Thursday, September 30, 2004

From a long article by Charles McGrath on Edith Wharton's New York (from the New York Times; free registration required):

On Wharton's map, civilization ends north of Central Park, except for satellites in Newport, Rhinebeck and Tuxedo Park. Her New York is very slender — it stretches from Third Avenue to Sixth, essentially — and its center is what is now the campus of New York University. If Steinberg had drawn Wharton's New York, he would have shown it from the point of view of someone looking through the Washington Square Arch.

. . . . .

Besides the north-south axis, the other great demarcation in Wharton's New York is the one dividing east from west. The East Side is where the fashionable young people live, like Lawrence Selden from "The House of Mirth," who has rooms at the Benedick, at 50th and Madison, or Newland and May Archer, who after their wedding settle in a brand-new house on East 39th, a neighborhood both remote and a little experimental, where the younger architects are beginning to use "ghastly greenish yellow stone . . . as a protest against the brownstone of which the uniform hue coated New York like a cold chocolate sauce."

The West Side is where the vulgar hotels are; it's also where the poor and the oddballs live, like the inhabitants of the strange little neighborhood on West 23rd where Madame Olenska briefly resides in "The Age of Innocence": "small dressmakers, bird-stuffers and `people who wrote.' " The farther west you go, apparently, the more things run down; Lily Bart's downfall is so complete that she winds up living in a boarding house so many blocks west of Sixth that the railings are no longer painted and garbage is carelessly strewn around.

Not a lot of real work gets done in Wharton's New York — except by the seamstresses in the workroom at Madame Regina's renowned millinery establishment, where Lily briefly finds employment. Some of the younger men, like Newland Archer, dabble at legal careers, but not so seriously that they can't take months off to go to Europe or to Newport. This is a world that is financed for the most part by inherited wealth, and where people from the middle and working classes are seldom glimpsed. Even the servants are invisible, and so is the bustle of immigrant life that so impressed Wharton's contemporary William Dean Howell[s].
From the (Glasgow) Herald:

GLASGOW's lord provost, Liz Cameron, is hoping that the annual conference of the Association of Film Commissioners International coming to Glasgow will mean even more films being shot in the city. She named House of Mirth, based on Edith Wharton's Victorian novel, as her favourite movie filmed in Glasgow.
"Glasgow became nineteenth-century New York," recalled Liz, whose City Chambers office was transformed into a New York hotel bedroom. "Nothing saucy happened," she assures us. "Edith Wharton stories aren't like that … and I wasn't there."

Sunday, September 12, 2004

From The New York Times: "Edith Wharton: A Manhattan Literary Giant Who Didn't Love New York" (free registration required).

(Includes pictures of Wharton's houses)

Edith Newbold Jones, as she was called at birth, was born in 1862 to George Frederic Jones and his wife, the former Lucretia Rhinelander, both from genteel families with roots in 18th century New York. In 1857 they built a brownstone at 14 West 23rd Street. The house as the family knew it is long gone, but an early photograph shows a wide, Anglo-Italianate-style brownstone mansion four stories high, with rusticated stone on the ground floor and simple window moldings on the floors above. The Jones house had a certain repose about it — it might have been designed by a master builder, or perhaps even a real architect.

Still, the young Wharton was apparently not impressed. Combined with New York's unimaginative grid plan, the relentless rows compared poorly with London, Paris and other European cities, she said in her 1933 memoir, "A Backward Glance." In her opinion, all that brownstone rendered New York "hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness."

. . .

After George Jones's death, Edith and her mother moved to a lesser row house at 28 West 25th Street. They were living there in March of 1885 when Edith married Edward Robbins Wharton, from Boston. The New York Times noted her nickname, saying that the bride had been "better known as Miss Pussy Jones," and called her one of the "Washington-square" set — apparently a reference to her long family history in New York.

After their marriage, the Whartons lived abroad, in Newport, and occasionally in New York, in a succession of buildings, including a row house at 884 Park Avenue, between 78th and 79th Street. Although she was often abroad, Wharton had to be in New York to collaborate with the architect Ogden Codman on her first important book, "The Decoration of Houses," published in 1897, a rejection of the heavy Victorian mansions of her parents' era.

. . .

Like nearly all of the other known homes of Edith Wharton in New York, 884 Park has been demolished, but the stable she used while on Park still survives, at 111 East 77th Street. It has some delicate little stone carving around the windows, but she bought the stable already completed, so it is doubtful her hand is evident in the design.

. . .

The Jones family house on 23rd Street was altered repeatedly and is now unrecognizable outside. The house at 28 West 25th Street was demolished, but anyone who seeks to recapture a touch of Edith Wharton's New York should still visit the south side of the street, west of Broadway, where she lived with her mother until her marriage in 1885.

From there the young Edith Jones looked across the street to what is now the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Sava, at 15 West 25th Street. In 1885 it was Trinity Chapel, and it was there she married. A visitor can usually peek into St. Sava on Sundays, when services are held at 10:30 a.m., and the interior has hardly changed since the Jones-Wharton wedding. Outside, the front steps sag with the weight of generations, but on her wedding day, Edith Jones would probably not have gone in through this door — only out.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

From The Boston Globe:

This weekend, though, fans of the public Newport can get glimpses of the private Newport, in its gardens if not in its homes. A tour organized by the group Benefactors of the Arts has gained access to the grounds of the New York Yacht Club and six private gardens, including one owned by retired US senator Claiborne Pell and his wife, Nuala, and another across the street that was once owned by author Edith Wharton.
Maureen Dowd in

Becky Sharp is not Dowd's favorite heroine, nor is "Vanity Fair" her favorite book. That honor goes to the Edith Wharton novel whose tragic class- hopping heroine, Lily Bart, she compares to a certain ex-president.

"My favorite book is 'The House of Mirth' because it reminds me of Washington. It's a very tight little society. You make one false step, and they can kick you down," she said. "The Clinton impeachment was like that. He's like the heroine in 'The House of Mirth' -- you make one false move that shouldn't really ruin your life ..."