NOTE:  January 24th marks Edith Wharton's birthday.  This piece was originally published a year ago in 'New York Social Diary' to commemorate the 150th anniversary of her birth.

Young Edith Jones.
Significant events of Edith Wharton's early life played out in Bar Harbor, and  naturally those of us who are partisans of this part of Maine speculate about what would have happened had it been Maine, rather than Lenox, where Wharton chose to live after departing Newport. For all we know, Ethan Frome might have been a Lobsterman, and under the influence of the good clean Maine air, Lily Bart might have married a college professor who summered in Northeast Harbor, and lived happily ever after.

In 1880, the future Mrs. Wharton's older brother Frederic Jones and his wife Mary Cadwalader were putting the finishing touches on Reef Point, their new summer house on the Shore Path in Bar Harbor.  Their architects were a leading Boston firm, Rotch & Tilden, who designed a number of Bar Harbor's grander estates.

That same summer, the senior Joneses and young Edith forsook their usual Newport season, spending it instead at Bar Harbor.

Accompanying them was Harry Leyden Stevens, the son of social parvenu Mrs. Paran Stevens. Harry Stevens was rumored to be engaged to Edith, although friends, who called him her 'shadow', felt the romance would not last.  
Reef Point, the Frederic Jones cottage at Bar Harbor, as originally built

The Shore Path, like the Cliff Walk at Newport, traversed between the ocean and large estates, a favorite destination for late afternoon walks.

The Jones spent the next two summers in Europe, where it was hoped that the climate would prove beneficial to Mr. Jones' health. It did not, and he died there in March of 1882. Returning to Newport, Edith Jones' engagement to Harry Stevens was officially announced, and nearly as soon ended, apparently due his mother's interference (on this score, Wharton would later exact her revenge by using Mrs. Stevens as the model for the comic Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, the arriviste widow of a shoe polish manufacturer, in The Age of Innocence).

In 1883, Lucretia Rhinelander Jones, wishing to put the sad event behind them, took Edith once again to Bar Harbor.
Steamers at the Bar Harbor pier c. 1880. The buckboards transported arriving visitors to the hotels. It is likely here that Wharton & Walter Berry rented their canoe 
(Courtesy Maine Historic Preservation Commission)

That July in Maine, two of the defining relationships of Edith Jones' future life were begun. Bar Harbor was reaching its stride as a major stop on Society's summer rounds, as the anti-Newport, (relatively) simpler, (relatively) less formal, with healthy emphasis on outdoor activities. With less rigid chaperoning of  young people, it was considered an ideal spot for romance.
This is the Rodick Hotel, newly enlarged to 400 rooms in 1881, as it appeared when Walter Berry stayed there. Its 500-foot wooden veranda was a favorite spot for flirtation and gossip.

Recreational pastimes included dances at the big hotels, notably Rodick's, where the huge lobby was known as 'The Fish Bowl", hiking on the mountain trails, and canoeing in the bay.  It was against this idyllic backdrop that Edith met and fell in with Walter Berry, a well connected young lawyer and budding aesthete staying that summer at the Rodick Hotel, whom she would later refer to as 'the great love of my life'.

Canoeists paddle out to view the visiting Eastern Yacht Club Fleet in Bar Harbor

Whether their friendship was ever actually romantic has long been a subject of speculation, as Wharton later destroyed most of her correspondence with Berry.  A surviving letter from Berry to Wharton in 1923 hints cryptically at that summer, and of a previous conversation:

"Dearest — The real dream — mine — was in the canoe and in the night afterwards, — for I lay awake wondering and wondering, — and then, when morning came, wondering how I could have wondered, — I a $-less lawyer (not even that yet) with just about enough cash for the canoe and for Rodick's bill —

And then, later, in the little cottage Newport, I wondered why I hadn't — for it would have been good, — and the slices of years slid by.

Well, my dear, I've never 'wondered' about anyone else, and there wouldn't be much of me if you were cut out of it. Forty years of it is you, dear.


A young couple canoeing, illustration from 'Bar Harbor Days' by Mrs. F. Burton Harrison 1886.
Berry's tennis holiday came to an end, and the friendship begun in Bar Harbor was apparently not picked up again until the 1890s in Newport, but no matter, for on the scene appeared an old friend of Edith's older brother Harry, Edward Wharton of Boston, a 33-year-old gentleman of leisure.

Though he had known Edith since childhood, it was that summer at Bar Harbor that he began to pay her court, and two years later they were married. Only by chance of timing did another of Mrs. Wharton's great friendships not receive its initial spark. Only days after the Joneses left Bar Harbor that summer, Henry James arrived for a visit. That friendship instead would have to wait until the latter part of the decade to begin.

Edith Wharton in at 'The Mount' in 1905
By 1898, Wharton was a published writer, suffering suffering from bronchial complaints and  at odds with her editors over publication of some short stories, She and and Teddy, feeling an escape from the dampness of Newport might help, went up to Bar Harbor for a change of scenery, visiting her former sister-in-law, now divorced from Frederic Jones.

To supplement her reduced income, Minnie Jones was managing Henry James' literary affairs in the States (and would soon become Edith's agent also). Wharton's niece Beatrix, later Mrs. Max Farrand, was embarked on her own career as a landscape designer.

Though the weather was not always reliable (the very definition of a Maine summer — leaving damp Newport for Maine would be analogous to carrying coals to Newcastle), Wharton recovered from her ailments.

While on Mount Desert, the Whartons visited Teddy's cousin Mrs. James Terry Gardiner, whose cottage was to Edith an 'ideal of a country place', inspiring her desire to have a place away from the seashore, which would culminate in the purchase of a farm overlooking Laurel Lake at Lenox, where she would build 'The Mount' (the classical style of which bore little resemblance to the plain shingle style of the Gardiner house she had previously found so ideal).

Although this view of the interior of the Gardiner cottage at Northeast Harbor is the antithesis everything Wharton wrote about houses and interiors, she reported that she found it an 'ideal of a country place'
Within a few years of course, Wharton the renowned novelist, would give up America entirely and remove herself to France. Although she remained devotedly close to Mary Jones and Beatrix Jones Farrand, her closest relatives, Wharton did not again visit Bar Harbor, although over the more than one of her fictional characters were sent to that "remote island off the coast of Maine" in the course of their navigation through the ever perilous Social waters.

Edith Wharton's Bedroom at the Pavilion Colombe, her house near Paris, as painted by Walter Gay in 1926.
Wharton died at Pavilion Colombe in 1937

In July, novelist Roxanna Robinson also covered this topic in a lecture at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

For many of the details in this piece, I am indebted to the works of Wharton's many excellent biographers – R.W.B. Lewis, Hermione Lee, Louis Auchincloss, Shari Benstock, and Eleanor Dwight (who herself summered on the Shore Path in Bar Harbor).   Thanks to Willie Granston for pointing me to the interior view of the Gardiner cottage.

1 comment:

Mark D. Ruffner said...

A fascinating story. I often wonder how very simple choices can forever alter the direction of a life.