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Former first lady Laura Bush visits Wellesley to celebrate Edith Wharton's 150th birthday

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  July 25, 2012 06:38 AM

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Former first lady Laura Bush delivers a speech to partygoers in Wellesley celebrating Edith Wharton's 150th birthday. Bush is the honorary chair of the national committee celebrating the writer's 150th.

Former first lady Laura Bush celebrated writer Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday Tuesday night in Wellesley, as she visited Luisa Hunnewell’s private estate on Washington Street and delivered a speech recounting her love of Wharton’s works.

Nearly 100 highbrow guests from around the state attended the event, which was organized by The Mount, Wharton’s self-designed historical home in Lenox, Mass., where she wrote flagship novels like Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth.

As partygoers sipped chilled white wine and ate lobster finger sandwiches and lamb lollipops, Bush, who is honorary chair of the National Committee for Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday, described how she loved reading Ethan Frome.

Bush said she was assigned to read the text when she was in school, and enjoyed envisioning the snowy grounds of New England from where she grew up - the hot deserts of Texas.

“I’m a librarian, and I love books,” Bush said, adding that she has had the privilege to visit numerous authors’ homes, such as Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. “When I went in 2006 to The Mount, I became even more impressed with Edith Wharton,” she said.

Bush subsequently advocated for funds to help Wharton’s 1901 home’s restoration into a public museum, helping to secure nearly $3 million from the public/private grant organization Save America's Treasures, which allowed for critical repairs and maintenance to be done at The Mount.

The restoration effort has also been taken up by the people who currently run the house, along with notable artists, politicians and philanthropists – including U.S. Senator John Kerry, award-winning director Martin Scorcese, and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

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Kevin Sprague for achp.gov
Wharton's The Mount in Lenox, Mass.
So far, The Mount has raised approximately $200,000 since last year to help restore and renovate the house built in European style, company representatives said.

Wharton was born 150 years ago on January 24, 1862, into the upper echelon of society known as "Old New York" during an era when women were discouraged from achieving anything beyond a proper marriage, according to The Mount’s website.

However, Wharton broke through these strictures to become one of America's most notable writers, penning more than 40 books in 40 years, earning a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University along the way.

Wharton recounted lively experiences at her Lenox home, describing long, happy rides and drives through scenic roads and the companionship of her dearest friends there in her 1934 autobiography, A Backward Glance.

“The Mount was my first real home… its blessed influence still lives in me,” Wharton wrote in her autobiography.

Barbara "Bobbi" de Marneffe, chair of The Mount's Boston committee, said the Hunnewell's estate reminded her of Wharton's historic Lenox home.

"It has a similar feeling, with a generous wide, white central house surrounded by beautifully designed gardens," she said.

Hostess Luisa Hunnewell, who usually only opens her private residence to students or for horticultural events, said Bush’s attendance was a “good surprise,” adding that she had been looking forward to meeting the former first lady and hearing her speak.

Interior designer Kate Wharton – who swore no relation to the celebrated birthday girl – also served on The Mount’s committee, and said the historical home was “a mess” before the estate received grants to help its restoration.

“It’s an incredible design mecca, and the gardens are planted with the flowers she liked,” Wharton said of The Mount, adding that the original Wharton who lived there once touted her gardening skills as better than her writing ones. “It now probably even looks better than when she lived there.”

Included among the guests were former Museum of Fine Arts department director Anne Poulet; Paul Holtz of the Massachusetts Historical Commission; local historian and author Pauline Metcalf; and Cartier Boston director Cedric Tonello.

As the event carried on, guests sipped chilled white wine and sparkling water with lemon, as waiters passed around lobster finger sandwiches, sesame duck tacos, and lamb lollipops topped with mint pesto.

Tonello, who paused to take pictures on a scenic garden tour of Hunnewell’s estate, said he admired the beautiful landscaping as his group lingered behind Bush’s entourage.

“It is just really special, and so quiet,” he said. “Having [Laura Bush] here is the icing on the cake.”

The Bushes were in Boston to visit a charter school and so former president George W. Bush could address the Global Business Travel Association’s annual conference. The couple also dined Monday night at Towne Stove and Spirits in the Hynes Convention Center.

The Mount has been celebrating Wharton’s birthday all year, and will continue on celebrating with a ticketed event Nov. 3 featuring Oscar-winning Downton Abbey creator Lord Julian Fellowes at The Harvard Club in Boston. For more information, see the organization’s website.

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Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com

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