In February of 1901, Walter Berry, a lawyer and member of élite society in New York, expressed a regret in a letter written to his close friend Edith Wharton. “How I do wish I could run on to see the first rehearsal of the Shadow,” he wrote.
At the time, Wharton, who was thirty-nine years old, was not yet a novelist, having only published shorter fiction and poetry, as well as co-authoring, with Ogden Codman, “The Decoration of Houses,” an 1897 book about interior design. But she was a budding playwright, and, as two scholars have just deduced in an important bit of detective work, Berry’s glancing reference was to one of her works: “The Shadow of a Doubt,” a three-act play that was in production in 1901. It was to star Elsie de Wolfe as Wharton’s heroine, Kate Derwent, a former nurse married to John Derwent, a gentleman above her social station. Kate’s role in assisting the suicide of her husband’s former wife, Agnes, whom she tended to after an injury, is revealed in the course of the drama.
The production was cancelled, however, and the work slipped into obscurity. It is not mentioned by any of Wharton’s biographers, nor does Wharton mention it in her own memoir, “A Backward Glance,” in which, perhaps understandably, she skates over her brief and not especially successful career as a writer for the stage. (In the first years of the century, she had written a handful of plays, but “The Shadow of a Doubt” would have been her first professional production, had it materialized. Later, she collaborated on an adaptation of “The House of Mirth,” which proved less successful than hoped.)