Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862- August 11, 1937) was born into a family who was, at the time, considered to be the epitome of “Old New York,” — the New York that revolved around Washington Square, and whose citizens could trace their ancestors directly back to the old Dutch settlers or English merchants, and who were one of the “400” (the number of people who could fit into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom). She belonged to the tiny, powerful clan of New Yorkers who made and enforced the tightly controlled rules for the lives and mores of society in Manhattan from its epicenter in Greenwich Village.
This was a time when women were discouraged from achieving anything beyond a proper marriage. Wharton broke through these strictures to become one of America’s greatest writers. Author of The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, she wrote over 40 books in 40 years, including authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design, and travel. She was the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize (1921) for Fiction (The Age of Innocence), an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University, and a full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones, the third child and only daughter of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Rhinelander Jones. Their residence at the time of her birth was a house at 14 West 23rd Street (since replaced by a cast-iron loft building).
Like many women and girls at the time, Edith was schooled at home. She began her literary career at the age of 10 when her parents engaged a talented governess by the name of Anna Bahlmann. While it was not normally allowed for girls of that time, Edith was given access to her father’s extensive library, and at age 16, thanks to the support of her governess, a volume of her poems, Verses, was published privately.
In 1882, at the age of 20, Edith’s father passed away and she moved with her mother to 7 Washington Square North.
At 23 Edith was still unmarried, which was considered a social disaster at the time. As her father had passed away, and as the mores dictated at the time, she either needed to be wed or be relegated to the “old maid” dustbin of society. She was eventually married in 1887 to Edward Wharton, an attractive and kindly man of leisure from a similar social background. However, he had none of her artistic or intellectual interests, and their marriage was unhappy. They managed to keep themselves occupied in their early married years mainly with travel and with their beloved dogs.
The Wharton’s summers were spent in Newport, R.I. at the mansion called Land’s End. It was there that Edith began to nourish her penchant for design. Her first major book, co-authored with architect and interior designer Ogden Codman, Jr., was a successful non-fiction work on design and architecture, The Decoration of Houses” (1897).
While the Whartons split their time between New York City and Newport, the social scene at the latter location became tiresome to Edith. The Berkshires, on the other hand, were growing in popularity and would soon see their own Gilded Age boom. In 1901 Edith and Edward purchased 113 acres in Lenox, Massachusetts which would become home to ‘The Mount.’ Edith was the designer of the mansion and was involved in every detail, inside and outside. It became the ultimate place for Edith’s creativity to flourish, and she and Edward moved there in September 1902.
The Wharton’s sold The Mount in 1911 and divorced in 1913. Edith moved to France to both free herself of the lifelong social constraints imposed upon her, and to pursue her writing. With thousands of miles and an ocean separating her, Edith Wharton could view her life and the society of her “Old New York” Greenwich Village peers from the unique perspective that ultimately earned her a vaunted place in American Arts and Letters.