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Under The Radar: At Home With Edith Wharton

A detail of the book's cover.
Courtesy photo

This month’s “Under the Radar” segment features a beautiful book about a famous author’s home. Reviewer Lev Raphael spoke with WKAR’s Melissa Benmark about Edith Wharton at Home.

LEV RAPHAEL: It’s really hard to find a book for the holidays for your gift list that fits more than one category. But I’ve got one that fits a handful of categories. It’s perfect for your friends and family who love gardening or landscaping. It’s perfect for readers of American literature. It’s perfect for history buffs. It’s perfect for the armchair traveler. And that’s a lot of groups right there.

It’s “Edith Wharton at Home: Life at the Mount.” And it’s a glorious human-sized coffee table book that would make a perfect gift for anyone of these people. It gives you the history of Edith Wharton’s involvement in the design and building of her gorgeous home in western Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, where many other Gilded Age people built summer homes.

Hers is French- and Italian-influenced, and you get a beautiful guided tour of the home, her magnificent gardens, and go behind the scenes to understand how she thought of homes—what they should offer, how they should be designed, how they should be built. Most people who read Edith Wharton or have heard of her do not know that her first book was a book of interior decoration in collaboration with a well-known architect who helped on this house.

MELISSA BENMARK: No kidding? Because you can tell, looking at it, the first thing that popped into my mind is, this is a house that has had real attention paid. It reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s house, the pictures.

RAPHAEL: Yes. Every single detail was gone over very, very carefully. And not just with the idea of building a beautiful home, but building a beautiful home that could be a great stage and welcoming place for guests. And everybody who was a guest there said there was nothing to beat Edith Wharton’s hospitality. Now, she wasn’t a Vanderbilt, she wasn’t one of those extremely wealthy people of the Gilded Age. But she had taste, she had style, and she loved to entertain.

And this home is—to most of us, it would seem magnificent, but for the period it’s actually very simple. Clean lines, and it looks a bit like an Italian villa or a French chateau high up on a hill. I’ve been there a few times. It’s been massively renovated over the years, and I think that one of the great treasures of it is that her original library, most of her original library is still there. It was found in England, it was not destroyed in the Blitz luckily, and so you get to see her books where they first were. And you get a feel for her life.

What I love about this book is that it’s not only beautifully written, but it combines history, architecture, landscape design, American literature, and so it’s interesting on every single level. And it’s hard to put down. In addition, it is a gorgeously produced book. And I think this would be perfect for many, many people on anybody’s holiday list.

BENMARK: One of the things I thought was interesting is that there are some historic photos of her included as well, including one of her sneaking a smoke in the corner of the garden!

RAPHAEL: Yes, it was not considered too ladylike to smoke. This was a period, the early 1900s, where not only were women not supposed to smoke in public, they also were not supposed to put makeup on in public. And so that was a big change in the period.

But her house is faithful to her love for Italian villas. She wrote a book about Italian gardens and villas, and I think this book itself feels like a voyage in time that you really never want to end.

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