2 Plunkett Street, Lenox, Massachusetts
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In ironic contrast to the expression that later bore their name, despite their old money and gilded connections, the Joneses struggled to keep up with the expensive lifestyle expected of them in New York. When Edith was four (1866) George took the family to Europe for six years. This gave him a chance to save money during the winters, while unwittingly igniting a passion for France within all his family, where they would all eventually die.
More than just a Wordsmith
Though Edith is known for the novels drawn from her own real life observations as a debutante in Gilded Age New York, her first published book (still in print) was in fact on interior design: The Decoration of Houses (1897) was a culmination of her passion for the subject, co-authored with her great friend Ogden Codman Jr. (1863-1951), the architect who did the interiors at The Breakers in Newport and Rockefeller's Kykuit, etc. Described as, "an influential manual of taste" it promoted classical proportions and symmetry, influencing a generation of architects and decorators including Elsie de Wolfe.
Land's End to Lenox
By the late 1890s, Edith had spent every summer of her life in Newport. Despite having bought Land's End with her much-maligned husband, Teddy, by the end of the decade she had grown tired of the vapidity of Newport's intellectual scene and its often-times stiff sea breeze. Lenox was not unknown to them - Teddy's mother kept Pine Acre and Edith's Schermerhorn cousins lived at Pinecroft - but it was Teddy's first cousin, Nancy Wadsworth Rogers (1844-1919), who first persuaded them to spend a summer there.
By 1900, Lenox had cast its spell over Edith. She confided to a friend, "the truth is, that I am in love with the place - climate, scenery, life & all". By selling their house in Newport and coupling her mother's inheritance with her royalties (though Edith was then far from the peak of her fame) Edith was able to start imagining her new home. In 1901, she bought 113-acres overlooking Laurel Lake for $40,600 from Georgiana Welles Sargent and contacted her old friend Ogden Codman Jr. to start drawing up the initial plans.
Codman had worked on the interiors at Land's End with Edith but he soon discovered it was one thing to work with Edith, but it was quite another thing to work for Edith! For her part, she was angry that he had refused to drop his rates, not only knowing that her grand plans had to be delivered on a stringent budget, but also in recognition of the professional introductions she had facilitated for him with the likes of the Vanderbilts etc. They parted ways, and the Whartons hired Francis L. V. Hoppin (1866-1941) who having served his apprenticeship with McKim, Mead & White, was then just starting out.
"Proportion is the Good Breeding of Architecture"
In her book, Edith's mantra for design had always been "proportion" from which followed simplicity and symmetry. Except for the service wing (it was maintained by a permanent staff of 12), The Mount is entirely symmetrical though in order to maintain that balance some false doors and windows were used for the illusion. On completion, the mansion covered 16,850-square feet, containing 35-rooms and counting no less than 100 windows. Edith named it The Mount which was "the name of my great-grandfather's place".
Edith had worked closely alongside Hoppin to create her ideal home which was almost entirely influenced by her travels in Europe, yet with a nod to New England by painting it white with dark green external shutters, and the use of awnings in summer. Henry James (1843-1916), described it as, "a delicate French château mirrored in a Massachusetts pond".
The Mount is approached though an allée of mature trees. From the gate lodge, the long drive winds up through forest and field before revealing the white stucco house fronted by an enclosed courtyard. The plans for the drive were conceived by Edith's niece, the budding landscape architect, Beatrix Farrand; and, she and Edith worked on the gardens together. Edith ruminated: "Decidedly, I am a better landscape gardener than novelist".
The 'H'-shape floor-plan, octagonal cupola and garden facade of The Mount are all directly inspired by Belton House in England, billed by many critics as the "perfect" English country house. The courtyard and entrance facade is that of a neo-classical French chateau while the terraces and parts of the garden are Italian. The interiors too merge those same styles. Architectural historian Scott Marshall put it: "Much of the genius of Edith's design of The Mount is in the skillful blending of the best of French, English, and Italian classical design elements to create a new American vocabulary."
At The Mount, Edith not only felt at home, but for the first time in her life she was finally able to relax, and it was here that she transformed herself from being a mere writer to becoming a great author. Since marrying Teddy in 1885, she had always worried herself about her depressive, work-shy/incapable husband, but here he was given some semblance of purpose (and self-importance) by being placed in charge of managing the estate. Edith could now focus unhindered on her writing and within this most salubrious and conducive of settings she penned her first major success: The House of Mirth (1905), though it should be noted that "the house" was based on Staatsburg's Mills Mansion.
Edith continued to divide her time between here, New York and Europe; and, over the course of the next decade she wrote several books, notably Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) which helped shape her own ideas at Lenox. But, it was Ethan Frome (1911) on which she drew directly from her experiences of life in New England at that time.
Edith, and several who work/have worked at The Mount have the distinct impression that the grand old house is haunted. The spot that seems to capture the most paranormal attention is - of all places - her bathroom window on the third floor! Edith herself often felt a presence near to her when she was writing in the study, but was this her childhood fear of the dark returning, or perhaps brought on by the ghost stories she liked to write?
