From Bernard Berenson’s Sketch for a Self-Portrait. I always enjoy finding two of my favorite writers knew each other in some capacity I’d never imagined – like Edith Wharton taking Henry James on early motorcar tours and terrifying him with the speed.
Few experiences are more annoying than a ﬁrst meeting that does not come off. It leaves one exasperated, skinned, and skinned roughly, suspecting it is one’s own fault and wishing it had never taken place. I seldom get over such a failure. Only once did a rasping encounter that left me as if I had fought for hours through nettles and brambles with stinging buzzing ﬂies tormenting and a blazing sun to parch one, only once did I get over such an introduction. And that was due to a ruse. It happened in this way
Years ago, years before the last war, our neighbour Henry Y, Cannon invited me to meet Mr. and Mrs. Wharton. I had heard of her as well as read her and looked forward to the meeting with curiosity, expectation and hope. Placed next to her I tried in vain to get some human or even passably polite word out of her. She sniffed, she sneered, she jeered, she lost no occasion for putting in the wounding word, the venomous phrase. She left me exasperated and ashamed of my exasperation. I vowed never to see her again and no doubt reiterated this vow whenever her name came up among common friends.
Some years later in Paris, where l was seeing Henry Adams frequently, he invited me to dine with him one evening at Voisin’s. I arrived and instead of finding him at his usual table on the ground ﬂoor I was led upstairs. It was in July. The room seemed full of acquaintances, but there was not enough daylight left to make out just who they were. Adams led me up to a lady who was seated by a window. She had a lack lace veil over her face I had no idea who she was. Her voice was pleasant. We fell into talk which got to interest me more and more. We seemed to share the some loves and hates in the realm of art. We agreed about the people whose names came up. I was wondering more and more who this delightful woman could be. Not a newcomer, surely. She was far too much in it for that. American no doubt but a foreign resident. It never occurred to me that she was what the electric light presently revealed, Edith Wharton.
She at once became a friend – a friend whose friendship soon got to be one of the most satisfactory of all my human relations No devoted sister could have been more concerned for my comfort, more eager for my happiness. As an elder sister she never hesitated to reprove and advise, and for that I loved her. Yet all of a sudden he would begin to praise, to express her desire for the company of this or that person well known to her as being to me of unpleasant association.
One of these, peculiarly obnoxious, was notorious for his much trumpeted hate of Richard Wagner, Arthur Balfour and myself. I should have been flattered to make a third in such a trinity. Unfortunately Wagner was beyond his darts and Balfour beyond his reach, so I was left exposed to his slings and arrows. Edith Wharton knew this; and yet a naughty imp possessed her to tear the skin off a sore not yet healed over.