Edith Wharton Visits Her Dressmaker

Edith Wharton, 1905

Edith Wharton, 1905

August 1-2, 1914: World War I Breaks Out and Wharton Visits her Dressmaker 

One hundred years ago today, American novelist Edith Wharton was living in Paris, and like all Parisians, was waiting for news of war. Germany and Russia had declared war on each other only the day before. Everyone in Paris held their breath.

Edith Wharton visited her dressmaker.

I’m not making light of the tragedy of war, and neither was Wharton. I remember studying history in college and thinking to myself, there has to be more to history than the story of men marching into battle. What did the women do? How were the families affected? What did the women whisper among themselves?

Imagine yourself a woman in Paris on the eve of war. It’s the beginning of August. Everyone knows that Paris empties out for an entire month at the end of summer. Who knows what businesses would stay open if war came. If Edith Wharton needed to get fitted for new dresses, time was of the essence.

Wharton couldn’t just run into Galleries Lafayette, recently opened in 1912, because that kind of place provided fast fashion for the masses. Wharton was a high-society woman, and had been a long-time client of the fashionable couture dress designers of rue de la Paix in Paris, such as the House of Worth and Droucet.

In Fighting France (Scribner’s 1915), Wharton reports that she visited her dressmaker’s, but is discreet enough not to drop a name. We don’t know if she went to Worth, Droucet, or someone else’s shop, but it was likely on the rue de la Paix, just a short walk from the Hôtel de Crillon where she was staying. She later stated in an article for Scribner’s Magazine that she interacted with the seamstresses who were anxious about the prospect of war.

At the dressmaker’s, the next morning, the tired fitters were preparing to leave for their usual holiday. They looked pale and anxious – decidedly, there was a new air of apprehension in the air.


Seamstresses at the atelier de couture chez Worth, Paris 1907

Seamstresses at the atelier de couture chez Worth, Paris 1907. Source: http://emblah13.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/house-of-worth-photographs/


House of Worth Salon, 1907. Source: http://emblah13.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/house-of-worth-photographs/

House of Worth Draping blouses, 1907. Source: http://emblah13.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/house-of-worth-photographs/



After visiting the dressmaker, Edith Wharton returned to La Place de la Concorde, where she observed people standing on the street corner, reading a newly posted notice on the French Naval Headquarters. It was the French mobilization notice.

And in the rue Royale, at the corner of the Place de la Concorde, a few people had stopped to look at a little white piece of paper against the wall of the Ministère de Marine. “General mobilization” they read – and an armed nation knows what that means. But the group about the paper was small and quiet. Passers by read the notice and went on. There were no cheers, no gesticulations: the dramatic sense of the race had told them that the event was too great to be dramatized. Like a monstrous landslide it had fallen across the path of an orderly laborious nation, disrupting its routine, annihilating its industries, rending families apart, and burying under a heap of senseless ruin the patiently and painfully wrought machinery of civilization. . . .



Later that night, Wharton dined at a restaurant on rue Royale, not far at all from the Crillon. It could have been Maxim’s, which was certainly a popular dining destination at the time. Wharton could see that the mobilization order was already being obeyed.

That evening, in a restaurant of the rule Royale, we sat at a table in one of the open windows, abreast with the street, and saw the strange new crowds stream by. In an instant we were being shown what mobilization was – a huge break in the normal flow of traffic, like the sudden rupture of a dike. The street was flooded by the torrent of people flowing past us to the various railway stations. All were on foot, and carrying their luggage; for since dawn, every cab and taxi and motor-omnibus has disappeared. The War Office had thrown out its drag-net and caught them all in. The crowd that passed out window was chiefly composed of conscripts, the mobilisables of the first day, who were on their way to the station accompanied by their families and friends; but among them were little clusters of bewildered tourists, laboring along with bags and bundles, and watching their luggage pushed before them with hand-carts – puzzled inarticulate waifs caught in the cross-tides racing to a maelstrom (Fighting France, Scribner’s 1915).



Inside the rue Royal restaurant a loud patriotic mood prevailed.

In the restaurant, the befrogged and red-coated band poured out patriotic music, and the intervals between the courses that so few waiters were left to serve were broken by the ever-recurring obligation to stand up for the Marseillaise, and to stand up for God Save the King, to stand up for the Russian National Anthem, to stand up again for the Marseillaise. “Et dire que ce sont des Hongrois qui jouent tout cela!” a humorist remarked from the pavement. [And to say that they are all Hungarians who play here!]

