Edith Wharton, born Edith Newbold Jones on 24 January 1862. Aged 23 she married Edward Robbins Wharton who was 12 years her senior and suffered from depression. In 1913 she divorced him as his mental state had seriously deteriorated. She moved to France and lived in Paris.
Helped by her influential connections to the French government she was one of the few foreigners in France allowed to travel to the front lines during the First World War. Wharton described those trips in the series of articles Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort.
Throughout the war she worked tirelessly in charitable efforts for refugees and, in 1916 was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in recognition of her commitment to the displaced. The scope of her relief work included setting up workrooms for unemployed Frenchwomen, organizing concerts to provide work for musicians, opening tuberculosis hospitals and founding the American Hostels for Belgian refugees. In 1916 Wharton edited The Book of the Homeless, composed of writings, art, erotica and musical scores by almost every major contemporary European artist. When World War I ended in 1918 she abandoned her fashionable urban address for the delights of the country at the Pavillon Colombe in nearby Saint-Brice-sous-Foret.
Wharton was a committed supporter of French imperialism, describing herself as a “rabid imperialist”, and the war solidified her political conservatism. After the war she divided her time between Paris and Hyères in Provence, where she finished The Age of Innocence in 1920. The novel won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Literature making Wharton the first woman to win the award. She returned to the U.S. only once after the war, to receive an honorary doctorate degree from Yale University in 1923.
Wharton was friend and confidante to many gifted intellectuals of her time: Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau and André Gide were all guests of hers at one time or another. But her meeting with F. ScottFitzgerald is described by the editors of her letters as “one of the better known failed encounters in the American literary annals.” She spoke fluent French (as well as several other languages), and many of her books were published in both French and English.
In 1934 Wharton’s autobiography A Backward Glance was published.
In 1937 whilst visiting friends in Montmorillon Edith Wharton suffered a stroke and died. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles.