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Happy birthday, Edith Wharton!

New York’s finest author (to my mind) was born into the uppertens 160 years ago, and wound up giving us some of the most indelible writing about the city, including The Age of InnocenceThe House of Mirth, and countless Manhattan-centric short stories. Her engrossing memoir, A Backward Glance, has become a classic.

In her autobiography, we learn of her pampered childhood, at which time she could comb through her father’s library but was forbidden by her mother to  read novels because that wasn’t something young ladies did. Edith Newbold Jones grew up in a brownstone at 14 West 23 Street, a relation of the Rensselaers and Astors, at a time when this constituted the best part of town. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is said to refer to her father’s family.

She was only four when she started what she called “making up,” inventing stories for her family. She attempted to write a novel at age eleven, but when her mother expressed her disapproval “Pussy Jones” turned to poetry, earning publication in numerous literary mags under an assumed name. Her interest in writing fiction couldn’t be impeded, though, and at 15 she secretly wrote a novella called Fast and Loose. She indulged her passion for dogs throughout her life.

Her mother looked more favorably on debuting Wharton in society, and she came out in 1879 at a December dance given by a New York society matron, with her shoulders bare and her hair arranged in a fashionable up-do. Clothes and visits and calling cards were everything.

Edith Wharton expressed the painful self consciousness she felt at her debut, remembering that for her: “the evening was a long cold agony of shyness. All my brother’s friends asked me to dance, but I was too much frightened to accept, and cowered beside my mother in speechless misery, unable even to exchange a word with the friendly young men.”

Dance cards were employed, and a man was never supposed to dance more than once with each partner.

Wharton described a typical scene at a ball.

“Couples were already gliding over the floor beyond: the light of the wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed with modest blossoms, on the dashing aigrettes and ornaments of the young married women’s coiffures, and on the glitter of highly glazed shirt-fronts and fresh glace gloves.”

Then she met a well-bred Boston man, Edward Robbins (Teddy) Wharton, who was 12 years her senior, married him in 1885 at the age of 23, and together they set up house in Newport. They travelled in Europe (she eventually crossed the Atlantic 60 times) and bought a Park Avenue, New York home in 1897. Teddy suffered depression and other seemingly undiagnosed mental problems, and they eventually divorced.

The Mount, Wharton’s estate in Lenox, was purchased in 1902. She wrote the first of her new York chronicles, The House of Mirth, there in 1905. That is my favorite of her books, and ends (spoiler alert) with a knock-em-dead death scene.

She entertained in Lenox too, including hosting her good friend Henry James, who described the place as “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.” There are some funny stories about their trips out motoring together when the automobile was new. She also visited James in England, recalling how the two of them sat by a ditch at Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. “For a long time no one spoke,” she wrote, “then James turned to me and said solemnly: ‘Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.’” Kudos to James for the wonderful thought and to Wharton for capturing it for posterity.

Despite not publishing her first novel until she was forty, Wharton’s canon was extensive: 15 novels, 7 novels and 85 short stories, poetry, books on design, travel, literary and cultural criticism and a memoir. Her Pulitzer came for The Age of Innocence, published in 1920. (In case you were wondering, as I was, Scott Fitzgerald never got a Pulitzer and Hemingway didn’t get his until The Old Man and The Sea in the 1950s.) She was the first American woman to garner a Pulitzer.

For The Age of Innocence, she drew upon the experiences of her childhood. Her great-aunt Mary Mason Jones – personified as Mrs. Manson Mingott in the novel — built a row of mansions on Fifth Avenue bet. 58th and 57th Streets, completing them in 1870. A remarkably independent, wealthy, well-travelled woman, she had had the first bathtub in New York installed in her home on Chambers Street, and her choice of venue for her new residence was equally offbeat. The buildings were constructed of gleaming white marble, with a two-story mansard roof that had green copper trim.

The feat of bringing about these architectural gems and then living there is remarkable when you realize that in that era, north of the reservoir stretched a still undeveloped city. If you look at a picture made in 1863,  facing south from the site of what would become Central Park, you can see the still-pastoral nature of uptown.

Fifth Avenue, to the left, heads determinedly north, flanked by buildings in its lower reaches but by nothing but fields and cattle farther up. A few homes dot the landscape, but more dominant are the ungainly freestanding charitable institutions that would not be accommodated farther downtown. You can see the massive shapes of St. Luke’s Hospital, between 54th and 55th Streets, and the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. Behind St. Luke’s stands the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was attacked in the horrific week-long Draft Riots of 1863 (five years after this image was made). Saint Patrick’s, the landmark we associate with midtown Fifth Avenue, was not begun until 1858.

Wharton describes Mingott in the novel: “It was her habit to sit in a window of her sitting–room on the ground floor, as if watching calmly for life and fashion to flow northward to her solitary doors. She seemed in no hurry to have them come, for her patience was equalled by her confidence. She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries, the one–story saloons, the wooden green–houses in ragged gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene, would vanish before the advance of residences as stately as her own—perhaps (for she was an impartial woman) even statelier; and that the cobble–stones over which the old clattering omnibuses bumped would be replaced by smooth asphalt, such as people reported having seen in Paris. Meanwhile, as every one she cared to see came to HER (and she could fill her rooms as easily as the Beauforts, and without adding a single item to the menu of her suppers), she did not suffer from her geographic isolation.”

Those hoardings, quarries, saloons and goats were quite realistic descriptions of the acreage that would one day become Central  Park.

About her literary experience, Wharton said: “What is writing a novel like? The beginning: a ride through a spring wood. The middle: the Gobi desert. The end: a night with a lover.”

When I visited The Mount I was impressed that the people there had gone to the trouble of traveling the world to track down the books Wharton originally owned, so that the library there presents an accurate picture of her life. I didn’t know it then and it even seems a little odd but Whitman was one of her favorite writers. She recalled that when she was young, “Leaves of Grass was kept under lock and key, and brought out…only in the absence of ‘the ladies’ to whom the name of Walt Whitman was unmentionable, if not utterly unknown.” Later she realized the truth:  “He sees through the layers of the conventional point of view and of the conventional adjective, straight to the thing itself…and to the endless thread connecting it with the universe.”

Despite Wharton’s restrained upbringing and allegiance to the cultural mores of her day, her brilliance allowed her to grasp the truth at the heart of a vastly different writer.

Interested in the Gilded Age? Please go to the Books tab on this site, click on Savage Girl and then on the essays I offer there. Or read Savage Girl, a mystery about a wild girl who comes of age at the end of the 19th century, or Love, Fiercely, my biography of two of the more notable figures of that age, Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes.

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