As the evening wore on and the crowd about our window thickened, the loiterers outside began to join in the war-songs. “Allons, debout!” and the loyal round begins again. “La chanson du départ” is a frequent demand; and the chorus of spectators chimes in roundly. A sort of quiet humor was the note of the street. Down the rue Royale, toward the Madeleine, the bands of other restaurants were attracting other throngs, and martial refrains were stru ng along the Boulevard like its garland of arc-lights. It was a night of singing and acclamations, not boistrous, but gallant and determined. It was Paris badauderie at its best

(Fighting France, Scribner’s 1915).


Families accompanying their soon-to-be French soldiers to the train station, August 1914. Source: http://vergue.com/post/2013/10/08/A-la-guerre-en-chantant-1914

Families accompanying their soon-to-be French soldiers to the train station, August 1914. Source: http://vergue.com/post/2013/10/08/A-la-guerre-en-chantant-1914


Mobilization in Paris, August 4, 1914. Source: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6931124r

Mobilization in Paris, August 4, 1914.


Lines form for French mobilization at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. The official order was given at 4 pm on Saturday, August 1st, beginning the initial call-up of a million men for the French Army. Source: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/firstworldwar/fr-mobilize.htm

Lines form for French mobilization at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. The official order was given at 4 pm on Saturday, August 1st, beginning the initial call-up of a million men for the French Army. Source: http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/firstworldwar/fr-mobilize.htm









*A note about dates: Edith Wharton’s exact dates get confusing in Fighting France, The Look of Paris. She often repeats herself by saying, “the next day.” The reader is left to wonder, the next day, or the same day as the last time you said the next day? For example, it appears the French mobilization order was issued at 4pm on August 1st, but it was dated August 2nd. So did Edith Wharton see the posted notice late in the day on the first or mid-day on the 2nd? Sorry to confuse you even further. My point is, I’m trying to get the dates right but I could be off a day or two. Let’s just all stipulate that it’s definitely early August? Good. Then I’m done worrying about it.

Recommended Reading:

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.




Paris, August 1,1914: Edith Wharton Waits for War

August 1, 1914: Edith Wharton Wakes Up at the Hôtel de Crillon; Russia and Germany Declare War

Edith Wharton had been living in Paris for over seven years by the time World War I started. She first arrived in 1907 at the age of 45, along with her then-husband Teddy Wharton. She settled in along the rue de Varenne in the fashionable 7th arrondissement.

age of desire 1


For an enjoyable read about Edith Wharton’s early years in Paris, her surprising mid-life affair with Morton Fullerton, and her divorce from her American husband, you should definitely check out Jennie Fields’ 2012 novel, Age of Desire. (And follow along on my Edith Wharton Paris Literary Tour here.)

By the time war came in 1914, Wharton was a seasoned American in Paris. She knew Paris and Parisians well, and had claimed the city as her own.



On July 30, 1914, Wharton had just returned to Paris from a “motorflight” to Spain with her friend Walter Berry. She checked into her favorite suite at Hôtel de Crillon, her favorite Paris hotel on the Place de la Concorde. It was her habit to check into the Crillon to get settled back into town, even if she had owned her own home at 53 rue de Varenne since 1910.

Hôtel Crillon, Paris

Hôtel Crillon, Paris

The view of the back of Edith Wharton’s apartment at 53 rue de Varenne, which overlooked beautiful private gardens.

The view of the back of Edith Wharton’s apartment at 53 rue de Varenne, which overlooked beautiful private gardens.

Wharton woke up at the Crillon on August 1st, observing and listening as she moved through the hotel and the streets of Paris. As Wharton later reported:

The next day, the air was thundery with rumors. Nobody believed them, everyone repeated them. War? Of course there couldn’t be war! The Cabinets, like naughty children, were dangling their feet over the edge; but the whole incalculable weight of things-as-they-were, the daily necessity of living, continued calmly and convincingly to assert itself against the bandying of diplomatic words. Paris went on steadily with its mid-summer business of feeding, dressing and amusing the great army of tourists who were the only invaders she had seen in nearly half a century.


All the while, everyone knew that other work was going on also. The whole fabric of the country’s seemingly undisturbed routine was threaded with noiseless invisible currents of preparation, the sense of them was in the calm air as the sense of changing weather is in the balminess of a perfect afternoon. Paris counted the minutes until the evening papers came.


They said little or nothing except what everyone was already declaring all over the country. “We don’t want war – maid il faut que cell finesse!” “This thing has got to stop”: that was the only phrase one heard. If diplomacy could still arrest the war, so much the better – no one in France wanted it. All who spent the first days of August in Paris will testify to the agreement of feeling on that point. But if war had to come, the country, and every heart in it, was ready (Fighting France, 1915).


