Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones into a wealthy family on 24 January, 1862 in New York City. She was the youngest of three children born to George Frederic and Lucretia Jones, descendants of English and Dutch colonists who had made their fortunes in banking, shipping, and real estate. She was a member of the fashionable 'old money' society of New York, which she was to observe and satirize in her novels and stories. Privately educated by European governesses, she wrote stories and poems from childhood. In 1866, the family moved to Europe to conserve funds in the post-Civil War depression, before returning to the United States in 1872.
In 1885, Edith married Edward (Teddy) Wharton, a Boston banker twelve years her senior. The marriage was unhappy and within a few years she was suffering from neurotic ailments which ended in a nervous breakdown. Her doctors advised her to write as part of her 'rest-cure.' Her first book, The Decoration of Houses, was published in 1897. Her first collection of short stories appeared in 1899.
In 1902, the Whartons moved into the country house that Edith had built, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts. In 1903, prompted by a downturn in Teddy's health, they left for Europe, where Edith thrived on the stimulating salon culture. Until 1912 they divided their time between homes in the United States and Paris. But as Edith recovered and grew in professional standing, her husband declined into mental instability. In 1906-09, Wharton had an affair with the American journalist Morton Fullerton. When Edith discovered Teddy had embezzled money from her to support his mistress, the marriage collapsed. The Whartons were divorced in 1913 and Edith lived for the rest of her life in France.
Edith Wharton gained her first literary success with her novel The House Of Mirth (1905), a portrait of the materialistic lives of the rich, followed by The Custom Of The Country (1913). Among her most famous novels is The Age Of Innocence (1920), a satirical commentary on high society manners which won the Pulitzer Prize, the first time it was given to a woman. Other major works include Ethan Frome (1911) and The Reef (1912). Wharton also wrote poems, essays, and her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934).
During and after World War I Wharton worked tirelessly for homeless children, orphans, refugees and unemployed women. She organized the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, taking charge of 600 Belgian children who had to leave their orphanage during the German advance.
Edith Wharton's last novel, The Buccaneers (1938), was left unfinished, but published posthumously in 1938. She died of cardiac arrest in France on August 11, 1937 and is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles.