information. Inevitably, I had to weigh memory against memory, and in particular to balance the French Edith Wharton against the Anglo-American version of her. Most of the highborn French I talked with described Mme. Wharton as fascinating but as extraordinarily stiff and reserved—as though, one said, she had swallowed an umbrella. But an American associate recalled her bursting into uncontrollable fits of laughter, time after time and until she positively ached, and of inventing absurd games for her houseguests.

On this aspect Kenneth Clark made a wise suggestion. At Saltwood Castle in Kent and at The Albany in London, I spent charming hours with Lord and Lady Clark, who came to know Edith Wharton in the 1930’s and who were quick to take her measure, appreciatively and affectionately. Clark observed that Edith’s stiffness in the presence of her French associates was chiefly a sign that she was bracing herself to be courteously bored. He also talked acutely about her vision of life and her late-developing religious sense, and identified for me the various French museum directors with whom Edith had been friendly.

Henry Cabot Lodge, then American envoy to the Paris peace talks, took time out from his strenuous duties one Sunday morning to discuss the Boston society Edith had known and his own memories of a 1924 stay with her at Hyeres in southern France. He helped me sort out a garbled but true comic anecdote about a fellow guest, the brilliant but somewhat dislocated young Russo-English novelist William Gerhardie. Gerhardie, arriving late at night and carrying several large chunks of bread in his bag, had flushed the bread down the toilet, throwing the chateau’s entire plumbing system out of order for a time. As the story had reached me from several sources, Gerhardie had been under the impression that Mrs. Wharton was a frail old woman of limited means and had kindly brought supplies for the household—only to discover it a palace of luxury. Actually, Lodge said, Gerhardie’s way of disposing of the unwanted food was the sort of impractical, careless act he was prone to. (The next evening at dinner Gerhardie turned to the woman at his left, after the soup course, and said: “Where is Mrs. Wharton?” expressing surprise that they had started without their hostess. The lady looked at him with sad, thoughtful eyes and replied: “I am Mrs. Wharton.” They had spent the afternoon together in the gardens, but Edith’s large, floppy straw hat had apparently hidden her features.)