What Wharton does not say is exactly what the papers had reported. In fact, on August 1, 1914, Russia and Germany declared war on each other, just four days after Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. France was not yet at war, but all of Paris waited the news that was likely to come.

Coming Next: August 2, 1914 – Edith Wharton Visits Her Dressmaker; France Issues a Mobilization Order


Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.



Edith Wharton Waits for War

Edith Wharton, 1905

Edith Wharton, 1905

Edith Wharton might have looked like one of the Gilded Age society matrons straight out of the pages of her novels like The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, but it turns out she could really roll up her sleeves when the situation demanded. Now, on the 100th anniversary of World War I, it is time we give Wharton full credit for her service as an American war correspondent and refugee aid worker.

Wharton recorded her observations about World War I in a series of articles for Scribner’s Magazine. Since then, these articles have been published together in a book called Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort. Her war work, which included charitable efforts on behalf of Belgian refugees and international advocacy against American neutrality, earned her a French Legion of Honor medal in 1916.

A postcard sent by Edith Wharton to her housekeeper Anna Bauman picturing the town of Heiltz-le Maurupt after the First Battle of the Marne in September, 1914.

A postcard sent by Edith Wharton to her housekeeper Anna Bauman picturing the town of Heiltz-le Maurupt after the First Battle of the Marne in September, 1914.

This blog will follow in her footsteps from the outbreak of World War I in July, 1914 through her travels through the battlefields of the Champagne-Ardennes region in early 1915, and her visit to the Lorraine and Vosges regions in May of 1915. In addition to her travels to the German front, Wharton worked tirelessly to organize workshops for unemployed Parisian women and shelters for Belgian refugees.

July 30, 1914: Wharton Returns to Paris, Stops at Chartres Cathedral on the Eve of World War I

It was the last days of July, 1914. Edith Wharton and her “unromantically companionable” travel partner Walter Berry were hurrying back to Paris from a three week trip to Spain. Events in Europe were quickly escalating after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. As Wharton herself put it: “the international news [was] looking fairly black.” Just a few days earlier, on July 28, 1914, Austria had declared war on Serbia. Wharton and Berry spent the night in Poitiers, where the atmosphere was “strange, ominous and unreal, like the yellow glare that precedes a storm. There were moments when I felt as if I had died, and waked up in an unknown world.” (A Backward Glance, 1934).

Nevertheless, as Wharton and Berry drove from Poitiers to Paris, they stopped for a picnic lunch underneath some apple trees and she found it hard to think about the reality of war: “the serenity of the scene smiled away the war rumours which had hung on us since morning.” (Fighting France From Dunkerque to Belfort, The Look of Paris, Scribner’s, 1915).

The traveling companions made it to Chartres by four o’clock that afternoon, just as the sun was bursting out from behind banks of thunderclouds. They entered the Chartres Cathedral, stood before the magnificent stained glass windows, and sought solace from the beauty and power of the sight before them. Wharton later recalled the scene like this:

[S]teeped in a blaze of mid-summer sun, the familiar windows seemed singularly remote yet overwhelmingly vivid. Now they widened into dark-shored pools splashed with sunset, now glittered and menaced like the shields of fighting angels. . . . When one dropped one’s eyes from these ethereal harmonies, the dark masses of masonry below them, all veiled and muffled in a mist pricked by a few altar lights, seemed to symbolize the life on earth, with its shadows, its heavy distances and its little islands of illusion. All that a great cathedral can be, all the meanings it can express, all the tranquilizing power it can breathe upon the soul, all the richness of detail it can fuse into a large utterance of strength and beauty, the Cathedral of Chartres gave us in that perfect hour (Fighting France, The Look of Paris).


A Visit to Chartres in Wharton’s Footsteps

You too can feel the same tranquilizing power of the stained glass windows of Chartres. The train ride from Paris to Chartres is as short as one hour, and the Cathedral is an easy five minute walk from the Chartres train station. If you’re lucky, the sun will pop out for you just like it did for Wharton and Berry in 1914. Unfortunately, the day of my visit it was wet and rainy, and only the dimmest of light poured through the windows.



The Blue Virgin Window in the Chartres Cathedral.

The Blue Virgin Window in the Chartres Cathedral.




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South Rose Window

South Rose Window


Standing in the rain outside the cathedral

Standing in the rain outside the cathedral


If you’re looking for a good spot for lunch on a day trip to Chartres, the town is absolutely full of them. But for an unbelievably memorable crêpe, you’ve got to stop in at Creperie la Picoterie at 36 rue des Changes, Chartres.

