By Ellen Girardeau Kempler

Edith Wharton and Catherine Gross, Saint-Claire du Chateau (via Style Court)

The Mount is claimed to be the site of various ghost-sightings; why are some canine-related?

“Do you believe in ghosts?” is the pointless question often addressed by those who are incapable of feeling ghostly influences to—I will not say the ghost-seer, always a rare bird, but—the ghost-feeler, the person sensible of the invisible currents of being in certain places and at certain hours.

The celebrated reply (I forget whose): “No, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them,” is much more than the cheap paradox it seems to many.

– Edith Wharton, Ghosts

Whether or not visitors believe that The Mount — Wharton’s former Lenox, Massachusetts estate — is haunted, they can certainly thrill at the spooky stories which swirl about it. Many swear that they’ve seen a face outside the three-story-high bathroom window or inexplicable lights and orbs in the stable or, most curiously, canine spirits flitting about. But why would Wharton’s home be haunted by dogs?

Wharton, Mimi and Miza, circa 1889-90 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Edith Wharton the Dog-Lover

Dogs had been Wharton’s constant companions since her father surprised her at age four with a Spitz she named Foxy. These pets were also one of the few interests that she and her husband, Teddy Wharton, would share in their childless marriage. In their first (and best) years together, their days were filled with Jules, Teddy’s terrier, Mouton, Edith’s poodle, and her two long-haired Chihuahuas, Mimi and Miza. With Teddy often gone to the family’s main estate in Newport, Rhode Island, the dogs kept Edith company when she first began writing at their home in New York. Following the publication of three of her poems, she gained the confidence to start her first book, The Decoration of Houses, and developed her lifelong routine of writing in bed with the dogs tucked in beside her.

Mimi died a year after the Whartons had purchased the 113-acre property in Lenox on which Edith would design The Mount. Mimi's hillside grave, visible from the library and sitting room, was the first of four in the estate’s pet cemetery. The family's next dogs were the Papillons, Nicette and Mitou; after their deaths, Edith only owned Pekingese: Tootie, Choumai, Petite Tootie, Coonie and Linky. They provided her with comfort through her troubled marriage, a possible nervous breakdown, a brief affair, frequent trips back and forth to Europe, divorce (after Teddy, apparently bipolar, spent a large portion of her trust fund, thus forcing the sale of The Mount) and the end of her life in the south of France. Friends said that the Pekingese temperament was much like Edith’s own: stubborn, proud, dignified and independent.

Wharton’s dogs Mitou, Miza and Nicette (via The Mount)

Edith Wharton the Ghost Story Writer

Even fans of Wharton may not realize that, along with her social novels, she also wrote ghost stories. One of her most haunting images from the 1937 collection Ghosts includes a Pekingese, “small and golden brown, with large brown eyes and a ruffled throat,” who “looked like a large tawny chrysanthemum.” The dog is one of four which appears when the lone narrator, a prospective buyer visiting friends in Brittany, explores a deserted estate named “Kerfol.” The first three — the Pekingese, a black greyhound with a lame leg and a “long-haired white mongrel” — stand “looking … with grave eyes” as the fourth, “a white pointer with one brown ear,” watches from a window. They all defy the narrator’s expectations by remaining silent and slinking beyond his reach as he walks deeper into the property, then they reappear again only to stand motionless and mute.

The story concludes with an account of judicial records in which the wife of the Lord of Kerfol is accused of murdering her husband, who is found “dreadfully scratched and gashed about the face and throat, as if with curious pointed weapons.” In her testimony, the wife relates her “desolate” loneliness when her husband would go off for months without explanation. Unable to bear children, she is alone in their gloomy estate until he returns, each time with an exotic gift. One of these presents is a “sleeve dog,” which is small enough to fit in a kimono. When the husband suspects his wife of being overly familiar with a neighboring nobleman, he strangles the dog as well as three other strays she had taken in. The wife tells the court of later, during the night of her husband's death, hearing a pack of dogs snarling.

Do Miza, Mimi and Wharton’s other pets haunt The Mount as the dogs of her story inhabit Kerfol? Visitors looking to discover the truth might want to keep in mind Wharton’s words from The Age of Innocence: “There are moments when a man’s imagination, so easily subdued to what it lives in, suddenly rises above its daily level, and surveys the long windings of destiny.”

Ellen Girardeau Kempler finds inspiration in green places and witty words. An Iron Age boat she discovered on a solo writing trip to Ireland inspired her travel company, Gold Boat Journeys. Her articles and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post and many other publications.

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