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The Life and Work of Edith Lewis

The long-term partnership between Willa Cather and Edith Lewis has been reflected on and written about as a symbol of female empowerment and LGBTQ+ history for years. Today, we reflect on Edith as the close companion of Willa Cather and the many chapters of her life. 

Edith Lewis was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on December 22nd, 1882. As a child, she attended school in Nebraska, eventually leaving the state for a college education in Massachusetts. While enrolled at Smith College, Lewis majored in English. Upon graduation, she returned to Nebraska to teach elementary school. During this period of her life, she met Willa Cather and moved to New York City. Following her arrival in New York, Lewis settled into a studio on Washington Square and began to work for the Century Publishing Company. By 1906, Willa Cather had encouraged her to apply for a position at McClure Magazine as an editorial proofreader. 

University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Edith Lewis

McClure’s Magazine was a monthly illustrated publication that ran from 1893 to 1929. This magazine had a reputation of one of the first publications to partake in muckraking journalism. One prevalent example of its work included the piece written by Ida Tarbell in 1903 about John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company. By 1912, Willa and Edith had left McClure’s Magazine and moved into 5 Bank Street.

In August of 1915, Edith joined Willa for a trip to Colorado after starting a new role at Every Week. They were left stranded in the Mesa Verde National Park of Colorado. The New York Times reported that the two were brought to exhaustion by a strenuous trek and an inexperienced guide. Luckily, both Edith and Willa were found and brought back to safety. Edith continued to work for Every Week until the magazine shut down in 1918. She eventually found a new role as an advertising copywriter for the J. Walter Thompson Company. 

New York Times, 1915

By age 37, Edith purchased the land that would eventually host her and Willa’s summer cottage on Grand Manan Island. In 1927, when they lost their Bank Street apartment to subway construction, they finally moved to the Grosvenor Hotel at 35 Fifth Avenue and 10th Street (now NYU’s Rubin Hall dorm). From the hotel, the two finally put down roots at 570 Park Avenue. This apartment eventually became their primary residence, but the two continuously summered in Grand Manan. During these summer stays, Willa Cather authored some of her best work, including “Tom Outland’s Story” and “A Lost Lady,” which were likely edited and proofread by her confidant, Edith. 

Willa Cather and Edith Lewis

After Willa passed away, Edith drafted her memoir, “Willa Cather Living,” published in 1953. As Willa’s editor and eventual executor of her literary estate, Edith can be considered an essential element of her success. Edith continued to live at 570 Park Avenue until her death in 1972. Much like they were in life, Willa and Edith are still together, buried next to each other at the Old Burying Ground in New Hampshire.

Learn more about Willa here.

You can also read more about Edith Lewis in “The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis,” by Melissa Homestead, Director of the Cather Project at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

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