Creperie la Picoterie

Creperie la Picoterie


Creperie la Picoterie’s buckwheat crepe with smoked duck, apples, cherries, goat cheese, lettuce, black olives and rhubarb compote. As good as it looks!


One of my traveling pals got the Pain de Poilane sandwich with sun-dried tomatoes and it was incredible too.


Next Up in Wharton’s Footsteps: Paris on the Eve of War, August 1914


Recommended Reading:

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook at archive.org.


Hermione Lee's biography of Edith Wharton

Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton













A Day in Paris With Edith Wharton

I just finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Paris to play “Edith For A Day.”

The Age of Desire is the fictionalized story of Edith Wharton’s steamy mid-life extramarital affair with Morton Fullerton between the years of 1907-1910. It’s not just another imagined love story, this novel is based on Edith Wharton’s own letters, which Morton Fullerton saved and which are now housed in a collection at the University of Texas.

Edith Wharton’s life in Paris was one of upper-crust privilege, governed by strict rules of propriety. But these private letters show that she still found a way to carve out space for another secret life, one that was free, defiant and passionate. It’s a great story – who doesn’t wonder how Edith, such a grand dame of New York high society, could become so unhinged by an unreliable, bisexual American boulevardier?

Let’s walk in her footsteps and see where she pursued this double life. Follow along on my Edith Wharton Tour on this Google Map.

Edith Wharton arrived in Paris in the winter of 1907 along with her wet-blanket husband Teddy and her long-time secretary Anna. Edith was 45 years old and had recently published The House of Mirth. As Edith herself later said in A Backward Glance, she was looking for a flat in Paris so she could “see people who shared my tastes.”

And Edith had good taste. The Whartons rented a Left Bank apartment owned by George Vanderbilt.  As Fields said in Age of Desire:

Edith was enamored the moment she stepped in to visit George a few seasons ago. It boasts all the Faubourg’s most ravishing touches: high ceilings, exquisite boiseries and elegant moldings. George’s oriental vases and lush Aubusson carpets only make it more elegant.

The Vanderbilts obviously had a good sense for real estate. The townhouse came with its own staff, although the Whartons also hired their own local bonne. The top floor featured a common room where the servants gathered in the evening.

You can visit 58 rue de Varenne, but you can’t get inside. It is now a carefully guarded annex to the Prime MInister’s office, which is across the street in the Hotel Matignon.

58 rue de Varenne, Edith Wharton’s first apartment in Paris (1907-1909). Rented from George Vanderbilt. Currently an annex of the Prime Minister’s office across the street in Hotel Matignon. The day I went to visit, the doorway to the courtyard was open but I was quickly chased away. The guard thought I was crazy when I told him L’Americaine Edith Wharton used to lived there. “Non, le PM!”

After the guard escorted me out of the courtyard and back onto the sidewalk, he did allow me to take this photo looking back into the courtyard. Can you picture Edith back there, greeting Henry James or Morton Fullerton at the door?

Edith enjoyed her social life in the Left Bank world of teas and salons. She was good  friends with the French author Paul Bourget, who lived around the corner with his wife Minnie on rue Barbet de Jouy.

Edith loved attending the Tuesday night salons of the widowed Comtesse Rosa de FitzJames at 142 rue de Grenelle, which is now the Swiss Embassy. In fact, it was at Rosa’s salon that Edith first met the roguish Morton Fullerton.

Morton Fullerton

You can tell that Jenny Fields had fun playing with the attraction between Edith and Morton in Age of Desire. At their first meeting, Morton told Edith that he’d read and enjoyed The House of Mirth, and impressed Edith by asking about Lily Bart. Nice ice breaker for a writer, right? When they discovered they were mutual friends of Henry James, Edith was definitely intrigued. She couldn’t wait to see Morton again.

But Edith would have to wait. Discretion prevailed. When Henry James came for an extended visit at Edith’s, Morton dropped by as often as he could. Edith and Morton finally had a private get-to-know-you walk through Edith’s posh Left Bank neighborhood, “the sun . . . splash[ing] itself all along the high-walled hotel particuliers of the rue de Varenne.” 

In the pages of Age of Desire, Edith and Morton strolled down to the nearby lawns of Les Invalides. When they sat down in a nearby garden, things really started to buzz:

In the garden, they locate a bench and sit side by side. She can sense his body heat, and takes in his odor of driftwood and lavender. Edith feels something she hasn’t felt in a long time and cannot name. . . .

[Morton says,] “See that honeybee?”  On the hedge behind them, a honeybee as far as a blackberry is trying to wedge himself greedily into the narrow trumpet of a pink flower. Fullerton turns his gaze to her and says, “That’s how drawn  I am to you.”

