Saturday, September 01, 2012

Edith Wharton in Vogue

On a slope overlooking the dark waters and densely wooded shores of Laurel Lake we built a spacious and dignified house,” Edith Wharton wrote about The Mount, the estate which she created in the early years of the twentieth century in Lenox, Massachusetts. Among those in her inner circle who came to stay—President Theodore Roosevelt, diplomat Walter Berry, and sculptor Daniel Chester French, whose studio, Chesterwood, was nearby—was her spacious and dignified friend Henry James, who, writing to a mutual friend, described it as “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.”
Read our behind-the-scenes interviews with the actors, artists, and writers who brought to life Edith Wharton's world in Vogue.

Wharton planned each detail of the interior and the gardens with meticulous care, bossing architects (including Ogden Codman, Jr., to whom she became close), designers, and gardeners with her customary firmness. She had strong opinions on the subject: In 1897, she’d written, with Codman, Jr., the classic text The Decoration of Houses; and her 1904 book,Italian Villas and Their Gardens, illustrated by her friend, the painter Maxfield Parrish, would become an influential treatise on garden design. All the rooms on the main floor opened onto a long gallery with a vaulted ceiling and Italian furniture. The servants’ wing had a hydraulic elevator. While the house was filled with European influences inspired by her travels in France, Italy, and England, Wharton also integrated features of the American colonial style, including green shutters on all the windows and a striped awning over the center of the terrace. 

Occupying more than 100 acres, the property included a drive lined with sugar maple trees, an English-style meadow, an American suburban lawn, gravel walks, an elaborate rock garden, fountains, and terraces with views over the lake. There was also a kitchen garden (designed by Wharton’s niece, Beatrix Farrand) and a working farm. Wharton lived in the house in the summer and fall between 1903 and 1908, all the time overseeing improvements and fresh plantings. “Really,” she wrote, “it looks, for a fleeting moment, like a garden in some civilized climate.” At The Mount, she could also indulge her passion for dogs, among them Toto, Miza, and Jules, all eventually buried in a graveyard on the grounds. 

Since her marriage to Teddy Wharton was deteriorating, she arranged for herself and her husband to have separate but adjoining bedrooms, and since her priority was privacy and work, she created a suite of rooms for herself alone, including a space where she could write in peace, even when she had guests. The money was hers, which gave her freedom in her marriage. Most of it was inherited, but she also earned from her books, and made a great deal more once she could sell film rights. During all of the years except one when she lived at The Mount, patiently assisted by her German tutor turned literary secretary, Anna Bahlmann, she published at least one new book a year—a novel, a collection of stories, or travel sketches.

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