Gatsby of the Boulevards

Hermione Lee

  • Mysteries of Paris: The Quest for Morton Fullerton by Marion Mainwaring
    New England, 327 pp, £23.00, March 2001, ISBN 1 58465 008 7

In the spring of 1907, a few weeks after Edith Wharton had met Morton Fullerton in Paris, she described him to a mutual friend as ‘very intelligent, but slightly mysterious, I think’. Eight years later, by which time her passionate affair with Fullerton was long over, Henry James, in one of his last letters to her, confirmed her first thoughts about the man who had fascinated them both. ‘WMF … is the most inscrutable of men – he will never pose long enough for the Camera of Identification.’

Marion Mainwaring, in Mysteries of Paris: The Quest for Morton Fullerton, attempts to focus the Camera of Identification on this slippery customer, whose claim to fame lies in his relationship with those great writers, and his influence on at least two of their most seductive and least reliable fictional characters: Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove (1902) and George Darrow in The Reef (1912). Like other biographies tracking the ‘invisible lives’ of writers’ lovers – Claire Tomalin’s Life of Dickens’s Ellen Ternan, or the now-forgotten but interesting Portrait of Zélide (Benjamin Constant’s mistress, Mme de Charrière) by Wharton’s friend Geoffrey Scott – Mainwaring’s Mysteries is the product of long and deep digging in all kinds of likely and unlikely places. And in this dogged quest, she has been driven by motives quite as mixed and dark as anything in Eugène Sue’s sensational Mystères de Paris, from which she draws her teasing title. This intriguing and decidedly peculiar book is about betrayal and bad faith – and not just in Morton Fullerton’s treatment of Edith Wharton. There are three plots here: the story of an amatory confidence-man’s relationship with his distinguished mistress; the story of the researcher’s pursuit of her subject; and the story of a biographer’s treatment of his researcher.

In R.W.B. Lewis’s acclaimed and prize-winning biography of Edith Wharton, published in 1975, he describes having first heard the name Morton Fullerton when he started work on his book in 1967, and being told that this Fullerton, an American journalist in Paris, had probably had an affair with Wharton – whose only romance, it had always been thought up to then, was with Walter Berry, cultured bon viveur, friend of Proust and president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris. Lewis said that in 1968 he ‘engaged the services’ of Marion Mainwaring, a Radcliffe graduate and freelance writer living in Paris, to pursue the ‘Parisian phase’ of Edith Wharton’s life and in particular ‘the matter of Morton Fullerton’. And Lewis acknowledges very fully in his book the work done for him by Mainwaring, whom he notes as ‘now launched upon a biography of Morton Fullerton’. He explains that in 1970, as a result of Mainwaring’s discoveries in Paris, the Beinecke Library at Yale purchased a large collection of papers relating to Fullerton – on which he has based his account of Fullerton in his biography. However, Lewis’s book was published before Edith Wharton’s love-letters to Fullerton suddenly came to light in 1980 and were sold to the University of Texas at Austin. Some of those letters were printed in R.W.B. and Nancy Lewis’s edition of Wharton’s letters, published in 1988.

When this edition came out, Marion Mainwaring wrote a bitter attack on Lewis in the TLS (16 December 1988). She said she had worked for Lewis from 1969 to 1972 in pursuit of Fullerton, but when Lewis sent her his finished book (he had offered to send her the Paris chapters in manuscript, but had not done so), she found that it misrepresented much of the information she had sent him. Mainwaring claimed that these ‘irresponsibilities’, reduplicated in Lewis’s edition of the letters, affected much subsequent scholarly work on Wharton. She noted in passing that she had recently completed her book on Fullerton; Lewis, defending himself against her attack the following month, supposed that it was, in effect, a ‘public announcement’ of her forthcoming publication, which he ‘awaited with interest’.

Mysteries of Paris, now published, reconstructs in intense and elaborate detail, often in the present tense, the ‘quest for Fullerton’ which began in 1968, gives chapter and verse for Lewis’s misrepresentations, and takes us up to the moment Mainwaring received her copy of the biography in 1975 and read with stupefaction – what she calls in the TLS piece a ‘shock of non-recognition’ – what it had made of her findings. ‘What do you do when you find that the results of long, hard, unpaid labour have been tossed into the poubelle, rubbish, garbage, and you are fulsomely praised for distortion of the facts?’

