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Edith Wharton: The Beckoning Quarry

April 2024
14min read

With the publication in August of R. W. B. Lewis’ Edith Wharton: A Biography (Harper & Row), our image of the woman who is America’s most famous, Victorian novelist has been severely jolted, if not irrevocably changed. The decorous, gently satirical bluestocking who appeared to live comfortably within the aristocratic world she wrote about in such books as The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country , and her Puhtzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence proves to be a far less conventional person than her earlier biographers have led us to believe. In fact, eight years of patient digging have convinced Mr. Lewis that Mrs. Wharton was passionate, sensual, and erotic to a degree thai would have appalled most of her contemporaries. Mr. Lewis, who is a professor of English and American Studies at Yale University, has written for AMERICAN HERITAGE an account of his search for the elusive facts of Edith Wharton’s life, and of his struggle to overcome his own incredulity at what he found.

--The Editors

Literary figures are normally the most reluctant of subjects for the biographer. Leon Edel has described Henry James’s wily strategies for outmaneuvering and outwitting in advance the huntsmen he foresaw coming after him, seizing the occasion to snatch back letters he had written this person or that and otherwise covering his traces. Emily Dickinson, Richard Sewall has told us recently, was uncannily successful in “keeping her private life private ,” adroitly lending off personal inquiries even from her contemporaries. Others, like Willa Gather, left such cautionary instructions about access to their papers that large areas of their lives may be permanently consigned to the shadows.

The phenomenon must be at least partly due to the fact that the literary figure leaves behind him, perforce, a heap of nondestructible documents: his writings; the stories or poems or essays in which he gave a kind of shape and meaning to elements—some of them perhaps deeply buried—of the private life. Where letters and diaries can be added to these, the literary artist is peculiarly vulnerable to being known to the core of his personality. In defense, the artist may try to minimize the disclosures by doing away with everything else he can lay hands on. Hawthorne even tried to obliterate his first published novel, Fanshawe .

When I began work on a life of Edith Wharton eight or nine years ago, one of the first documents I hit upon was a letter of 1927 describing how she had retrieved all the letters she had written over thirty-five years to Walter V. R. Berry (who had just died) and had burned the lot of them. Here, I assumed, was another tantalizingly evasive subject for the biographer.

As the author of such fine but muted writings as Ethan Frame, The Age of Innocence , and The House of Mirth , Edith Wharton had always struck me as a furtive, self-concealing kind of writer. Her memoirs of 1934, A Backward Glance , had all the air of elegant discretion: not a word, for example, about a broken engagement in her youth, though I had heard vaguely of that poignant episode; very little about her marriage to Edward Robbins Wharton and nothing about her divorce from him in 1913. I also knew that as Edith Jones she had been the product of the severelydecorous society of old New York (she was born in 1862), where by her own testimony many things were not fit to be mentioned in public, and no few even in private. And if she did begin to expatriate herself to Paris in 1907, it was to the Faubourg St. Germain, a still more aristocratic environment, presided over by dowdy matrons with long sloping noses who saw to it that the unconventional gesture, the unseemly emotion, was suppressed or ignored.

In fact, however, Edith Wharton turned out to be a fascinatingly ambiguous subject for the biographer. She did destroy some documents, though the ritual burning of 1927 was the only significant episode of its kind. At other times she destroyed items—a nakedly revealing long poem to her lover in 1909, as an example—apparently undisturbed that copies of them would not be hard to come by for any investigator with a modicum of energy and patience. And much more tellingly, she preserved a wide variety of documents—diaries, unpublished poems and fragments of autobiography, unfinished stories—that contain some of her most private experiences, among them her earliest erotic stirrings, the sexual disaster of her marriage in 1885, and the entire course of an extraordinarily uninhibited love affair in Paris during the years 1907–10.

It was not much of a feat to discover most of these things. The difficult was much rather to believe them. Eixed in my mind was the image—chiefly established by Percy Lubbock’s Portrait of Edith Wharton in 1947 but dutifully perpetuated in other books and reminiscences—of Mrs. Wharton as a Victorian bluestocking, repressed and puritanical, whose only relationship with a man that held a seed of the romantic, never mind the erotic, was with the dry-souled patrician American lawyer Walter Berry. I eventually came to see that this image was composed of legend, distortion, and misrepresentation; but it took me the better part of eight years to work free of that legendary envelope, and I may not be fully liberated yet.

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. …

Because of such openness, Hugh had led me to believe, he had long since put the poem to the match.

