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While writing The Age of Desire, it soon became apparent that I needed a secondary character so the reader could view Edith’s life through someone else’s eyes. I knew that a woman named Anna Bahlmann was both Edith’s childhood governess and later her literary secretary. It seemed she had spent a great deal of her life devoted to Edith, yet very little was known about her. Some biographers even suggested that because Edith called her “my German governess” in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, that Anna was born in Germany.
The internet told me differently. Anna Bahlmann was born in New York City to German parents. A little more research showed me that she was orphaned at the age of two. In a matter of hours, I found a passport photo of her during World War I, her death certificate in Kansas City, and a memorial stone that Edith had created for her by her niece, the well-known landscape architect, Beatrix Farrand.
I began to write about her, assuming there must have been a great deal of warmth between the two women. I had already written about eighty pages when an amazing thing happened. One night, while getting ready for bed, I put the name “Anna Bahlmann” into a search engine and up it came: an announcement of a sale at Christie’s of more than a hundred letters from Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann. For a century, those letters had lingered in an attic. Now they were for sale! I was so excited I couldn’t wait to call Christie’s in the morning. When I did, I spoke to Chris Coover, senior specialist of manuscripts and Americana. I told him I was writing a book about Edith Wharton, and that her relationship with Anna Bahlmann was important to the plot. Could I possibly come and see the letters before the sale? He said he’d be happy to set me up at a table if I’d like to read through them.
I promptly told the people at my office that I had a dentist appointment and rushed off to Christie’s. I stayed all afternoon until they were closing. I came back two more times. What a magical experience it was, holding those letters in my hands! Everything I had supposed about the warmth between Edith and Anna was true. If anything, I’d underestimated how close they were.
I was thrilled when the letters sold to the Beinecke Library at Yale, where I had already spent much time researching. It meant they were available to be read again and again. And Chris Coover was kind enough to I tell me how to contact Laura Shoffner, the former keeper of the letters and Anna’s great grandniece, through whom I discovered more about Anna and her family