Edith Wharton’s Haunted Mansion (and Work Ethic)

Image Edith Wharton 

Though fully dressed and productively upright at her desk in the above photo, Wharton, of The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence fame, was one author fairly well-known for writing in bed. After breakfasting in bed she would take pen to paper for a few hours of work, dropping each finished page onto the floor to be retrieved by her personal assistant.

ImageWharton’s bed with arranged pages

I don’t think this vision has to be as decadent as it sounds, she just didn’t want finished pages in the sheets like so many cracker crumbs. It all leads me to wonder where her tiny dogs were during this process as Wharton was also known for her fondness for small dogs.

ImageEdith Wharton; 1889

I visited Wharton’s former home The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts last Halloween for a special “Haunted Tour”. The tour began at dusk in the stables and then wound through the darkening, though manicured, woods toward Wharton’s Italianate mansion. But first our little group stopped at the pet cemetery, a small mound on a little rise of a hill. We were told that the spot was visible from Wharton’s bedroom. That’s how much she loved her dogs! We were also told to watch out for orbs flitting between the trees and to take random pictures into the darkness. Just in case. The Mount was sold several times after Wharton relinquished it in the early 1900s. It was used as a girls’ school and the home of Shakespeare and Company from the mid 20th century on. Apparently all inhabitants through the decades reported their own tales of ghost sightings, noises, and voices. The television series Ghost Hunters even weighed-in on The Mount’s hauntings.

ImageThe Mount at dusk just before the haunted tour

The candlelit, haunted tour focused on Wharton’s strained and troubling relationship with her husband Teddy, who suffered from depression and perhaps more severe mental illness. The Italianate style mansion has a long corridor with grand rooms leading off to right and left. The common rooms are all situated with doors onto the veranda, which overlooks the grounds, formal gardens and a good-sized pond. At the time of its construction, Lenox was just becoming popular with the Rockefeller set and New York’s new money, as a respite from Newport, Rhode Island’s amped-up social scene. But still, the little town in western Mass would have been considered the boondocks to Wharton and was certainly so to Henry James, Wharton’s lifelong friend and expat, who chided her for The Mount’s rural locale. But without the local color and humble environs of Lenox, Wharton likely never would have written her classic story Ethan Frome. The lives of the characters in that small story juxtaposed with Wharton’s life at The Mount or in NewportImageWharton’s dining room at The Mount

 

demonstrate the very European class disparity in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the grandeur of Wharton’s homes, the luxury of writing in bed and taking car trips around New England with Henry James, the woman had a work ethic. If she didn’t, we’d likely not be taking pictures of her former home at dusk on Halloween night or looking for the ghosts of her dogs.

Check out this Vogue article written by Colm Toibin and photographed by Annie Leibovitz. A beautiful, full-color view of The Mount as it might appear with guests in attendance. 

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