House Lust: Inside Land’s End, Edith Wharton’s Newport Estate

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist's summer "cottage," now on the market for $11.7 million, has a storied legacy.

High society in Newport was excellent source material for Edith Wharton — it even earned her a Pulitzer — but she didn’t necessarily want to participate in it.

In The Age of Innocence, Wharton paints a harsh portrait of the City by the Sea and its meaningless social obligations. Wharton was familiar with Newport’s culture; her family summered at Pencraig, an estate overlooking Newport Harbor, when she was a child and, in 1893, Wharton and her ill-matched husband, Edward, invested in a summer property of their own. Land’s End — which they reportedly bought for $800,000, or $2.3 million in 2019 dollars — is now on the market for $11.7 million.

Wharton attempted to make Land’s End her own, forgoing the Gilded opulence of the day for an understated renovation by renowned designer Ogden Codman Jr., with whom she collaborated on the interior design book, The Decoration of Houses. Wharton yearned to recreate the simplicity of Pencraig, writing in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, “To a little girl long pent up in hotels and flats, there was an inexhaustible delight in the freedom of a staircase to run up and down, of lawns and trees, a meadow full of clover and daisies, a pony to ride, terriers to romp with, a sheltered cove to bath in, flowerbeds spicy with ‘carnation, lily, rose,’ and a kitchen-garden crimson with strawberries and sweet as honey with Seckel pears.”

But the “stuffiness” of Newport society eventually got to the novelist and, after a decade at Land’s End, the Whartons sold the property and built a country estate in the Berkshires, where Wharton wrote her first bestseller.

Land’s End changed hands several times before socialite Marion “Oatsie” Charles purchased it in 1992. Charles’s death, last December at the age of ninety-nine, marked the end of an era. According to an obituary in the Washington PostCharles — “among the last of the grande dames of Georgetown and Newport” — once said, “Newport is a place where you go to be naughty.” It’s safe to say Oatsie had more fun than Edith in the City by the Sea. Times change.

Charles’s interior design tastes clearly skewed toward the opulent (blue peacocks and gilded statues aren’t what we’d call understated) but there’s a quirkiness to the place that shouts: A strong woman — one with sharp and prolific opinions — lived here. Edith would approve.

Here’s your House Lust:

For more information on Land’s End, visit liladelman.com.

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