Other love poems made their appearance, at Yale and Dumbarton Oaks, in rural France. Other documents were acquired from the archives of Fullerton’s Harvard College, from the office of Le Figaro , where he worked for a spell, from the Paris Herald . Kindly, elderly folk in New York, Paris, London, and Boston searched their memories for further data.

Yet one portion of the old legend still clung to my obstinate, condescending male mind. I could now date the affair with some precision, from the fall of 1907 to the summer of 1910, and I knew or thought I knew almost every move the lovers had made together. But I continued to assume that the erotic side of the relationship had been limited and conventional. Last fall, however, when I was making a final desultory look through the unfinished Wharton manuscripts in the Yale Library, I came upon the brief fragment of a novella called “Beatrice Palmato.” There are several startling aspects to this exquisitely written, quasi-pornographic little work—it has to do, overtly, with incest—but I could not doubt that the detailed account of the intense, imaginative, and skillful love play was based on well-remembered personal experience. I could now vouch for the fact that this could only be the experience with Fullerton. Morton Fullerton’s bragging letter of 1946, I had to conclude, and with the sense of freeing myself from the legend at last, was literally and entirely accurate.

The present little article is intended to be reportorial, not interpretive, so I will not speak to what is probably the most valuable result of the Fullerton discoveries—the insights into Edith Wharton’s writings that they led to, and the much better understanding of the post-Fullerton years of her life, indeed the entire pattern of her life.

The relation between fact and rumor, or image, had to be tested in other ways as well. The kind of thing I came across is suggested by a New Yorker obituary written in 1937, and reprinted in 1972, by the usually accurate and always interesting and eloquent Janet Planner (who writes under the pen name Genet). The seven-page piece is riddled with misstatements, most of them seemingly trivial matters of numbers and dates. They were not hard to correct, but it took a while for me to realize that these small factual errors helped to perpetuate a deprecating and false image of Edith Wharton’s later years.


In the obituary Edith Wharton is envisaged as an old lady who had retired once and for all “into a French country house and solitude.” Solitude? Edith Wharton’s diaries from 1920 to 193? (supplied by Ambassador Tyler) show an almost incredible flow of houseguests and more transient visitors. Miss Planner does name a few persons whom Edith Wharton came to know and treasure in France—the Paul Bourgets, Bernard Berenson, Geoffrey Scott, and others; but she also alludes in passing to “certain odd pedants in archeology and horticulture.” It’s not clear whether, among these pedants, there should be included such friends and guests as Kenneth Clark, Paul Valéry, André Gide, Aldous Huxley, A. E. Housman, and Bronislaw Malinowski. The general picture of Edith Wharton in her later years as a lonely old woman forgotten by much of the world dissolved with astonishing speed once one began to examine the evidence.

One of the perennial rumors about Edith Wharton—I traced it back at least to 1909, and there is some evidence that it may have started much earlier than that—was that she was illegitimate, the daughter not of George Frederic Jones of New York but of a young Englishman who lived in the Jones household around 1860 as the tutor of Edith’s older brothers. This allegation spurred intensive, far-flung, and finally quite fruitless inquiries; they added up to a lesson of sorts.

Every lead had so to speak a built-in refutation. One woman, now deceased, recalled Edith, while the two of them were driving through an English village, saying that her father had been born there; I had laboriously to ascertain that Edith and the other woman never once spent a moment together in Fingland. Another person was quoted as declaring that Edith was the very image of the young Englishman; but a comparison of documents and some careful arithmetic showed that this source had probably never laid eyes on the tutor. So it went. My researches led to a number of hidden scandals in old New York, including a lengthy adulterous affair featuring a female cousin of Edith’s own mother (exactly contemporary with the time of her mother’s alleged indiscretions), and it was all very entertaining. I was left to speculate why such a rumor should have arisen and have spread so far.

Another kind of image that grew up around Edith Wharton, as around other individuals of great accomplishment and imposing public personality, was the “comic image”—that is, accumulating anecdotes, constantly repeated with variations, about her lordly behavior and imperious responses. In one of them a Lenox matron, showing Edith about her home, observed: “And this I call my Louis XV room”; to which Edith, gazing about through her lorgnette (she never used a lorgnette), replied: “Why, my dear?” Characters like Henry James, Proust, and Mrs. Jack Gardner figured in these small tales, but almost all of them had unhappily to be labelled apocryphal. Yet, again, their very existence seemed suggestive.

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.)

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.


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