Closing the Book on America
By 1909, the Wharton's marriage was on the verge of collapse and they'd leased their home in Lenox to Albert R. Shattuck (1854-1924). Edith was in Paris hopelessly pursuing her love affair with Morton Fullerton (1865-1952) while Teddy moped around in the background all but penniless and falling ever further into drink, depression and despair. Her love affair came to nothing and the final straw for her relationship with Teddy came when he raided her trust fund to finance an apartment for his mistress in Boston.
Edith and Teddy divorced in 1913. By then, Edith was already living permanently in Paris where she leased 53 Rue de Varennes from George W. Vanderbilt (1862-1914). Teddy went to live with his mother at Lenox. Edith never returned to live in America, and from 1918 she divided her time between the Pavillon Colombe and a small chateau in the south near Hyères. But, she lamented: "It was only at The Mount that I was really happy".
Refuge from Scandal & Gun-Toting Gangsters
In 1905, the original Brookhurst, the summer home at Lenox of Albert R. Shattuck (1854-1924) and his wife, Mary (daughter of New York City Mayor William Lafayette Strong), burned to the ground. In 1911, having leased The Mount for the last two years, they purchased the house and (now) 127-acre estate from the Whartons for $180,000.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that was the only reason why almost every New Yorker was familar with the Shattuck name, but for them worse was to come: In 1922, Mr and Mrs Shattuck and their 8 servants were victims of one of the most audacious heists in Gilded Age history. Five years previously, their French butler had casually strolled out of their house in New York with $12,000 of their valuables. Now he was back, but this time with a gang of five gun-toting Frenchmen, all intent on cleaning out the Shattucks.
Mr and Mrs Shattuck and their eight servants were forced at gunpoint into the wine vault - a space just 6-feet high and 8-feet wide. The thieves made away with $90,000 of valuables, leaving their victims to slowly suffocate. For what must have seemed an eternity, Mr Shattuck coolly worked away at the lock with just a penknife and a dime-piece before springing it open and all ten of them fell out gasping for air. Meanwhile, there was pandemonium on the streets as the last robber out grappled with the police!
In an operation that involved both French and American detectives (inspiring the formation of INTERPOL), after a shootout, their butler was arrested in France and finally all the robbers were caught and imprisoned. But, the trauma caused Mr Shattuck to have a fatal heart attack in 1924 and the nerves of his wife were forever frayed. She made The Mount her permanent home from 1931, where she died, peacefully, on March 1, 1935.
"The Most Illustrious Unknown Man in America"
In 1935, America was still in the grips of the Great Depression and The Mount sat empty for three years until 1938 when it was purchased at auction for $25,062. The new owners were the legendary Managing Editor of The New York Times, Carr Van Anda (1864-1945), dubbed "the most illustrious unknown man in America," and his second wife, Louise Drane Shipman (1873-1942). Van Anda was more than than a journalist, he was an academic. His fluency in hieroglyphics won him near-exclusive coverage of Howard Carter opening King Tutankhamun's tomb; and, he was famous for correcting a mathematical error made in a speech by Albert Einstein that was to be printed in The New York Times.
In 1940, Van Anda took objection to the property taxes levied against him by the Lenox town assessors. Despite what he paid for the estate, they reckoned it was worth $70,000 and taxed him accordingly. The man who had corrected Einstein thought otherwise, and according to his complex calculations it was worth no more than $34,498. He also noted the furnaces were in need of replacement, although he and his wife seemingly found a suitable alternative method for keeping themselves warm while, "the servants get on as best they can with small portable coal-oil stoves in their rooms." A professional appraiser was then brought in who displeased old "V.A" on valuing the estate at $80,927. Mrs Van Anda died the following February at which point V.A. wasted no time in selling up.
Foxhollow School for Girls & the Shakespeare & Company
The "formidable" Miss Aileen M. Farrell (1898-1981) came out from England to teach at the famed Foxcroft School in Virginia, founded by the equally formidable Miss Charlotte Noland and whose alumni included Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. In 1930, Miss Farrell established the Foxhollow School for Girls at Rhinebeck, New York, before moving the school to Holmwood next to The Mount in 1939. A fire at the end of 1941 burned some of the classrooms and a stable so when her neighbor was looking for a quick sell in 1942, she was able to snap up The Mount for the bargain basement price of $18,000. It was used for girls' dormitories up until the school finally closed its doors in 1976.
The Mount sat empty for two years until 1978 when it was bought by the theater company still based at Lenox today, Shakespeare & Company. The Mount remained their center of operations until 2001, by which time it had fallen into a bad state of repair.
The Mount Today
The Mount and 47-acres of the original estate were acquired and then beautifully restored by Edith Wharton Restoration Inc. The Mount today is both a historic house museum and a cultural center dedicated to the life and achievements of the inimitable Edith Wharton.
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