Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort

Last summer, thanks to generous contributions from members of The Mount’s Library Committee, we acquired an extraordinary book from D&D Galleries in New Jersey: a copy of Edith Wharton’s Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort (1915), inscribed by Wharton to her chauffeur, Charles Cook. One of several books Wharton wrote about World War I, this book recounts her journeys into the devastated war zones of France, accompanied by her friend Walter Berry, with the remarkably patient and resourceful Charles Cook at the wheel.

Cook (1873-1940), originally from Lenox, joined the Wharton household in 1903 as their chauffeur, and drove the Whartons on their early automobile adventures, starting with their first car, a 1904 Pope-Hartford. Motoring through the Berkshires, protected by hats, veils, furs, and blankets, was a favorite pastime.

Cook followed Wharton to her new homes in France, where he coped stoically with the transition from picturesque New England country roads to bustling Paris streets. He traveled a great deal with Wharton, navigating hair-raising Italian alpine bends, numerous car trips with Henry James, the war zones described in Fighting France, and an unforgettable trip to Algeria and Tunisia (stowing the car on board the S.S. Timgad from Marseille to Algiers).

He and Wharton developed a lively camaraderie on their often harrowing road trips, and she was devastated when he had a stroke in 1921: “Cook had a slight—very very slight—stroke! He has recovered wonderfully…But—he must never drive a motor again!…I’m in a state of such sadness, a sadness so full of the remembrances of our epic randonnées, that I can’t say more.” Cook returned to America with a generous pension provided by Wharton.

Charles Cook had no children; after his death, his sister-in-law, Julia Cook, inherited this book. What happened to the book during the time between Julia owning the book and the bookseller in New Jersey acquiring it about 30 years ago, may remain a mystery forever.