Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937) was an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and designer. Wharton drew upon her insider’s knowledge of the upper class New York “aristocracy” to realistically portray the lives and morals of the Gilded Age. In 1921, she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996.
Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862 to George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander at their brownstone at 14 West Twenty-third Street in New York City. To her friends and family she was known as “Pussy Jones.” She had two older brothers, Frederic Rhinelander, who was 16, and Henry Edward, who was 12. She was baptized April 20, 1862, Easter Sunday, at Grace Church.
Wharton’s paternal family, the Joneses, were a very wealthy and socially prominent family having made their money in real estate. The saying “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to refer to her father’s family. She was related to the Rensselaers, the most prestigious of the old patroon families, who had received land grants from the former Dutch government of New York and New Jersey. Her father’s first cousin was Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. She had a lifelong friendship with her niece, the landscape architect Beatrix Farrand of Reef Point in Bar Harbor, Maine. Fort Stevens in New York was named for Wharton’s maternal great-grandfather, Ebenezer Stevens, a Revolutionary War hero and General.
Wharton was born during the Civil War; although Wharton in describing her family life does not mention the war except that their travels to Europe after the war were due to the depreciation of American currency. From 1866 to 1872, the Jones family visited France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. During her travels, the young Edith became fluent in French, German, and Italian. At the age of nine, she suffered from typhoid fever, which nearly killed her, while the family was at a spa in the Black Forest. After the family returned to the United States in 1872, they spent their winters in New York City and their summers in Newport, Rhode Island. While in Europe, she was educated by tutors and governesses. She rejected the standards of fashion and etiquette that were expected of young girls at the time, which were intended to allow women to marry well and to be put on display at balls and parties. She considered these fashions superficial and oppressive. Edith wanted more education than she received, so she read from her father’s library and from the libraries of her father’s friends. Her mother forbade her to read novels until she was married, and Edith obeyed this command.