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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Biography: Edith Wharton

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Edith Newbold Jones Wharton was born January 24th, 1862 in her family’s New York City home, where they would reside in the winter while summers were spent in Newport, Rhode Island. At the tender age of four, Wharton left New York with her family to travel for the next six years throughout France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

On April 29th, 1885, at the age of 23, Edith Jones married Edward R. Wharton in Trinity Chapel in New York City. During her marriage to Teddy, she met and befriended fellow author Henry James, who would remain a close confidant until his death 1916. In 1909, Teddy admitted to embezzling funds from his wife’s lucrative earnings to set up a luxury apartment in Boston for his mistress. The couple divorced in 1913.

Edith Wharton was a woman ahead of her time. Her forty year writing career yielded 40 books that included the novels The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth. What is most interesting about Edith Wharton was her passion for architecture, design and landscaping. In 1902, she designed and had built her dream home in Lenox, Massachusetts named for her great grandfather’s estate, The Mount. According to Henry James, “No one fully knows our Edith who hasn't seen her in the act of creating a habitation for herself.” This beautiful home & surrounding gardens, located 2 hours west of Boston, is a living tribute to Wharton’s desire for a home that “would meet her needs as designer, gardener, hostess, and above all, writer.” As she stated in a letter to a friend, “I am amazed at the success of my efforts. Decidedly, I'm a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth. . . "

Edith Wharton was a pioneer. In 1920 she received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the Age of Innocence. Wharton received an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University and became a full member in the American Academy of Arts & Letters. She was the first woman to receive these honors.

It was her work during World War One that earned her the most accolades. Wharton organized and ran an American Hostel for refugees in Paris and established and ran the Children of Landers foundation which cared for Belgian orphans. In 1915, Wharton was awarded the title of Chevalier or Knight of the French Legion of Honor. She was also named Chevalier of the Order of Leopold by the Belgian government in 1919 in recognition of her work during the war.

Edith Wharton, novelist, humanitarian, scholar and friend passed away on August 11th, 1937 after a severe stroke. She was traveling abroad at the time and was buried in the Cimetiere des Gonards in Versailles France.

The literature she left behind describes the gilded age of Old New York society in daring detail. Many of Wharton’s novels have been taken from the page to the screen. One of the most successful attempts was the 1993 version of The Age of Innocence directed by Martin Scorsese. This beautifully acted film reminds us modern readers that the world in which this society existed was one based on honor, duty and family responsibilities that tried to keep passions and spontaneity hidden. “In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…” (Book One, Chapter 6 from the Age of Innocence)

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