The Secret Love of Edith Wharton’s Life
On the Mystery of Walter Van Rensselaer Berry
In 1883, a young redheaded Edith Newbold Jones spent the summer in Bar Harbor, Maine, hiking and canoeing with a young fellow named Walter Van Rensselaer Berry. She was 21, shy, yet precocious, still in the grip of her aristocratic family, and mourning the recent death of her beloved father; he was 27, striking, fastidious and debonair, a burgeoning lawyer. In Berry, Edith found a man she could talk to about books, art, and history, a man who shared her intellectual enthusiasms, and enlivened her spirit. In her autobiography A Backward Glance, she described their summer together as “a fleeting hint of what the communion of kindred intelligences might be.” But Berry left without proposing, and later that summer, Wharton met her future husband, Teddy. For the next 14 years, she and Berry kept only in sporadic touch.
So began the most significant relationship in Edith Wharton’s life, and also the most deliciously mysterious. At his death in 1927, Wharton called Berry, “the great love of all my life,” and wrote to a mutual friend, “All my life goes with him. He knew me all through, & wd see no one else but me.” They’re buried side by side in France, yet they never married, or even revealed the precise extent of their relationship. Later in life, after her divorce, Wharton and Berry’s friends, including Henry James, assumed both that he would propose and that they were lovers, but no one knew for certain, and he never did propose. Instead, Berry toured around war-torn Europe with Wharton, while maintaining his bachelor lifestyle in Paris.
When he reentered her life in the late 1890s, he was 37. R.W.B. Lewis described him as “a tall, slender man with a well-trimmed mustache, owning a reputation for urbanity, a range of humanistic learning, and a habit of mildly lewd facetiousness; a persistent gallant and a confirmed bachelor who was much in demand in Washington society.”
He became her devoted literary advisor and cheerleader at a time when she was insecure about her ability to write. (Meanwhile Teddy was declaring, “Amazing that someone so slim-waisted should also possess literary talent!”) He protected her from Teddy’s bouts of mania near the end of their marriage, even moving into their apartment in Paris to act as an intermediary, looked after her through numerous depressive spells, including a sort of identity crisis at age 32, and gave Edith her treasured copy of Leaves of Grass, inscribing it: I follow you whoever you are from the present hour, taken from the “Song of Myself” stanza:
I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me?
I follow you whoever you are from the present hour,
My words itch at your ears till you understand them.
This isn’t necessarily the inscription of a lover, but it’s not exactly a simple message from a friend. Here he is suggesting to Edith that he’s “teaching” her to not to want him, while asserting that there’s no way she couldn’t want him. (Incidentally, Marcel Proust was madly in love with Walter Berry, calling him, “probably the being whom I love most in the world.”) If Edith was in love with Berry, she might have been frustrated or confused by his intentions, and it’s possible that he was too. In his copy of La Rochefoucauld, “he marked a passage wondering whether a great love could ever travel l’esprit au coeur—from the mind to the heart.”
Edith destroyed all their correspondence when he died, but a few crumbs remain. The most tantalizing is a 1923 postcard, in which Walter reminisces about their time together in Maine:
Dearest — The real dream — mine — was in the canoe and in the night afterwards, — for I lay awake wondering and wondering, — and then, when morning came, wondering how I could have wondered, — I a $-less lawyer (not even that yet) with just about enough cash for the canoe and for Rodick’s bill —And then, later, in the little cottage at Newport, I wondered why I hadn’t — for it would have been good, — and the slices of years slid by.
Well, my dear, I’ve never ‘wondered’ about anyone else, and there wouldn’t be much of me if you were cut out of it. Forty years of it is you, dear. W.
In her biography of Edith, Hermione Lee argues that we “cannot assume from this one tender (if self-preserving) note from an old friend in his mid-sixties, or from her fiction, that Edith Wharton spent the years of her marriage, and the rest of her life, wishing she had been married to Walter Berry.” This caution is reasonable, but conservative. What should we assume? With these two, there are too many opportunities to think—and yet.
Aloof and analytic as she was considered to be on the surface, Wharton was also intensely passionate, keeping a secret diary during her brief affair with Morton Fullerton in 1908, the dapper and seductive scalawag she met through Henry James. Though her marriage was long over, she was not yet officially divorced from Teddy Wharton at the time, and she hid the affair from Berry, likely to avoid his disapproval. In her diary, she lifted the gate on her stifled feelings of romantic disappointment:
How often I used to say to myself: “No one can love life as I do, love the beauty & splendor & the ardour, & find words for them as I can, without having a share in them some day”—And the day came—the day has been—& I have poured into it all my stored up joy of living, all my sense of the beauty & mystery of the world, every impression of joy & loveliness, in sight or sound or touch, that I ever figured to myself in all the lovely days when I used to weave such sensations into a veil of colour to hide the great blank behind…”
The “great blank” may have had as much to do with Berry as with her unhappy marriage. It was in Berry that she discovered the connection she longed for in a husband, and with Teddy Wharton that she suffered the absence of that connection—for 28 years. Beneath her cool exterior was a consciously, painfully withheld wellspring of emotion. On February 22nd, 1908, she wrote in the same diary of “saying for once what I feel, and all that I feel, as other women do…” And a few months later, “I am a little humbled, a little ashamed, to find how poor a thing I am, how the personality I had moulded into such strong firm lines has crumbled to a pinch of ashes in this flame.”
Fullerton broke her heart, but she recovered, expanded by the experience. The love letters are the creation of a writer worshipful of life and love, a bone-deep romantic who felt the tragic endings of her stories. The Fullerton affair gave Wharton the chance to express her depth of feeling (outside of her fiction) for the first, and possibly only, time in her life. With Berry, full expression may have been complicated. Fullerton was uninhibited, a rover in artistic circles; Berry was a lawyer and a diplomat who, while he stood somewhat apart from the conventions in which both he and Edith were raised, still abided them.
Could Walter Berry be there in Lawrence Selden, the handsome young lawyer whose skepticism stands in the way of his heart in The House of Mirth? Or in Newland Archer, another lawyer, and an intellectual rule-follower who retreats from reigniting a romance with his lost love Madame Olenska, at the close of The Age of Innocence? “For such summer dreams it was too late;” Wharton wrote in the final chapter, “but surely not for a quiet harvest of friendship, of comradeship, in the blessed hush of her nearness.”
The themes that encompass Wharton’s writing—silent longing, chances lost, words never spoken—all seem to trace the enigmatic figure of Walter Berry. And perhaps that’s how she wanted it, even within her own heart. “…I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms,” she wrote in “The Fullness of Life,” during the early years of her marriage. “There is the hall, through which everyone passes in, going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”