Sunday, January 21, 2024


Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937

Walter Berry and Edith Wharton, undated photograph. The man in the background is unidentified. (The Mount)
In the Maine seaside town of Bar Harbor during the summer of 1883, Edith Jones met twenty-four-year-old Walter Berry, a scion of the Van Rensselaer family who stood to inherit a small fortune from his mother and who was studying to be a lawyer in Washington, D.C. Three years his junior, Edith spent the early weeks of the summer with him, canoeing and cycling and sharing their similar intellectual preoccupations. As she recalled in A Backward Glance, “the encounter had given me a fleeting hint of what the communion of kindred intelligences might be.” Soon after Berry left, she met up with thirty-three-year-old Edward (“Teddy”) Wharton, a friend of her older brothers who was a Harvard graduate living off his trust fund and interested mainly in camping and hunting—and not at all in books. Teddy and Wharton were married two years later.

Wharton resumed her friendship with Berry in 1897. She was at work on her first book, The Decoration of Houses, with coauthor Ogden Codman Jr., the architect who had renovated her mansion in Newport. As she wrote in her memoir:
He happened to come and stay with us at Land’s End the very summer that Codman and I were struggling with our book. Walter Berry was born with an exceptionally sensitive literary instinct, but also with a critical sense so far outweighing his creative gift that he had early renounced the idea of writing. . . . I remember shyly asking him to look at my lumpy pages; and I remember his first shout of laughter (for he never flattered or pretended), and then his saying good-naturedly: “Come, let’s see what can be done,” and settling down beside me to try to model the lump into a book.
Two years later, Berry helped the Whartons find a place to stay for four months in Washington and, a lifelong bachelor, he remained one of Edith’s closest friends until his death in 1927.

By the early 1900s, Edith’s marriage was falling apart under the strain of Edward’s debilitating depression and erratic behavior; they would finally divorce in 1913. “One cannot help feeling that her punishment has been awful—tied to a crazy person, who is only just sane enough not to be locked up,” Codman wrote to his mother. Many of their friends assumed Edith and Walter had become lovers and until late in the twentieth century, that belief resulted in several erroneous biographies and fanciful legends about their relationship. A secret journal Wharton kept in 1908, addressed to an unnamed lover, was for years assumed to have been about Berry. In the 1970s, however, biographer R.W.B. Lewis confirmed that Wharton’s affair, which lasted for more than two years (while she and her husband were separated), had been with the journalist Morton Fullerton. The subsequent discovery in the 1980s of her letters to Fullerton ended any doubts about the matter.

Similarly, Lewis dispensed with another myth, as he recounted in 1975:
One of the silliest and most characteristic of the stories—and one finds it solemnly stated in print—was that a secret stairway connected Edith Wharton’s apartment on the Rue de Varenne in Paris with that of Walter Berry. It was used, presumably, to creep up and down for assignations. The picture conjured up is not without attraction; but in fact Edith and Berry never had apartments in the same building. Berry succeeded to the lease of Edith’s apartment in 1920. I had a guided tour of the rooms . . . and suspect that a back-stairway entrance combined with the all-powerful Berry legend to generate this canard.
In the fall of 1926, Berry underwent surgery for appendicitis; the following January he suffered a stroke that rendered him unable to speak. Wharton cared for him in the weeks following both episodes; against his express wishes, his interfering sister showed up during the second convalescence and complicated the matter of who oversaw his care. In October, he died after a second stroke. Wharton wrote in her diary, “The Love of all my life died today, & I with him.” To one of her closest correspondents, the Cambridge historian Galliard Lapsley, she wrote, “No words can tell of my desolation. He had been to me in turn all that one being can be to another, in love, in friendship, in understanding.”

Wharton enlisted the help of Berry’s sister to locate her letters in his apartment and burned them all. She also destroyed his letters to her, and all we have left to us are a few surviving pieces of correspondence, including one from Berry sent in 1923 to commemorate forty years of friendship. He recalls when they spent a day canoeing in Bar Harbor and how he later “wondered” why nothing came of it. “Well, my dear, I’ve never ‘wondered’ about anyone else, and there wouldn’t be much of me if you were out of it.” There’s no doubt they had an intense and close relationship, but we will probably never know if they spent those forty years—or any part of it—as lovers. In a recent biography, Hermione Lee weighs the evidence and decides that is “more likely . . . they were not. But that does not mean she did not love him.”

In the months following Berry’s surgery and first stroke, Wharton wrote “Atrophy,” one of her shortest tales and the only story she published that year. It is a curious yet masterful story and, given the above biographical details, one is perhaps tempted to read too much into it—although the piece was submitted for publication before Berry’s death. The protagonist, Nora Frenway, is a married woman who finds out that her former lover appears to be dying and decides to visit him at his home, where he is under the protective care of his sister. The affair had been a source of great happiness and intimacy, but she has kept it a secret (she thinks) from everyone. The story was reprinted in the 1930 collection Certain People, which was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review by Percy Hutchison. The first half of his article focused on “Atrophy” and concluded:
It was another Nora who blustered out through the door of a Doll’s House. Well, it can’t be done, says Mrs. Wharton, rather savagely. And who is right? Crestfallen, spiritually bedraggled Nora Frenway’s clattering back to the Connecticut railway station in the antiquated taxicab may become quite as important a literary figure as Ibsen’s Nora, from whose eruption cataclysmic social changes were predicted. If Mrs. Wharton is right, then those changes were not so cataclysmic after all, and it is pretty much the same old world. “Atrophy” is a story to be read and pondered.
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The source for the quote from Ogden Codman’s letter to his mother is Shari Benstock’s No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton (1994).

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Nora Frenway settled down furtively in her corner of the Pullman and, as the express plunged out of the Grand Central Station, wondered at herself for being where she was. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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