We Explore Literary Titan Edith Wharton's Dog Palazzo

Fans of Edith Wharton,a titan of American literature,can commune with their idol at the Mount, her estate and gardens in Lenox, Massachusetts. True to her...

 |  Feb 27th 2012  |   0 Contributions


Fans of Edith Wharton,a titan of American literature,can commune with their idol at the Mount, her estate and gardens in Lenox, Massachusetts.

True to her Zodiac sign,Wharton, an Aquarian, was a dedicated Dogster: a founding member of the ASPCA anddevoted guardian to many lovely little dogsthroughout her lifetime. As historical photographs reveal, the Mount gives new meaning to the term "in the doghouse" it's more like a dog palazzo!

House operations manager Anne Schuylergave us this enlightening interview that provides even more reasons to admire the greatE.W.

Are Wharton fans surprised to learn that she was such a serious dog lover?

Quite a few people already know that about Wharton when they come, and when they learn that she and her husband had a troubled and childless marriage, they immediately understand that the dogs, in some ways, were their children.

Do you field lots of questions from dog lovers? What's been the most-asked question thus far?

We get a lot of questions about the dogs from visitors, particularly if they bring children. I suppose the most-asked questions arewhat kind of dogs they had, and if they really did have a dog pillow and dog treats in the dining room!

What is the total number of dogs E.W. had in her lifetime?

I went through a couple of different biographies, and no one seems to have an exact number; most put it at dozens. According to an autobiographical essay she wrote called Life & I, she got her first dog at age 4, a Spitz named Foxy, and as an adult usually had around six until her death at age 75 so that is nearly 70 years of dog ownership, although she recalls one brief period in her childhood where a brown rabbit named Bonaparte ruled along in my heart.

One of her beloved favorites at the end of her life was a Pekingese named Linky. Linky died in May 1937 only four months before Edith herself, and Wharton wrote a very poignant bit about the dog in a letter to her godson William Tyler:

Here I am desperately alone, for my little Linky died yesterday. She was ill only three days, and did not suffer. Her frail little organism was worn out. I wish she could have outlasted me, for I feel, for the very first time in my life, quite utterly alone and lonely.

What was the type of breed/mix E.W.preferred?

She seemed to like all kinds and mixes and mutts, especially in her younger years, but always small
breeds, toys. She writes of having chrysanthemum dogs [Shih Tzus, probably]:

I have always forgotten to tell you that the little chrysanthemum-dog has been mine (or rather Grosss) ever since Nicette died. I enclose her picture! She is divinely beautiful, but so much less clever & wise than my long line of little micks & mongrels.

Based on pictures and other references, she seemed to be have owned Pomeranians, Papillons, Chihuahuas, Poodles, what she called her Chinese, and terriers, including Skyes & Yorkies. In later life she seemed to have preferred Pekingese; again in a letter she refers to Linky:

Dearest Bill, Linky and I have been waiting a long time to congratulate you and Betsy on the immense privilege of having under your roof a member of the Imperial race [a Pekingese] ... Linky is of course less awe-struck than I, as she is dealing with a peer. E.W. to William Royall Tyler, November 1934

Where did E.W. write "My little old dog ... a heart-beat at my feet"?

That quote comes from a hand-written poem by Edith Wharton on the endpaper of her volume of Paul-Louis Couchoud, Sages Et Potes DAsie (1916). It is a book of haiku, so it would seem she was trying her own hand at that form. The book is now part of the Mounts collection.

In addition to "Kerforl," her ghost story about dogs coming back from the dead to avenge their mistress, what are some memorable dog details inWharton's novels and stories?

I cant think of a story that revolves around dogs the way "Kerforl" does, but in The Age of Innocence [her Pulitzer-winning novel], one of the seminal characters, Mrs. Manson Mingott, seems always to be surrounded by dogs similar to Edith Whartons.

And in a nice piece of nonfiction, an essay called The Look of Paris from her book Fighting France (1918), she writes about dogs in WWI Paris:

I remember especially the steady-browed faces of the women; and also the small but significant fact that every one of them had remembered to bring her dog.

"The biggest of these amiable companions had to take their chance of seeing what they could through the forest of human legs; but every one that was portable was snugly lodged in the bend of an elbow, and from this safe perch scores and scores of small serious muzzles, blunt or sharp, smooth or woolly, brown or grey or white or black or brindled, looked out on the scene with the quiet awareness of the Paris dog. It was certainly a good sign that they had not been forgotten that night.

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The library.

Please share one or two references to dogs in E.W.'s letters.