There is something strange about this chronology. Details of research done thirty years ago – word-for-word conversations with interviewees, minute details of appointments made, encounters with archivists, descriptions of every page disinterred – are produced as if warm and new. (Quite possible if a diary was kept; quite plausible if fiction is the genre.) The resentment against Lewis – referred to throughout only as ‘the biographer’, and with no entry in the index – has been kept fresh for 25 years; the book that was supposed to have been completed in 1988 is only now being published. The biographical work that has been done on Wharton since 1975, for instance by Cynthia Wolff, Eleanor Dwight and Shari Benstock (who is at pains in her book to correct some inaccuracies by Lewis) is barely mentioned, as if no one existed in this contest over Fullerton except Lewis and Mainwaring. It is as curious a story of slow-burning, obsessional scholarly revenge as Kipling’s ‘Dayspring Mishandled’.

Not half as curious, though, as the story of William Morton Fullerton (1865-1952) himself, as pieced together by his last female pursuer. This handsome, dark, blue-eyed, dapper, short American (Henry James gives him much longer legs as Merton Densher, as well as turning him into an Englishman), owner of a flamboyant moustache, tremendous sexual charm and (as Mainwaring puts it) ‘an agile, catholic penis’, came of solid New England stock. His father was a minister turned insurance man, his mother a minister’s daughter; they had two sons and an adopted daughter (really their niece), Katharine. ‘Will’ Fullerton went to Harvard in the 1880s and studied art history under Charles Eliot Norton. Santayana (who wrote him some bawdy letters) and Bernard Berenson were contemporaries. (So he touched on Wharton’s world years before he met her.) He wanted a fellowship but, to his lasting disappointment, he didn’t get one. He travelled to Egypt and Europe, met his hero George Meredith, and moved smoothly into bisexual, upper-class Edwardian London circles. He had affairs with the sculptor Ronald Sutherland (Lord Gower, decadent model for Wilde’s Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray), the theatre designer Percy Anderson, and ‘the Ranee of Sarawak’, Lady Margaret Brooke. He knew Wilde, and developed flirtatious friendships with the much older playwright and composer Hamilton Aïdé and with Henry James, who looked back wistfully years later on ‘something – ah, so tender! – in me that was only quite yearningly ready for you’.

In 1891, Fullerton took a job in the Paris office of the Times, and would live in Paris until his death. He knew Verlaine, Walter Berry, Anna de Noailles, Maurice Barrès, le tout Paris. He reported on the Dreyfus case as a passionate Dreyfusard, but was never a high-flyer on the Times, and left in 1910 to become a freelance writer. After the war, he was editor of the American news page of Le Figaro (‘Le Figaro aux Etats-Unis’) and then a contributor to the Journal des débats. His writing became increasingly anti-democratic and reactionary. Problems of Power, his 1913 analysis of the current world situation, is full of sentences like: ‘Irony and absurdity seem to characterise most manifestations of the human mob.’ He may have been a collaborator – or at least an equivocator – during the Occupation.

In his private affairs, in Shari Benstock’s phrase, he led ‘multiple lives, keeping multiple secrets’. In 1903, in Portugal, reporting on Edward VII’s visit there, he married an opera singer called Camille Chabert, or Chabbert (stage name: ‘Ixo’), who had a daughter, not Fullerton’s. (Mainwaring thinks she may have been a by-blow of the King of Portugal.) He divorced her the following year. And he was involved with (at least) two other French women. One was Adèle Moutot, a minor actress in vaudeville and musical comedy (stage name: ‘Mme Mirecourt’) who had lived with Fullerton since 1893, to whom he returned after his marriage, and who in 1907 was blackmailing him with compromising letters which exposed his homosexual past; he paid her off in 1909. The other was Hélène Pouget, an artist’s model from a Protestant family near Nîmes, who became, for 40 years – from 1912 until he died – Fullerton’s lover, cook-housekeeper and common-law wife. When Fullerton was dying, his ex-wife went to Mme Pouget’s house and took two trunks of his papers away at gunpoint: two old ladies in their seventies, at war over the love-letters of their 87-year-old Don Juan. (After Camille’s death, the papers, strewn round her rooms, were salvaged by a neighbour and tracked down by Mainwaring in the 1970s.)

