Saturday, October 24, 2009

10: Lenox: A writer by design and food for thought

Okay, so it was going to be another day for Gail and me to get wet. We own raincoats and umbrellas. And changing plans due to weather hasn’t been part of this adventure.

The rain did make the drive to Lenox seem long—even longer than the Mass Turnpike usually feels. But, it had actually stopped by the time we got to Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount. Sure, the sky was full of thick, gray clouds, but that just made things photogenic.

The Mount is an oddity among the places I’ve visited, because it’s a work in progress. The organization Edith Wharton Restoration was established in 1980, to preserve and restore the estate, but its work started slowly. Actual restoration work didn’t begin until 1997, and it’s moving ahead a bit at a time. This makes for an unusual viewing experience as tours walk through wonderfully appointed rooms and then past ones that are empty and untouched—it allows some understanding about all the work that has been done in a more immediate way than before-and-after photos could do.

This one-step-at-a-time approach is probably much like what Wharton went through as she and her husband Teddy were building the house in the first place. They purchased the property with money from an inheritance and the sale of their Newport, Rhode Island, house. Major construction took place in 1901 and 1902. It was finally completed in 1907, and the later work was financed with proceeds from The House of Mirth, which Wharton wrote here, and a nonfiction book, Italian Villas and Their Gardens.

Wharton was fascinated by both interior and landscape design. She had already written a hugely influential book called The Decoration of Houses, co-authored with architect Ogden Codman and published in 1897. They advocated décor in the European tradition as opposed to the heavy Victorian style that was popular at the time. The book’s introduction states it clearly:

“Rooms may be decorated in two ways: by a superficial application of ornament totally independent of structure, or by means of those architectural features which are part of the organism of every house, inside as well as out.”

Wharton demonstrated her ideas in The Mount. The house was built to be a home, a primary residence, and each room is designed with intimate groups in mind (small gatherings rather than large parties), in part because Wharton was a private, rather shy person.

Our tour guide Laurie explained some of the thought behind the architecture and design. Visitors enter a courtyard as they approach the front door, considered an extension of the house, the first room experienced by visitors. The courtyard and the face of the house are symmetrically designed—the symmetry includes several false windows that appear with shutters closed. Going through the front doors brought us to the entrance hall, designed like an Italian grotto. A fountain and mirrors reflecting the view through the windows bring the outside inside, making a beautiful transitional space to the home’s true interior upstairs.

Wharton was born Edith Jones in 1862. Her parents were from prominent New York families—the class of people she would write so much about. Just after the Civil War the family moved to Europe to escape the economic depression at home, so Edith’s early education included travels in England, Italy, Spain, France and Germany. In 1872 the Joneses returned to the US and divided their time between homes in New York City and Newport.

She patterned her library (an unusual thing for a woman to have in the early 1900s) after her father’s. A photograph of her in this room shows that while she may have broken free of the Victorian style of home design, she was still a slave to the fashion of the day in her dress.

A connection to another of our New England authors: Her mother privately printed a volume of Edith’s poetry (Edith was 16), and a Newport friend showed the book to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow passed it on to the editor of Atlantic Monthly, who published one in the magazine.

Edith Jones married Edward “Teddy” Wharton in 1885. She, at 23, was on the verge of becoming an old maid. (Thank all the gods thinking has changed on that score.) This was not a love match, and it proved to be a difficult marriage. They divorced in 1913, unfortunately not before he embezzled money from her to support his mistress.

Fortunately, Wharton had many interests to fill her time (and keep her mind of her husband). A typical day for her at The Mount started with several hours of writing in bed, surrounded by her little dogs—she was a dog person and considered cats “snakes in fur.” Afternoons she spent on gardening, photography, taking drives and visiting with friends like Henry James.

Wharton’s understanding and appreciation for design appears in her writing. Perhaps she was thinking about how she would landscape the grounds of The Mount even as she was working on The House of Mirth away every morning in bed. In an early scene she describes “a landscaped tutored to the last degree of rural elegance.” The view from her windows shows how the plantings change from a more formal layout closer to the house to more natural and wild as they blend into the woods at the edge of the yard.

Wharton often uses details of interior design to illustrate character in her writing. She knew that an individual’s personality is reflected in his or her chosen surroundings. Her descriptions of homes and the items in them capture how characters differ from others in their society or how they strive to be the same.

In The Age of Innocence Wharton compares the eccentric Mrs. Mingott and her dwelling to her fellows in New York society. Mrs. Mingott sounds like she believes in Wharton’s design style, breaking with Victorian tradition:

“The house in itself was already an historic document, though not, of course, as venerable as certain other old family houses … Those were of the purest 1830, with a grim harmony of cabbage-rose-garlanded carpets, rosewood consoles, round-arched fire-places with black marble mantels, and immense glazed book-cases of mahogany; whereas old Mrs. Mingott, who had built her house later, had bodily cast out the massive furniture of her prime, and mingled with the Mingott heirlooms the frivolous upholstery of the Second Empire.”

After the tour we headed to downtown Lenox for a late lunch. It seemed that many of the side streets were under construction (adding curbs). It also seemed that there was scarcity of parking for the number of businesses around, and that what parking there was wasn’t advertised. It wasn’t a “user friendly” town for strangers, but it may just feel that way during construction. I can’t condemn on a first glance.

We did feel welcomed at Alta Restaurant and Wine Bar, our restaurant of choice. On the gray, dreary day, soup was a good place to start, and we followed that up with some carefully crafted panini sandwiches. Gail had the soup of the day, mushroom with roasted garlic that gave it a whole extra dimension, and I had the butternut squash, smooth and creamy. As for the sandwiches, the Autumn was like Thanksgiving dinner on bread: roasted turkey, grilled slices of butternut squash, caramelized onion, cranberry sauce and cheddar cheese. The Vegetarian was full of big flavors: grilled Portobello and onions, roasted red pepper, arugula and mozzarella. We skipped the wine section of the menu, but only because we still had more to do with our day, and we had to pace ourselves.

Back to The Mount, and we had a little time to look at the gardens before four o’clock. They were beautiful, and we managed to get in a few photos before the skies opened up again and rained on us.

We hurried to the stable for a special event—and to get out of the rain. One goal of Edith Wharton Restoration is to establish The Mount as a literary and cultural center. To that end the group was hosting a panel discussion on the future of food writing. Half a dozen New York–based food writers (book authors, bloggers and print journalists) engaged in a lively talk about the state of the industry and how it’s changing. (Ironically, several days later the news broke that Gourmet magazine was history.) A highlight for me: getting a signed copy of Judith Jones’s new book.

And could a talk about food writing not be followed by food? Certainly not. There was a wonderful tasting spread of local cheeses and meats plus beer and hard cider. This gave me my first opportunity to try lardo (pig fat cured with spices)—a little too slippery for my taste. But I could have packed away plenty of the cheeses. Fortunately, there were enough people crowded between me and the food to discourage too many return trips. (Unfortunately, those same crowds kept me from getting any pics of the spread.)

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