Ode to a Fellow New Yorker: Edith Wharton January 24, 1862 - August 11, 1937

Edith Wharton at her writing desk in New York City in the 1930s

January is my birthday month that I share with my mother and grandfather. I am a native New Yorker who understands the ‘attitude’ of a New Yorker. Some would say, ‘brash, harsh or unfriendly’. This is not the case at all. You see New Yorkers are city folk who are always in a hurry trying to get to work, out with friends, dates, and back home again. We live in a thriving and overpopulated city where there is beauty and peacefulness it just depends on where you look! So, I strongly identify with female writers who happen to be New Yorkers with attitude or directness in writing. For instance, Dorothy Parker (who was born in my neighborhood) and Edith Wharton of course!

I have read two biographies on Edith Wharton where there are some similarities: she was an only child born to elderly parents who went to church on Sunday and when her family townhouse became too overcrowded with guests, she would escape to her upstairs bedroom where she was ‘compelled’ to write stories that were inside her and just had to come out; luckily for her readers! A fellow aquarian who was very close to her father and grandfather.  So, this is dedicated to my grandfather who gave me my love for history, who took me to all the best museums in New York City including some favorite haunts such as: an eight year old me holding my grandpa’s hand as we stand in the library room at The Morgan Library (maybe he knew something I didn’t), The Birthplace Museum of Theodore Roosevelt (a ten year old me asking a guard if the house was haunted and smiling at the discovery of the teddy bear being named after Teddy Roosevelt) and Fraunces Tavern Museum (a shared admiration for George Washington).  Happy Birthday Pop I hope you are looking down and smiling as you read this…

So this will not be a biographical overview of a female author born in the nineteenth century who was the first woman to receive The Pulitzer Prize. This article will be the highlights and memories of a little girl named Edith Jones who grew up in Manhattan who happened to write one of my most favored stories about a central character named Lily Bart whom I can identify with in ‘The House of Mirth’.

For a little girl named Edith Jones, one family member who stood out was her grandfather, Frederick William Rhinelander, because he loved to read. When he died in 1836 at the age of forty, however, his fortune was well depleted and Edith’s mother, Lucretia, and her brothers and sisters grew up in a kind of genteel poverty at the family place near Hell Gate on the East River. When Lucretia married George Frederic Jones, her fortunes improved:  He graduated from Columbia University yet never felt the need to work. His daughter, Edith, later suggested that her mother’s extravagance and her father’s fixed income led to difficult periods.

Edith Jones grew up in a Manhattan neighborhood near Washington Square at Eighth Street, Gramercy Park in the East Twenties, and Madison Square Park at Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue (the building still survives and is now a Starbucks…seriously!).  When Edith was born in 1862 in the house at 14 West twenty-third street, her brother Freddy was sixteen and Harry was eleven. During her childhood, they were often away at school; she was raised as an only child of elderly parents, with a large, socially prominent collection of cousins, aunts and uncles.

 childhood home of Edith Wharton, 14 W. 23rd Street, NYC

Their house was a four and a half story brownstone in the Italianate style. It had a low stoop of four steps that led up to double doors crowned by a massive pediment. Beyond the vestibule, which was probably “painted in Pompeian red, and frescoed with a frieze of stenciled lotus leaves”, were her father’s library, the conservatory, and the billiard room.

Upstairs on the second floor were the dining room and the drawing room, “a full blown specimen of Second Empire decoration, the creation of the fashionable French upholsterer, Marcotte.”  The floor length arched windows were “hung with three layers of curtain: sash curtains through which no eye from the street could possibly penetrate and next to these draperies of lace or embroidered tulle, richly beruffled and looped back under the velvet or damask hangings which were drawn in the evening.” In the drawing room were huge pieces of Dutch marquetry furniture and a table of “Louis Philippe buhl with ornate brass hands at the angles.” The table held a Mary Magdelene “minutely reproduced on copper,” and in the dining room a Domenichino “darkened the walls.”

Edith’s room was on the upper floor: there she could amuse herself by scribbling her stories and poems on the brown wrapping paper she had saved. She also stared out her window at the goings on at the Fifth Avenue Hotel (no longer there) across the street.

During the years Edith lived in New York with her parents, from 1872 to 1880, this enormous hotel was the center of the city’s social, business, and political life.  Visiting dignitaries stayed there: the Prince of Wales in 1860 and later Prince Napoleon.  Years later, Wharton’s short novel, ‘New Year’s Day’ opens with a couple being discovered in their affair as they escape the Fifth Avenue Hotel when a fire starts there. They are observed by “proper” New Yorkers, who, gathered for a family New Year’s party, watch the fire from the windows of a house on Twenty Third Street.