So when Fullerton met Edith Wharton in 1907, he had in his luggage a disreputable homosexual past, a divorced wife and a blackmailing mistress. But there was more. He was also involved in an intense, quasi-incestuous relationship with his adopted sister and cousin Katharine Fullerton, who had grown up in his house and was deeply in love with him. Fullerton proposed to her in the same month that he began his relationship with Wharton, October 1907, and the course of his affair with Wharton over the next three years ran in tandem with his promises to and abandonment of Katharine. Her agonised sense of desertion (‘I do not think any human being has the right to hurt another like this’) drove her into a safe marriage with a Princeton Chaucer scholar, Gordon Gerould, in June 1910. Professor Gerould’s son, in an interview with Mainwaring, summed Fullerton up as ‘a con man’. In the month Katharine got married, Fullerton asked Edith Wharton for his ‘freedom’. ‘You are as free as you were before we ever met,’ she replied.

How much did Wharton know about Fullerton? She was 45 when they met in Paris, a successful, wealthy and famous writer, still married, though very unhappily, still spending part of every year at The Mount, her grand house in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, but moving with ever growing interest and determination into Parisian society, the salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, where Fullerton was a habitué who had been living and working in Paris for 16 years. By 1907 Teddy Wharton was showing symptoms of mental illness and starting to be unfaithful to her. But no doubt Fullerton’s persistent presence didn’t help the marriage, which ended in divorce in 1913, after 28 years.

In early 1907, the ‘slightly mysterious’ Mr Fullerton was helping her, through his contacts, to place a translation of The House of Mirth with the Revue des deux mondes. But when he visited her at The Mount in October, they had a moment of intimacy which prompted her to start keeping a ‘Love Diary’. When, in January 1908, she and Teddy got back to the apartment in the rue de Varenne which they were renting from the Vanderbilts, Fullerton was at once in attendance. They went to the theatre, to dinners, on drives and outings, for instance to Herblay, a village north of Paris, in quest of their heroine Hortense Allart, friend of George Sand and mistress of Chateaubriand, among others. (Henry James went back there with them in May and would insinuatingly start to call Edith’s car ‘Hortense’.) At some point between Teddy Wharton’s departure for the States (for his health) in March, and James’s arrival in Paris in May, and again in the few days between James’s leaving and Edith Wharton’s going back to America on 23 May, they were lovers.

But during the long, lonely summer she spent at The Mount with her husband, Fullerton fell completely silent. Anguished, baffled, dignified letters pursued him: ‘You know I never wanted you to write unless you wanted to! And I always understood it would not go on for long’ (19 June 1908). ‘You woke me from a long lethargy … Didn’t you see how my heart broke with the thought that, had I been younger & prettier, everything might have been different? … This incomprehensible silence, the sense of your utter indifference … has stunned me’ (26 August). In December, in England, she asked formally for her letters to be returned. He replied: ‘The letters survive, and everything survives.’ Back in Paris in early 1909, while she was trying to sustain relations with an increasingly unstable Teddy, Fullerton proposed a sexual reunion. She demurred, but then agreed to spend a night with him in June, at the Charing Cross Hotel in London, a night which she turned into a long, passionate, Whitmanesque poem, ‘Terminus’. She saw him again in England in July, and helped him, with James’s support, to pay off his blackmailer. In the autumn of 1909 and early in 1910, they had a few assignations in Paris hotels. But as her marriage finally unravelled through a series of horrible, repetitive scenes of damage, rage, bizarre confessions, financial recklessness, humiliating scandals and wild irrationality, culminating in Teddy Wharton’s sale of The Mount, Fullerton began to back away and to disappoint her. (Perhaps, Mainwaring surmises, he feared being involved in her divorce.)

Letters of sad, bitter renunciation were sent: ‘What you wish, apparently, is to take of my life the inmost & uttermost that a woman – a woman like me – can give, for an hour, now and then, when it suits you; & when the hour is over, to leave me out of your mind & out of your life … I think I am worth more than that’ (Lewis: winter 1910; Mainwaring: November 1909). ‘If I could lean on some feeling in you – a good & loyal friendship, if there’s nothing else! – then I could go on, bear things, write, & arrange my life … My life was better before I knew you’ (Lewis: mid-April 1910; Mainwaring: 31 March 1910). ‘It is a misfortune to love too late, & as completely as I have loved you. Everything else grows so ghostly afterward’ (May 1910).

By the time Wharton had moved permanently into her new Paris apartment at 53 rue de Varenne, and decided on a separation from Teddy, the lovers had become uneasy friends, and her emotional interests were turning back to Walter Berry and to new friends such as Berenson. Meanwhile the affair was being turned into a novel of sexual betrayal, humiliation and compromise – which she asked Fullerton to read and comment on as it was being written. Wharton always said she disliked The Reef; Henry James admired it immensely: ‘The unspeakably fouillée’ – ‘elaborate’ – ‘nature of the situation between the two principals,’ he congratulated her, is ‘more gone into and with more undeviating truth than anything you have done’.

