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  • Susan Stoderl

Edith Wharton's Incredible Writings and Philanthropy in WWI France.

Pictures of war torn France
American Author Edith Wharton Aids WWI France

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) knew many real-life Cora Crawleys of Downton Abbey. Had her parents been richer, and she prettier, she might have become one. Instead, Edith’s family went abroad in 1866 to live on the cheap. A string of European governesses taught her French, Italian, and German. This was to prepare Edith for her womanly duty—marry up the social ladder, or at least not plummet down it.

Her brother's friend, Edward “Teddy” Wharton was 12 years her senior. He had a magnificent trust fund. They wed when Edith was nearing spinsterhood at 23 and lived like their wealthy peers for a while. However, in 1907, when Edith discovered Teddy siphoning off her money to support his mistress, she left and moved to Paris. They divorced in 1913. Now in her 50s, she could write without the insanity—until World War I intervened.

While many of her friends fled France, Wharton remained in Paris and threw her energy into humanitarian initiatives. She established a workroom for unemployed women displaced by the economic disruption. In the first year, she raised $100,000 for her American Hostels for Refugees which aided over 9,000 refugees. The Children of Flanders Rescue Committee housed and schooled 750 refugee children, many of them tubercular.

To fund her charities, she contacted dozens of the most prominent writers and artists of that time. Their contributions became The Book of the Homeless, published in 1916. While visiting the front five times, writing war articles for Scribner's magazine, and touring military hospitals with blankets and clothing, she put the anthology together, including translating non-English works. Among the contributors were Jean Cocteau, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, William Dean Howells, George Santayana, W. B. Yeats, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry James, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Igor Stravinsky. The French government and Chevalier of the Order of Leopold made her Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by King Albert of Belgium.

The Book of the Homeless can be viewed on Project Gutenberg and it is well worth taking the time to check it out.


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