Edith Wharton: The Beckoning Quarry

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A witty and learned French viscount went into detail about Edith’s passion for gardening—they had had adjoining estates on the Riviera—and set me straight about another episode. Bernard Berenson, during his annual Christmas visit with Edith Wharton in 1929, had come back from lunch with the viscount and his holiday house party visibly shaken and indignant. A painting said to be by Picasso was hanging in the viscount’s drawing room, and jean Cocteau, one of the guests, had pronounced it as consummate a work of art as anything by Raphael. Berenson could see nothing in it but a column of small newsprint and some brown sacking and attempted to argue that the work was devoid of artistic merit. Cocteau burst into a torrent of aesthetic verbiage; tempers flared, and Berenson departed feeling battered. That was the entire story as it had filtered down to me. But the viscount explained that—as no one in the Wharton ménage ever learned—the work was a hoax perpetrated by Cocteau, who had himself put together the absurd montage as a device for attacking Berenson’s notorious hostility to modern painting. Showing my wife and me through his chateau outside Fontainebleau, the viscount, with no sign of satisfaction and indeed with a certain discomfort, pointed to the work hanging in a corner of a dimly lit corridor.

A cultivated Boston woman, meanwhile, remembered her mother saying that Edith Wharton sometimes expressed pleasure at the thought of being the daughter of an Englishman: another contribution to that curious saga. Her Long Island nephew added to the false comic image by passing along the groundless story that Edith Wharton had sought desperately and by every means to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1927.

A final sidelight was provided in the elegant bar of our Venice hotel, around Easter, 1973, by the rector of the American Church in Venice. Years before, after reading Percy Lubbock’s Portrait , he had visited with Eubbock in his Eiesole home. The Portrait , he told his host, sounded as if it had been written by someone who loathed Edith Wharton. Lubbock gaped, then struck his forehead with both hands. “But I adored her!” he exclaimed. The thoughtful reader of the book today cannot miss its subtle distribution of malice and steady downgrading of Edith Wharton as a person and a writer. If Lubbock really thought his memoir was an act of tribute—as, bewilderingly, did several of Edith Wharton’s closest friends—one is only conscious again of the layers of legend, distortion, misleading image, and misrepresentation behind which the actuality of this remarkable woman lurked during her lifetime and over the decades since. No wonder she herself took steps—even while, in many ways, hiding herself from view—to see to it that at least a good proportion of the truth should someday be known.