Her letters are full of references to her dogs: she writes how they turned somersaults of joy when she or her husband returned after an absence. Here are two. The first refers to "Mr. James," as in Henry James, and gives a goodsense of how close Wharton was to her dogs!

I dont know where to put my hand on Mr. James now, as he is bouncing about like a ____ it sounds disrespectful to say flea, & no other image presents itself to my doggy mind (three of them are lying on me as I write). E.W. to Sara Norton, undated [circa late June], 1905.

This one again refers to the death of Linky, but references the sense of communication Wharton felt she had with dogs ever since childhood:

During the last years of the Roman Empire the Emperors had a passion for human curiosities, such as mermaids, fauns, centaurs, etc. There were professional collectors, and whenever one was found, he, she, or it was shipped to Rome (for they mostly came from Egypt or North Africa). E.W. to William Royall Tyler, upon the death of her beloved Linky, May 1937.

Once they found a boy who understood what the birds said; and I have always been like that about dogs, ever since I was a baby. We really communicated with each other and no one had such wise things to say as Linky.

SoE.W.'s dogs had the run of the house. How big, exactly, is the house?

The house is just less than 17,000 square feet, and that includes all the servants' areas as well; the family part of the house has about 24 rooms.

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Edith Wharton's boudoir.

Is there any evidence that the dogs slept with her?

Well, they certainly woke up with her! There is a wonderful verbal description of her writing in bed. She wrote in the morning, still in a robe, with a lap desk, her bed strewn with papers, coffee cups, and surrounded by dogs.

She would not get up and greet her guests until about 11 a.m., so only her dogs and her maid had access to Wharton during her most creative hours.

Do we know what the dogs ate?

Good question! And no, not exactly, but as we know they were often fed by the Whartons at table with human food. I imagine they ate quite well.

Please describe the dog bowls, pillows, and other canine paraphernalia.

In a historic picture of her boudoir, there is a dog bowl next to the fireplace; in the picture of the dining room there is a dog pillow at the foot of one of the chairs; and in a library picture there is what appears to be a dog bed.

Alove of dogs is one of the few things E.W. and her husband had in common. Please elaborate.

Her husband, Teddy Wharton, was 13 years older than she, and while sociable and outgoing, they soon found they did not share a lot, intellectually or, most likely, physically. They had no children and she doesnt mention him very much in her memoir (they got a divorce in 1913), but one of the few things she said about him was that he shared my love of animals and outdoor life.

Teddy seemed to have a genuine love and connection to animals; he is almost always photographed with dogs in arms, and was an excellent horseman. And they both were both founding members of the New York chapter of the SPCA and involved in a campaign to put water bowls on the streets of New York.

Are dogs mentioned in The Decoration of Houses?

Ha! Good question, I dont believe so this was early in her career and the book is quite formal.

(This was too much to resist, so I did a word search on dog and wouldnt you know there is one reference, but it is, alas, to the fireplaces fire-dog.)

What do we know about Jules, E.W.'s favorite dog?

Jules was a favorite ofhers, but particularly of her husband. There is a lovely shot of Teddy mounted with Jules in his arms.

Jules breed is a bit of a mystery; some people believe he was a Skye terrier, some think a mix. He had this shaggy head and mane, but then much of his body and back legsare close-shaven, making some people believe he was a lion dog. He had quite a long life, 17 years I believe, and is buried in the pet cemetery at the Mount.

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The Mount's dog cemetery. Photo by David Dashiell.

Please tell us about the dog cemetery.

It is on a knoll just off the gardens and can be viewed from Edith Whartons bedroom and Teddy Whartons den.

There are six headstones up there, dog-sized. Four of them are Wharton dogs, and two are from the Shattuck era (the Shattucks bought the Mount when the Whartons left in 1911). It is open to the public and a popular stop on our ghost tours!

Are the headstones inscribed with lines E.W. wrote?

The headstones are very simple, with just the names (Mimi, Miza, Toto, Jules) of the dogs and their dates, although the Jules stone says our beloved Jules.

Where is E.W. herself buried?

Edith Wharton is buried in France, at the Cimetire de Gonard in Versailles. Teddy Wharton died in 1927 and is buried in Lenox, MA, in a family plot at historic Church-on-the-Hill.

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Another look at the cemetery.

When E.W. died, did any dogs survive her ? If so, did she make provisions for dogs in her will?

Another excellent question; biographers dont mention anything, to my knowledge.

Linky, referred to in the other quotes, may have been her last dog. Even though quite sentimental about dogs, Wharton was quite unsentimental about business and money matters.

Her butler survived her and ended up in a cottage at her Riviera home, so any dogs that did outlive her may have ended up there or with her close friend and executor, Elisina Tyler, but that is speculation on my part.

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