Henry James played a curious and ambiguous part in the affair between ‘the two principals’, acting repeatedly as chaperone, travelling companion, third wheel at intimate dinners, and – to an extent – confidant. A Jamesian ambiguity hovers over the question of how much he knew, since in October 1915, a few months before his death, he made a holocaust of his personal papers, including almost all of Edith’s letters to him – and his own are fabulously circumlocutory and discreet. Mainwaring has some laborious fun with the question of who knew what, as when James and Wharton take tea in the summer of 1912 with the Ranee. ‘James knew the Ranee didn’t know that he knew she’d had an affair with Morton … He knew Edith didn’t know that the Ranee had had an affair with Morton … But did he know about Morton and Edith?’ Wharton seems not to have known about Fullerton’s marriage and divorce, or his engagement to Katharine, but, like James, she did know about the blackmailing ‘Mme Mirecourt’ (though perhaps not about the content of the love-letters she was trying to use against him). It is part of the complexity of the relationship that Wharton helped Fullerton out of this situation (with an advance, filtered through the conspiratorial James, from the publisher Macmillan, for a book on Paris which Fullerton never wrote) and that, even after he had asked her for his ‘freedom’, she seems to have given him a loan to facilitate his resignation from the Times. Fullerton kept her in suspense, played with her emotions, lied to her and let her down; but, in the balance of power between them, she was slightly older, much more successful professionally, much richer and an incomparably better writer. She could combine being his lover with being his benefactor, professional adviser and (severe) literary critic.

This adaptability could be interpreted as a sign of generous maturity, but Mainwaring gives a grudging account of her behaviour. She reads Wharton as a controlling egotist who resented finding herself out of control, with an idealised notion (‘girlish, romantic, American’) of what the love affair could be. Her distrust of her lover makes her ‘surly, even vulgar’ or produces ‘sullen opposition’. As the affair went on she ‘took what she could get’. She is solipsistic (‘Edith had not a glimmer of what Katharine felt; Edith was not much interested in Katharine’) and condescending, visiting Fullerton’s parents like ‘a more affable Lady Catherine de Burgh’ [sic]. Witnesses are summoned who remember her as ‘abnormally rigid and abnormally fussy’. She displays throughout ‘a powerful ego’: ‘Deeper than self-doubt was certainty of the importance of her self.’

But Wharton’s egotism and sense of her own importance were entirely justified. Mainwaring finds it hard to lift her head from the engrossing details of her quest to see that its only lasting significance is what Wharton made of the affair, and how it poured its way into poems, stories, novels, and those extraordinary letters which sound as if they have been written by the heroines of her novels.

When Mainwaring’s research began, she didn’t, of course, have the letters. In fact she had hardly anything, and she chooses to tell her story not in the chronological shape I’ve just given it, but as a circling motion of forays, false starts, fruitless clues, obstacles, gaps, sudden breakthroughs and returns, couched in a highly coloured, sensational style, familiar to readers of Mainwaring’s ‘completion’ of Wharton’s unfinished novel, The Buccaneers: ‘While James knew Edith the poised, witty, bountiful woman of letters, he knew neither the forlorn damsel singing “Willow” nor the voluptuary who offered herself to her lover as a cannibal’s feast.’ This makes Mysteries of Paris maddening to read, but does involve us in the drama of detective work. It is funny about French bureaucratic obstructiveness. As Mainwaring beats on, or is beaten back from, the doors of the Mairie of the First Arrondissement, of the Twelfth, of the Palais de Justice, the archives of the Opéra-Comique, the Aliens Bureau in the Prefecture of Police, the Foyer des Artistes de Music Hall et de Cabaret, the Archives of the Seine, the Musée Clemenceau, and is met by varying degrees of brusqueness, eccentricity or inertia (I especially like the aged guardian of the empty Musée Clemenceau who tells her, ‘contentedly’, that she is their first visitor this week), Paris – Mainwaring’s Paris, Fullerton’s Paris – begins to come into focus. Along the way, there are some good evocations of early 20th-century French opera and music hall, provincial France, concierges, newspaper offices, convents. The quest begins to take hold of the reader, even though we, and Mainwaring, recognise that it involves a kind of madness. Indeed, her last port of call, in search of Adèle Moutot, turns out (with the fictional appositeness that she makes free use of throughout) to be a psychiatric hospital. The moral is drawn: at one extreme of scholarship there is a disregard for detail, at the other end there may be ‘mad idolatry’, obsession and lunacy.

