A look inside Hollywood and the movies. : THE WHARTON WATCH : ‘The Buccaneers’ . . . Is It About DeMille?


It isn’t often that a dead author of literary classics comes out with a new book. So when word leaked out last month that Viking Penguin will be publishing in October a newly completed version of Edith Wharton’s last novel, Hollywood took notice. Almost immediately, smuggled copies of the manuscript of “The Buccaneers” found their way onto producers’ desks and phones began to ring.

When it comes to megabuck movie deals, Wharton may not be in the same league with Tom Clancy and John Grisham, but these days, as in her lifetime, she is nevertheless a hot author. Offers were made by Columbia and Paramount as well as 20th Century Fox. Last week, Lynda Obst at Fox acquired the right to develop “The Buccaneers” for an undisclosed six-figure sum.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 21, 1993 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 21, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 15 words Type of Material: Correction
The name of Edith Wharton’s lover was incorrectly given in a story last week. His name was Morton Fullerton.

“The Buccaneers” tells the story of three American families with eligible daughters who, having failed to win acceptance in the New York society of the 1870s, travel to England in the hope of penetrating the social barriers there. Wharton had completed about three-fifths of the book when she died in 1937, and the work-in-progress was finished last December by Marion Mainwaring, a writer and translator.


Mainwaring’s timing couldn’t have been better. Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited “The Age of Innocence,” based on Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and set in the same period as “The Buccaneers,” is due next fall. The movie “Ethan Frome,” starring Liam Neeson, opens next month. And actress Michelle Pfeiffer and her producing partner, Kate Guinzburg, are developing Wharton’s satiric “The Custom of the Country.”

The widespread praise for recent period pieces such as “Howards End,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” and the current “Sommersby” no doubt helped fuel interest in the Wharton project, one producer pointed out.

Mainwaring, who helped R.W.B. Lewis with his definitive biography of Wharton, came across “The Buccaneers” while doing research for a biography of Morton Fuller, the novelist’s lover. The unfinished novel was published a year after Wharton’s death but disappeared quickly and has long been out of print despite favorable reviews. Time magazine, for example, said, “Death ended Edith Wharton’s work on a novel which might have been her masterpiece.”

Curious about how the story might have turned out, Mainwaring decided to give it an ending of her own and was able to do so because the book’s copyright had expired in the 1960s, according to her agent, Christina Ward of Boston.

As soon as the Viking deal was concluded and before Ward had arranged with Los Angeles agent Lucy Stille to sell the movie rights, producers began calling. “They were all eager to tell me their favorite scene to indicate they had read (the book),” Ward said. “Nobody would tell me where they got the manuscript.”