Visiting Celebrated Novelist Edith Wharton’s Estate in Lenox, Mass
By Rachael McGrath
In the early 1990’s I happened upon an article in the local weekly newspaper about the beloved Berkshire troupe, Shakespeare & Company, putting on a production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream on the terraces of Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount in rural Massachusetts.
At that time, Shakespeare & Co. was renting the mansion from the non-profit Edith Wharton Restoration, Inc. Some of the actors lived in the upstairs bedrooms, and the troupe was putting on plays downstairs in the drawing room and courtyard. The home, long neglected, was famously crumbling around them.
A naturally gifted storyteller, Wharton chronicled the expectations placed on women in her upper-class society. Her stories were notable for their vividness, honesty, satire and subtle irony.
In the late 1990’s, the non-profit group Edith Wharton Restoration, Inc. raised the money needed to begin the painstaking work of restoring the home and the Shakespeare & Company renters moved out, taking their terrace performances with them.
We met with House Manager Laurie Foote for a private tour on Saturday, July 21. I had visited the Mount on a previous trip, but Max had not. Laurie started out at the main entrance, pointing out the perfect symmetry of the windows on the facade of the house.
In addition to being a celebrated novelist, Wharton was also a home designer.
Her book, “The Decoration of Houses”, co-authored with her friend Ogden Codman, was published before any of her famous novels and is still considered an important work in the field.
It primarily promoted classical design and simplicity as a contrast to Gilded Age architecture and excess.
During the Gilded Age, many “cottages” were built in the Berkshires. Summer homes for the New York and Newport elite, some of these cottages had 30+ rooms. The region was sometimes referred to as “Inland Newport”, and hundreds of these summer homes were built in the rolling landscape of the Berkshire Hills.
Edith Wharton’s home was designed by her in the Georgian Revival style, overlooking a small wood and Laurel Lake.
Wharton preferred to entertain intimate groups at her estate and designed the grounds to allow privacy. Visitors enter the property on a half mile driveway lined with sugar maples.
Marriage and The Mount
Wharton and her husband moved into this home in 1902, and she began her career as an author. During those years at The Mount, Wharton penned many of her famous works, including The House of Mirth.
On the tour, Laurie took us to Wharton’s bedroom, where she did most of her writing. A little-known fact about Edith Wharton was that despite having an office, she did most of her writing from bed. Her morning schedule was to write from 9 am – noon, Laurie told us. When she finished a page, it was allowed to flutter to the floor and the secretary would collect the pages and type them up.
In the evenings, Wharton often entertained the cream of American literary society, as well as important figures like Teddy Roosevelt and painter Maxfield Parrish.
Her close friend Henry James was a frequent visitor to The Mount. He described the estate as “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond”.
“The Mount was to give me country cares and joys, long happy rides and drives through the wooded lanes of that loveliest region, the companionship of dear friends, and the freedom from trivial obligations, which was necessary if I was to go on with my writing. The Mount was my first real home . . . its blessed influence still lives in me.” – Edith Wharton, 1934
The peace at The Mount was crucial to Wharton’s success as a writer and humanitarian.
Her bedroom windows offer a beautiful view of the Italian gardens surrounding the house and visitors can imagine her propped up in bed with a tray, writing the stories that gave us a glimpse into the real lives of the Gilded Age elite.
She once wrote in a letter to her lover, Morton Fullerton: “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.”
The Mount’s location on a ledge overlooking Laurel Lake offers dramatic views of the house from the gardens.
It is clear to us that Edith Wharton had two main loves: writing and gardening.
The Italian walled garden is sumptuous with its fountain, which used to spray 20 feet into the air. Laurie informed us that Wharton often made use of the sound of water in her landscape designs and the fountain could be heard from the terrace.
Around the corner from Wharton’s bedroom, the space in the library is hushed and reverent. In 2005, Edith Wharton’s library was purchased from a private collector in England and returned to The Mount. Annotations in the volumes offer a window into her world.
Visitors can schedule a private library tour by contacting The Mount.
Downstairs, the kitchen and scullery are bright and cheery. Wharton had a dedicated, loyal staff for her home.
Upstairs, the plaster ceiling in the sweeping parlor has been restored. The peach walls in the dining room are calm and pleasing, showcasing more of the decorative plaster work.
War Relief in France
Teddy and Edith divorced in 1911. The Mount was sold and Wharton relocated to France. During her time in France, World War I began and she plunged at once into relief work. With a budget of $280 francs raised by her friends, she began a program to house and feed women who had been left unemployed by the war.
From these humble beginnings, Wharton’s charities expanded to include homes for refugees, including 600 Belgian refugee children.
The Age of Innocence is her best-known novel, written in a six month period in 1919-20, after the war. It was published in 1920. In 1921, she became the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In 1924, she also became the first woman to be awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Yale University.
Edith Wharton died in France in 1937. She was buried very near to longtime friend Walter Berry. He had been her lifetime companion, pen pal, traveling partner and confidant. The pair had considered marrying earlier in their lives, but let it pass. When he passed away in 1912, she said, “All my life goes with him.”
“I cannot picture what the life of the spirit would have been to me without him. He found me when my mind and soul were hungry and thirsty, and he fed them till our last hour together.”
It was one of her last wishes to be buried next to him.
Every aspect of The Mount – from the architectural design to the gardens – evokes the spirit of Edith Wharton. There is much to learn and discover here, even for those who haven’t read her novels.
Years after her move to France, she remarked: “It was only at The Mount that I was truly happy.”
Visitors can tour The Mount daily, tours begin on the hour at 11 am. Admission is $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and $13 for students. The last tour of the day is at 4 pm, and occasionally the home closes early for weddings and special events.
During the summer months, there are events and live music weekly on the terrace.