Edith’s memories of her mother Lucretia are of constant competition and power struggles. Unable to share the child’s “secret life of the imagination,” Lucretia was the insensitive enemy of the reading and solitude that nourished it. Mother and daughter struggled over trying to make Edith “like other children”.  Lucretia would invite them over to play, only to have Edith disappear because she wanted to be alone to “make up” stories:

“I used to struggle on as long as I could against my perilous obsession, and then, when the ‘pull’ became too strong, I would politely ask my unsuspecting companions to excuse me.”

Leaving her mother to cope with the “nice little girls,” Edith would rush to shut herself up in her mother’s bedroom, where she:

“poured out the accumulated floods of my pent-up eloquence. Oh, the exquisite relief of those moments of escape…the rapture of finding myself again in my own rich world of dreams!”

One could imagine the scoldings she received for such bad manners.

Edith and her father, George Frederick Jones, were very close. He lived through his eyes as his daughter later would. From an early age he took her to visit art galleries, walk in the gardens, and tour palaces and classical ruins. In his diary he notes during an 1848 trip that Pompeii was the most interesting place in Europe. He visited the Colosseum in the moonlight (as have I) and he traveled with the words of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold in his mind. He loved the things his daughter would later care for.

Edith’s last trip she made with her father was an important memory because he died in Cannes in the early spring of 1882 after being stricken by paralysis. Years later, she wrote,

“I am still haunted by the look in his dear blue eyes, which had followed me so tenderly for nineteen years, and now tried to convey the goodbye messages he could not speak.”

His not being able to say goodbye prompted her to write:

“I doubt if life holds a subtler anguish.”

With her father’s death, Edith lost the companion who had taught her to read, who had taken her to church, the theater, and had been with her in all the important places. She remembered all her life,

“the tall splendid father who was always so kind, and whose strong arms lifted one so high, and held one so safely.”
 me and my pop

Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life, An Illustrated Biography by Eleanor Dwight, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1994

Please feel free to leave any questions or comments,


Anonymous said…
Kimberly, you wrote such a beautiful article about the love of your grandpa and respect and admiration for Edith Wharton. Thanks for sharing such personal memories that brought tears to my eyes and Happy Birthday!~ Maggie Peters
Anonymous said…
I just found your blog and you write interesting articles. I really like them. I've read Age of Innocence after seeing the movie which I really liked. I always wanted to visit New York City. Thank you for sharing such wonderful memories on your birthday. Sally
Kimberly Eve said…
Maggie and Sally thank you both for taking the time to stop by read my article and leave such lovely words. It means so much.
Outerbankschick said…
Thanks for posting this! Edith Wharton's "The Age Of Innocence" is one of my favorite books. Both of my copies are quite dog-eared because I've read them over and over again. Thanks for this glimpse into her childhood.

I identify so much with that need for solitude, to just get away from people and let the stories spill out. (I'm thinking most writers have felt this way at one time or another!)
Anonymous said…
What a beautiful tribute to Edith Wharton and Max. It was an emotional experience for me to read it. He was a special guy and I know how much you loved him, and vice versa. He's watching over you and smiling - and probably has some clever remark or joke to keep us laughing! I know he's very proud of you, as is your mom and Anita. Happy Birthday to you! gigigirl
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Outerbankschick, I loved Age of Innocence too. I'm so glad you enjoyed my article and yes I'm sure most writers would agree about the 'need to write and have your stories spill out'! Thank you so much for commenting.

Hi gigigirl, I was so emotional writing this one as you can tell! Your sweet words made me cry but how wonderful for you to visit. Yes, Happy Birthday to us :)
Lisa said…
what a lovely memory of Edith and her father and of your own father. I am glad someone has written a bit about her life and even had some photos. Edith's novels about New York are filled with such detail. I love "The Age of Innocence" and "The House of Mirth." I also liked "Ethan Frome," but it has to be one of the saddest stories I have ever read. The other novel I read by her was "The Children." Even then divorce and remarriage led to a lot of strange mixed up families. I hope to read more of her work.
Kimberly Eve said…
Thanks for visiting and commenting Lisa.
Edith Wharton wrote so many incredible
novels and she had an interesting life!