In 1921, Edith Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Age of Innocence. This poignant story about 1870s New York society depicts the emotional affair between Newland Archer, a married lawyer, and Countess Ellen Olenska, his wife's enigmatic (and rather scandalous) cousin. The Age of Innocence was serialized in four parts in the Pictorial Review in 1920, and D. Appleton & Company published it in book form before the year was out. Here are some things you might not know about Wharton, a well-traveled Gilded Age socialite who became a literary icon.
1. Edith Wharton almost died of typhoid fever when she was 9 years old.
Born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862 in New York City, Wharton toured Europe as a child with her parents and two older brothers. In 1870, her family, whose fortune came from real estate, visited Bad Wildbad, a German spa town. Not only did the typhoid fever she caught there nearly kill her, but the ghost stories she read while recuperating gave her terrible nightmares. For years, Wharton would only sleep in a room with a maid present and a light on.
2. Edith Wharton’s 28-year marriage was a tumultuous one.
In 1885, when she was 23 years old, Edith married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton at Manhattan’s Trinity Chapel Complex. Teddy, who was 12 years older than his wife, was a Harvard graduate and sportsman who lived off his trust fund. In an early sign of incompatibility, their sex life apparently ended less than a month into the marriage. Later, Teddy’s manic depression and embezzlement from her trust fund to buy his mistress a Boston apartment created more problems. He was institutionalized in 1912 and Wharton divorced him in 1913.
3. Edith Wharton designed her palatial country house in Massachusetts.
When Wharton wasn’t traveling through Italy or France with Teddy, the couple resided in Newport, Rhode Island until 1901. Then Wharton purchased 113 acres in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she built The Mount. Overlooking Laurel Lake, this stately home with manicured gardens and a Georgian-revival stable reflects her distinctive architectural tastes. In a letter to her lover Morton Fullerton, Wharton quipped: “Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist."
4. Edith Wharton published her first novel when she was 40.
Wharton had published poetry and short stories before The Valley of Decision came out in 1902. The historical romance, set in Italy before the 1789 French Revolution, sold some 25,000 copies in half a year. This commercial success paved the way for Wharton’s classic pre-World War I novels, including The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911).
5. During World War I, Edith Wharton tirelessly supported France’s war effort.
Before World War I broke out, Wharton—an unabashed Francophile—had become a permanent Paris resident. Instead of returning to America, the dynamic divorcée set up sewing workshops, opened hostels for Belgian refugees fleeing German invaders, and wrote dispatches from the front lines. The French government awarded her the Legion of Honor in 1917. Today, a street is named after Wharton in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, in northern France, where she died in 1937 at age 75.
6. Edith Wharton was friends with Theodore Roosevelt and Henry James.
Theodore Roosevelt, who makes a cameo in The Age of Innocence, met Wharton on a visit to Newport. She lunched with the 26th President of the United States at the White House and corresponded with him for years. Henry James was Wharton’s longtime literary idol, and after he sent her an admiring note about her short story “The Line of Least Resistance,” they became close friends.
7. Edith Wharton wasn’t big on James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.
Wharton described James Joyce’s Ulysses—named the top English-language novel of the 20th century by Modern Library in 1998—as “a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & unformed & unimportant drivel.” Also, she called Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway a “flow of gelatinous mass” and a “formless rush of sensation."
8. Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize was originally supposed to go to Sinclair Lewis.
The Pulitzer Prize jury chose Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a bleak satire on small-town Minnesota life. However, the trustees at Columbia University, which administers the prize, overruled the jury, stating that The Age of Innocence better expressed “the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood."
9. Edith Wharton's unfinished novel The Buccaneers was completed decades later by another writer.
When Wharton died, she’d written about 89,000 words of The Buccaneers, which was published unfinished in 1938. Marion Mainwaring, who did research for R.B.W. Lewis’s Pulitzer-winning 1976 Wharton biography, added another 33,000 words to complete the novel about American women seeking husbands in London. Both Mainwaring’s 1993-published update and a 1995 BBC mini-series—written separately by Maggie Wadey and starring Mira Sorvino and Carla Gugino—received praise but also some flak for their supposedly un-Wharton-esque happy endings.
10. There’s no shortage of movie and TV versions of Edith Wharton’s books.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder star in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of The Age of Innocence (1993). Noted for its attention to period detail, it earned an Oscar for Best Costume Design and a rave review from Roger Ebert. Liam Neeson plays the enigmatic title character in Ethan Frome (1993) alongside Joan Allen and Patricia Arquette. Gillian Anderson portrays a New York socialite in tragic decline in The House of Mirth (2000). Stay tuned for Sofia Coppola’s series adaptation of The Custom of the Country for Apple TV+.