The Lesser-Known Side of Wharton

Most often associated with literary fame, Edith Wharton was a complex, intellectually motivated woman whose passions led to many other remarkable achievements: interior design, gardening, and—perhaps most astoundingly—her unwavering dedication to helping refugee children, wounded soldiers, and struggling families in France during World War I.

EW with WWI soldiersWharton helped establish three hostels for refugees, delivered supplies to the front lines, and created a Paris “workroom” that employed 90 women in need of family income. She wrote about her efforts in a 1915 piece for the New York Times. “There is hardly a form of human misery that has not come our way and wrung our hearts with the longing to do more and give more,” she wrote.

On Thursday, July 31, Dr. Alan Price will deliver a lecture at The Mount centered on three important American war charities in France, and the dress of their three extraordinary leaders: Edith Wharton, Nina Duryea, and Isabel Lathrop.

A Wharton scholar and humanities researcher, Dr. Price has chosen to highlight the incredible civilian response to one of Europe’s greatest tragedies by focusing on American volunteers in France. “I can’t look at the war directly; it’s too horrible,” he said. More than 20,000 American women served in charity and war relief organizations overseas, including at least two with ties to Berkshire County: Edith Wharton, who spent a decade at The Mount in Lenox, and Nina Duryea, who lived in Stockbridge from 1920-1952.

The lecture, entitled “What They Wore to War: Dressing American Relief Workers in the Great War,” stems from Price’s book, The End of the Age of Innocence: Edith Wharton and the First World War, and marks the beginning of The Mount’s four-year acknowledgement of this significant anniversary.

For more highlights of Wharton’s war work, visit the exhibit Edith Wharton and the First World War, open at The Mount through October 31. Dr. Price consulted on the project, which details four of the busiest and most taxing years of Wharton’s life. Also, here’s a short online piece written in 2011 by Molly Guinness about Wharton’s time in Paris, much of it darkened by the dire circumstances of war.

“The war was a terrible event. If we don’t learn from ‘the guns of August,’ we are doomed to repeat it,” Price cautioned.

Join us for the lecture, which will begin at 4 pm next Thursday. Tickets–$10 for Mount members, $12 for the general public–are still available and can be purchased online.