Renewed Interest in Author May Help Repair Her Home

IN a bedroom of The Mount, a palatial Italian-style estate in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, Edith Wharton followed a daily regimen. Waking at about 5 or 6 a.m., she propped herself up in bed with ``the dog of the moment'' curled under her left arm, according to a friend. For four or five hours she wrote in longhand, dropping each page onto the floor for her maid to pick up and type in another room.

Wharton, who built The Mount in 1902 and lived here until 1911, wrote a number of her 42 novels, short-story collections, and nonfiction works in this fashion. She was one of the most popular writers of her time and in 1921 became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel ``The Age of Innocence.''

Now, 56 years after her death, interest in Edith Wharton and her works is surging as the film and publishing industries consider her books hot property.

Last spring, ``Ethan Frome,'' a haunting love story set in a rural Massachusetts town, hit movie theaters. ``The Age of Innocence'' is currently playing to audiences across the country. TriStar Pictures is developing the satiric ``The Custom of the Country,'' and Warner Brothers has an option on ``The Glimpses of the Moon,'' a bestseller in 1922. Wharton's unfinished novel, ``The Buccaneers,'' with an ending by novelist Marion Mainwaring, is now on store shelves (see review, right). Twentieth Century Fox plans to make it into a movie.

``Hollywood says Edith Wharton is hot,'' says Scott Marshall, deputy director of Edith Wharton Restoration Inc., which owns The Mount. ``It doesn't surprise me. There's been a great interest in women's things. More women are directing films, forming their own production companies, seeking out projects that have an emphasis on women's issues. Wharton wrote stories with marvelous parts for women.''

Wharton, the daughter of a wealthy New York family, wrote her first book when she was 14. Many of her novels depict society life and its stifling effect on individuals.

Wharton built The Mount as a retreat from the stuffy atmosphere of Newport, R.I., where she and her husband owned a house. She furnished the 35-room white-stucco mansion simply but elegantly - a departure from the sumptuously decorated homes of the time. A private person, she shunned elaborate parties and entertained a close circle of literary friends, including Henry James.

After Wharton sold The Mount in 1911, the house had two owners before a girls' school got the property in the 1940s. The school went bankrupt in the 1970s; the house was left vacant for several years and suffered serious damage. Edith Wharton Restoration Inc. bought The Mount through a loan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and conducts tours from May to October. Visitors can also take in short one-act plays of Wharton's works by Shakespeare & Company, a theater group that lives on the property.

WHILE the organization has repaired the roof and done some painting, the house is a long way from its original splendor. Limited funds have prevented Edith Wharton Restoration Inc. from launching repairs, but the organization plans to start a $5-million five-year capital campaign in 1994. Mr. Marshall says the recent focus on Wharton's works will help boost the initiative when the group approaches foundations and individuals for support.

``Years ago, people would say `Edith Wharton, who?' '' he says. ``Now it's going to be a lot easier; people are going to know who she is, and they're going to understand the importance of a woman writer's home and what it represents.''

* For The Mount tour information, call 1-413-637-1899.

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