Edith Wharton’s relationship with Paris, and all things French, started early. As a child, she had studied French with a private tutor and she had travelled to Paris with her family as a girl.
When she returned to France in her forties, her French was flawless and she rented an apartment at the exclusive Hotel de Crillon a little way from the Louvre Museum. The hotel had two terraces looking out over Place du Concorde and a grand piano playing in the living room every evening. She had a nice penthouse apartment where she had the sensation of being up in the sky overlooking the whole of Paris.
Wharton saw the Hôtel de Crillon as a place which welcomed a cultivated set of people. Wharton herself came from a good “old New York” family. She had money to spend and felt that, here in Paris, an intellectual woman such as herself had a voice. In America, wealthy women were seen merely as measure of their husband’s success.
In her novel “The Custom of the Country” Wharton spells out how marriage in America puts an end to any notions a woman might have to develop her cultural interests. American husbands buy their wives paintings and pretty things in order to distract them from the real business of the day which takes place in the male only board rooms.
In 1907, Edith Wharton was introduced to William Morton Fullerton by her good friend Henry James. Morton Fullerton was working as a journalist in Paris for the London Times. In a letter to a friend, Wharton states that she found Fullerton to be very intelligent. However, even from the outset, she sensed that he had an air of mysteriousness about him.
Wharton was forty five years old at the time and already an established writer. Her novel, “The House of Mirth” was enjoying great success in America and she was considerably wealthy. Her husband of twenty years, Teddy Wharton, came from a good Bostonian family.
Fullerton, it seems, had a colourful past which included homosexual relationships, a divorced wife and a blackmailing mistress.
According to Shari Benstock, Fullerton decided to move to Paris leaving “a messy and entangled sexual past” behind him. In London, Fullerton moved in the same upper-class Edwardian society as the writer, Henry James, did. It seems that, with his his overwhelming charm, he attracted a host of friends and lovers.
He was married to opera singer Camille Chabert in 1903. The following year Chabert divorced Fullerton because she could not tolerate his affairs. He was involved simultaneously with a least two other French women – Adèle Moutot, a minor actress whose stage name was Madame Mirecourt, and Hélène Pouget, an artist’s model from Nîmes.
Fullerton was also having a “quasi-incestuous relationship” with Katherine Fullerton, his adopted sister and cousin right up to the time he met Wharton.