PITTSFIELD — Susan Wissler has gone from being a corporate lawyer to leading the organization that preserves the legacy and the homestead of writer Edith Wharton.
Wissler is executive director of The Mount, the large, rambling European-style estate that Wharton built in Lenox in 1902 and is run by the nonprofit Edith Wharton Restoration.
The Mount does more than preserve the legacy of one of the greatest authors of the Gilded Age. It also has turned into a cultural center that celebrates writers and the art of writing, a transformation that allowed The Mount to rebound from the dire financial straits that it found itself in during the Great Recession.
We spoke with the native Californian recently about why she changed careers, The Mount's role in preserving Wharton's considerable legacy, how dire the property's financial situation actually was, and a few things about Wharton that most people don't know.
Q: You have a law degree and have practiced law in three states. How did you become involved with historic preservation?
A: I attribute it to serendipity. ... My last legal job was with a firm in Pittsfield, Katz, Murphy & Greenwald. When David Katz passed away, I decided that maybe I would prefer to be outside for a while. So, I took a couple of years and was a carpenter, landscaper and painter, just sort of odd jobs here and there.
I was sort of envying my stint as an itinerant handy person, and a friend made me aware of a position open at The Mount. I think I maybe had attended one Shakespeare & Company performance there years before. They were looking for someone to run operations; this was in 2001.
I applied for the job and fell in love with the property. I was fortunate enough to be hired and have never looked back.
Q: Had you always been interested in this field?
A: I've always loved old houses. It was really the architecture of The Mount and the layout of the land that I fell in love with the moment I walked on the property. Let's call it a dormant interest.
Q: Why did Edith Wharton decide to build such a grand home in the Berkshires?
A: It looks grand on the outside, but on the inside, it's quite intimate. There are only two guest rooms, and the dining room actually only seats six.
Wharton herself was a huge fan of architecture. So, she built The Mount because she had some very definitive ideas about what good architecture looks like and what functions does it need to serve.
The Mount was kind of her laboratory for practicing principles that she believed of in theory. She had grown up in Europe, and so she was very taken with European architecture. So, The Mount was her experiment in trying to bring and incorporate European ideas into the American landscape.
And, she was at that point, quite flush with money. "[The] House of Mirth" had just come out, and she had the money to spend.
Q: Why did she choose to build The Mount in the Berkshires?
A: She was born in New York City, and her family's summer watering hole was Newport, which she loved as a child. But, once she was a married wife, the social obligations of Newport, where you had to entertain and be entertained constantly as she was trying to develop herself as a writer, was relentless, and she hated it. Teddy — her husband, Edward "Teddy" Wharton —actually had a home on Walker Street in Lenox. That was her connection. He introduced her to Lenox, and she fell in love with it right away.
Q: As executive director of The Mount, how do you see your role as the steward of her legacy?
A: There are academic programs and scholars who are excellent stewards of her literary legacy, and we do our part in that as well, but I would say more that I feel a steward of the property itself. ...
Certainly, preserving and saving the physical part of the property is a big part of our mission, but then [there] also is sharing it, making it accessible to the general public. ... Which is one of the reasons that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we've opened up the land and sort of operated it as a public park so that people can walk and enjoy the beauty of the grounds and the gardens and the surrounding woodlands, as if it were a public park. Sharing it is absolutely as important as saving and preserving it.
Part of our mission as we move forward is to use The Mount as kind of an amplifier and opportunity and platform for emerging writers so we're not just stuck in a fixed point in time. We want to be celebrating writing and the written word and all aspects of culture as we move forward. It's very much about promoting and highlighting the artist of the present day.
Q: Your website states that The Mount has gone from a historic home to a vibrant cultural center. Did you need to do that to survive when The Mount was in financial trouble?
A: You're being kind. We were in dire financial trouble. It was a way of achieving vibrancy at low risk and low cost, but it also turned out to be a very effective sort of formula moving forward, even today when, financially, the boat has righted itself and we're fairly secure.
Q: How close was The Mount to actually closing?
A: We'd been served a letter of foreclosure. The men in the sort of dark suits and sunglasses had been sent to inventory and catalog all of the inventory and assets as collateral.
It was close. It was very close. In fact, the only thing that probably saved us was, we were so deep in debt — and I think the economy in 2008-09 had crashed — that we owed so much more than the property was appraised, so, the bank was sort of put in the difficult situation of really having no alternative if it wanted to get its money out but to give me an opportunity to turn things around.
Q: How did you do that?
A: One bite at a time, one step at a time. When I took over, I think we had a board of three or four. Over the next five years, we were able to build it back up to 12 and then 18, and I think today we're at 24.
And the trustees we were able to recruit turned out to be extremely supportive and they were a big part of the equation in how we ultimately ended up paying off the debt. ... During that whole period, when it became apparent that we were going to fight as hard as we could to survive, we started to generate within the community itself some respect and affections. And as we built and strengthened our community ties, that's when the boat really began to turn around.
Q: Tell me something about Edith Wharton that most people don't know.
A: In addition to being a terrific novelist, she also wrote a ton of poetry, which the literary critics pretty much dismissed over the years but are taking a second look at.
She was also very athletic. She loved to ride her bicycle, and took pride in the fact that she could ride her bike 20 miles and still be fresh for dinner. She loved animals. She and Teddy were constantly rescuing little dogs in need of a home, so, she had a big heart.
People probably don't really imagine her as having much of a sense of humor in the Gilded Age, but she had a sharp wit and loved a good joke.
She was a good businesswoman. She negotiated her own contracts. In addition to her writing being very good, it was also popular. She would first sell her stories to magazines in a serial form, then sell it to a publishing house, then negotiate rights for someone to write a play of her novels. Then, when the big screen opened up as another form of presentation, she would sell the co-writes.
Q: Why has her writing remained so popular?
A: One, her writing is really good, so, it's stood the test of time. I would describe it as muscular; I mean spare. It's not overly flowerly or verbose. And secondly the issues that she wrote about were kind of the universal ones. ... They were easily relatable and across cultures, too. She has a huge following in Japan.