Sunday, March 23, 2008

House of...worth?


She's not exactly one of us, if one of us means mystery writer in the traditional sense, but Edith Wharton was a woman who wrote when it wasn't easy for a woman to write, with a husband who wasn't always supportive, (can you say aggressively unsupportive?) A woman who kept at it whatever the feedback was. In that sense she was one of us. And now her house is under seige, in danger of being foreclosed on by a bank. It happens. The bank is not the enemy, but that's not the point.
The Mount, in Lenox Massachusetts is a wonderful place. I feel particularly sad about this, not just because I'm an Edith Wharton fan, but because the garden in Pushing Up Daisies was loosely based on Wharton's garden at The Mount. I had an inspirational visit there a few years back and thought that Edith or Beatrix Farrand, who designed her gardens, were long past minding a similar layout in my book.
If this were Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West I wouldn't to be writing this. I wouldn't need to. Some professor or university or movie star would pick up the gauntlet and raise the money needed to prevent his home from being turned into condos or a spa or whatever the heck new owners might want to do with the property.
Any other Edith Wharton fans out there? The place where she created masterpieces of American literature should be preserved and you can help. Check out
HANK: She's one of my favorites. In fact, when I still was in a book club (pre-Charlie) and we all got to choose a book for the group, I picked Custom of the Country--which if you haven't read, do. It's astonishingly modern and incredibly well-written. A wonderful story--compelling and irresistible, with a complicated and unique main character, and no punches pulled.
And then, half of my book group just hated it. Which has always baffled me. I thought it was staggering. And House of Mirth. Sometimes I just can't get it out of my mind.
But anyway--we go to Lenox every summer, to hear the symphony at Tanglewood and walk through the sculpture garden at Chesterwood and go to the Book Store on Housatonic Street and have espresso slushes at Soco and martinis at Bistro Zinc. And we never miss The Mount. We've seen it through the highs and lows, and watched Wharton's one-act plays performed in her parlor, had lemonade on the balcony.
Now its kind of weirdly re-made into a decorators show house kind of place, where they've designed rooms that aren't even the way "Edith's" were, which frankly drives me crazy. Because--what's the point? Plus, she was the expert and icon in architecture and decorating before she went on to literature, and the idea that they...oh, well.
Anyway. Ro is so right. The idea that it's going to be foreclosed on seems bizarrely anachronistic. Or something like that. To take such a 21st century phenomenon, and slap it across an historic site. Seems, what? Crass? Absurd? Short-sighted? And do what with it? Make the Mount a furniture store?
HALLIE: "Custom of the Country." Check--now it's on my TBR list. Still, can you imagine how bizarre it would be to look back from your grave, 70-plus years post mortem, and see the world trying to make the place where you wrote into a monument?? And how heavenly(!) it would be if anyone would be blogging (will they still blog?) about your writing.
HANK: Who owns it, anyway?
RO: It´s the Edith Wharton Foundation, and try as I might I wasn´t able to find the suggestion any mishandling of funds..it seems they just got caught up in some unfavorable loans and bad refinancing deals. I have to say...I´m writing this from El Salvador..where I´m finishing up a blitz build with Habitat for Humanity. Fifty four houses are going up (pix on my website in a week or so) for less than it would cost to...I don´t know... replace Edith´s azaleas. It´s strange to have these two situations side by side in my brain, but I do.
ROBERTA: Now I've got Custom of the Country on my TBR list too. Have never been to Edith Wharton's home, but I did tour Hemingway's house in Key West this winter--twice. The place is constantly mobbed with tourists who want to hear the story of his life--he had four or five wives, I can't remember, and was a hard-drinking, adventurous and tragic figure in the end. You would absolutely salivate over the room where he wrote. It would be very sad to see Wharton's--or Hemingway's--home disappear. This is the kind of "museum" where ordinary people can go to appreciate the mastery and humanness of writers.
RO: Does anybody else think Hank has the coolest life? Espresso slushes..? Martinis? Tanglewood..every time I go, it rains.

4 comments:

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Boy, do I have RO fooled!
More later--I have to go do the laundry.

Rosemary Harris said...

Oh, please...everyone knows you never wear the same thing twice.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey, Ro, we have to stop meeting like this...

Congrats on all your great reviews, by the way! (We can say stuff like this, can't we?)

AliasMo said...

Has anyone read "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England" by Brock Clarke? I haven't, but it seemed relevant to the discussion. If they ever try to make a monument out of my house, they'll have to get past OSHA first. Watch out for falling books and stacks of paper.

I lusted after that garden in "Pushing Up Daisies," so I hope I get to see the almost real thing.
Mo