Edith Wharton and the First World War

In 1914 when World War I broke out, Edith Wharton was wealthy, famous, recently divorced, and living in her favorite city of Paris. Instead of withdrawing to the safety of England or returning to the United States, Wharton chose to stay in Paris and devote herself to creating a complex network of charitable and humanitarian organizations.

She set up workrooms for unemployed seamstresses, convalescent homes for tuberculosis sufferers, hostels for refugees, and schools for children fleeing war-torn Belgium. In the first seven months of her efforts, nearly 900 refugees were cared for, “including the nuns and about 200 infirm old men and women, who are ‘children’ too … and could not be left alone in the ruins.” (Edith Wharton, New York Times, 1915)

Long after the war ended, she remained involved in helping tuberculosis victims. She wished part of her French property to become a “home of refuge for hopeless cases of tuberculosis” after her death and in 1930 raised money for a hospital in Paris for those who could not afford expensive private clinics.

At the same time, as a writer, Wharton was intent on witnessing the realities of war and was one of a handful of journalists and writers allowed on the front lines.  Wharton turned her keen eye for observation to the horrors of war and the destruction of her adopted country.

(The images on this page appear courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University).

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