Really, Morton, you little devil. No more Age of Innocence for Edith.

Square d’Ajaccio near Les Invalides in Paris. I could easily picture Edith and Morton on one of those benches. It was a pretty romantic park in real life.  One amorous couple kissed shamelessly on a bench while another were entangled in the grass. Ah, Paris!

Unfortunately, Edith’s newfound passion would have to wait some more. The Whartons returned each spring to their palatial home (The Mount) in Lenox, Massachusetts, and would not return to Paris until December, 1907.

Edith and Morton’s relationship finally escalated the next season in Paris. They snuck off on long walks through Montmartre, the Tuileries, and Luxembourg Gardens. They met at the Louvre, took daring trips in her car. Their love become ostentatious; people took notice. But Edith didn’t care. How can a woman say no to those little green boxes of macarons framboise from La Durée?

“Instead of flowers, [Morton] proffers a pale green box of gleaming pastel macaroons from Laduré, the pastry shop on Rue Royale.”

After a long, romantic winter, the Vanderbilt lease was up and it was time for Edith to return to the United States. Before her ship set sail, Edith spent a few weeks at her brother’s townhouse at Place des ´Etas-Unis on the Right Bank. When Morton came to visit her there, Edith felt the need to apologize for her brother’s trés American taste:

“It’s just like my brother to choose to live in Paris but reside on a street called American Place,” she says.

“Ah yes [says Morton]. Sophisticated Mrs. Wharton wouldn’t be caught dead here . . . and yet here you are!”

A lovely old residence on Place Etat-Unis, a beautiful square in the 16th arrondissement where Edith’s brother Harry Jones lived.  Yes, it’s true, a lot of Americans lived there and still do. In this scene in the novel, Fields does a great job of capturing Edith’s Left Bank snobbery.

Hotel Crillon, Edith Wharton’s home base in Paris.

The folks at the Crillon’s boutique were good sports and let me take this photo of a Hotel Crillon bathrobe. I was trying to picture Edith in a robe and slippers, scribbling away about Undine Spragg’s time in Paris, but that got a little weird.

Even if you can’t swing a month at the Crillon like Edith, you can still enjoy a nice Sancerre on the terrace.


Edith lands on the perfect apartment at last. And to think it’s just across the street from the Vanderbilts’ on the Rue de Varenne. But bigger, and newer, with its own guest suite and servants’ quarters and steam heat! Unheard of in Paris. And what makes it so extraordinary is that the rooms are luxuriously spacious and overlook a small but elegant garden. A garden! It’s all she could want in space and light. Precisely in the part of the Faubourg she loves.

53 rue de Varenne, Edith Wharton’s home in Paris.

The plaque at 53 rue de Varenne commemorating Edith Wharton’s years here (1910-1920),  her love for France and her friendship with Henry James.

The carriage door was open, so I was able to walk inside toward the courtyard and glimpse a peek of the lovely tiled lobby of Edith Wharton’s former townhouse at 53 rue de Varenne.

The view of the back of Edith Wharton’s apartment at 53 rue de Varenne, which overlooked beautiful private gardens. Look again at the cover of Age of Desire. Looks like Edith could be standing right there, doesn’t it?

Fouquet’s on Champs  Elysée. You can have a perfectly pleasant (although pretty expensive) dinner there, unlike the miserable dinner Edith and Morton had toward the end of the book!

If you find yourself in Paris and would like to have your own Edith Wharton Day, just follow along on my Google Map. I would recommend starting at the Rue de Bac Métro stop, walking down the rue de Varenne, and then heading over to Les Invalides. From that point you can walk across the Seine or hop back on the Métro to get to the Crillon, La Durée and Fouquet’s. After some macaroons from La Durée, a glass of wine at the Crillon and dinner at Fouquet’s, you’ll definitely feel spoiled, and perhaps, a little like Edith.

Age of Desire is an entertaining treat for Edith Wharton fans, but is also a good read for those who haven’t yet read her work. Be prepared, though, because after you read Age of Desire, you could end up spending the next month holed up in a chair, getting nothing else done, reading or re-reading all of Edith Wharton’s marvelous novels and stories. To those  purists who object when their favorite literary icons are injected with thoughts and actions from another author’s imagination, I say just give it a try. Play along.

Jennie Fields does a fabulous job following Edith and Morton through Paris and beyond. In the course of her research, Jennie visited Herblay, Senslis and Montmorency, some of the towns outside Paris to which Edith and Morton snuck off to for their trysts. Field’s research pays off. I thought it was beautifully imagined and very well researched. It’s definitely a recommended read.