Mainwaring seems at her most obsessed when attacking ‘the biographer’. What did Lewis get so wrong? Enough to make one feel uneasy. Her indictment is based on a number of points which vary greatly in importance: but, as for all biographers, the devil is in the detail. First, she argues that Lewis misrepresented Fullerton’s professional standing. He calls him the chief ‘Paris correspondent’ of the Times, says that he succeeded the foreign editor Henri de Blowitz in 1902, ‘partially resigned’ in 1907 and left ‘once and for all’ in 1910. But Lewis did no work in the London archive of the Times, where Mainwaring discovered that Fullerton was, in fact, a not very highly regarded member of the staff, that he was bitter about being passed over as Blowitz’s successor, and that he resigned in 1910. She also thinks that he publicly falsified his status at the Times. This alters the professional balance of power between the lovers and shows up Fullerton as a faker.

Second, she argues that in his edition of the Wharton letters, Lewis misdated many of the love-letters to Fullerton, and so distorted the narrative of their affair. For instance, an unhappy letter, in which she’s upset that he has asked her to consider the risks of their going away together, is dated ‘early April 1908’: Mainwaring argues that it must have been written a year later. A letter dated ‘May 1908’, in which Wharton complains that after their sexual encounters she feels she has been ‘like a “course” served & cleared away’, should belong to early 1909 or 1910. Lewis has made the relationship go sour too soon.

Third, she says that he has muddled the plot hatched by James and Wharton to pay off Fullerton’s blackmailer. Commenting on the arrangement whereby Wharton paid James £100, who paid this to Macmillan, who paid Fullerton, who pretended that he thought it was from the publisher when he knew it was from James, Lewis says: ‘One can only marvel at the exquisite scruples of all three persons as they participated in this circuitous undertaking.’ But, says Mainwaring, ‘this has no basis whatever in the sources.’ The facts as she deduces them were that Morton didn’t know that the advance from Macmillan, with which he paid off Mme Mirecourt, was a plot, but did know that a second proposed loan was from his friends, and turned it down, and did accept a later loan, in 1910, directly from Edith, which enabled him to leave the Times. In this version, the trio is less devious, and Fullerton is more in Wharton’s debt.

Fourth, Lewis gets the name and identity of Fullerton’s blackmailer wrong, describing her as ‘Henrietta Mirecourt’, a half-English, cultivated older woman. (This seems to have been the result of a casual reading of Mainwaring’s early guess, before she tracked down Adèle, that ‘Mme Mirecourt’ may have been a French version of James’s journalist in The Portrait of a Lady, Henrietta Stackpole.) Though Mainwaring is incensed by this mistake and considers it Lewis’s most heinous error, it seems unimportant in terms of the Wharton-Fullerton relationship.

Fifth, Lewis says that Camille Chabbert’s daughter was Fullerton’s, which would make Fullerton’s rapid desertion of her more brutal. Benstock had already established that Fullerton was not the father and, also, that Lewis had mistranslated the evidence in the divorce case in which Camille accused him of ‘refusing to grant her his caresses’ because he was keeping mistresses. In fact Camille was refusing him his marital rights, which again makes Fullerton less of an ogre.

Sixth, she says that Lewis muddled up Fullerton’s private address with the address of the Times office, and that he misspelt a number of French names and addresses. These are petty charges, but they do suggest a certain remoteness in Lewis from Wharton’s Paris life. By the time Mainwaring has finished with him, she has made Lewis out to be as slippery as Fullerton.

But, after all her travails and indignation, Mainwaring has to admit that there are plenty of mysteries which may never be unravelled. Did James know about the love affair? Did Wharton have some idea about Katharine? Did she know Fullerton was bisexual? Did Teddy realise she was having an affair? Did Fullerton back off because he thought he might be cited in her divorce? More compelling than any of these questions, did the great novelist understand the nature of the man she was passionately in love with for three years? In one of her last forays, pursuing Hélène Pouget to a village near Nîmes, Mainwaring meets Pouget’s niece and her husband. They recall going to visit Mme Pouget and M. Fullerton in 1946, and seeing ‘three cubic metres of plastrons, dress-shirt fronts, which were M. Fullerton’s! C’est la vérité!’ Plastronner, from plastron, is to ‘swagger’ or ‘strut’. A plastron, or ‘detachable shirt-front’, seems the perfect image for what was left behind of the charming, hollow, plausible Morton Fullerton, a Gatsby of the boulevards, who took in even Edith Wharton.