Elena Mumm Thornton Wilson

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Elena Mumm Thornton Wilson (27 August 1906 – 27 July 1979) was born into an unusual, wealthy, aristocratic European family and was the fourth wife of the famed American writer Edmund Wilson. Elena was a central figure in Wilson's life from the time they met until his death in 1972. She was the literary executrix of his estate and helped Leon Edel edit her husband's journals. She also edited a book of his literary correspondence.[1]


Born Helene-Marthe Mumm von Schwarzenstein in Reims, France, Elena Mumm was the daughter of Peter Arnold Hermann Gottlieb Mumm von Schwarzenstein and Olga de Struve. On her father’s side, she was descended from a long line of ancient Prussian nobility, traceable to 1359 in Cleves, Prussia. On March 31, 1873, Kaiser Wilhelm I renewed the Mumm patent on nobility, conferring the “Mumm von Schwarzenstein.” Elena’s branch had been famed for its champagne and white wine production, with estates founded in Reims, France, in 1827 and in the famous terroir Johannisberg, Germany (where Riesling was produced) in 1822. Her father was head of the internationally famous champagne company "Mumm Co." until the French seized the family’s French properties and brand name after World War I as spoils of war. Her father continued making wine in Germany until his death in 1937.[2] On her paternal side, Elena was related to the Barons von Radowitz and Barons von Rotenhan, as well as the Grunelius and Passavant families, powerful industrialists and bankers. One of the family banks was a founding member of a banking consortium that would grow to become the Swiss Bank Corporation, now merged into UBS AG, the world's largest manager of private wealth assets.[3] Her uncle, Baron Walther von Mumm, was a sportsman, Don Juan and bon vivant who enjoyed racing hot air balloons and even filled in on the German bobsled team at the 1932 Olympic Games.

Her mother was a daughter of Karl de Struve, who served at different times as the Russian Ambassador to Japan, the United States,[4] and the Netherlands.[1] The de Struve family descended from a long line of famed astronomers, the first of whom moved to Russia during Czar Peter I the Great’s cultural and scientific revolution. By the fifth generation, they had married into prominent Russian imperial families and European aristocracy: most prominent of Elena's great-aunts and great-uncles were the Vicomte Eugene Melchior de Vogüé, philosopher and author; Victor, Prince Galitzine; and General Michael Nicolaivitch Annenkoff, Governor General of Trans-Caspia, 'conqueror' of Bokhara, and builder of the Transcaucasia railroad. Elena's second great-grandfather, General Nicholas Annenkov, was Comptroller General of the Russian Imperial Court.[5] Her mother was born in Japan and with her four siblings grew up there, and in St Petersburg, The Hague, and Washington, D.C. . Her mother's siblings included Princess Vera Mestchersky, Countess Elena Orlov, and Boris de Struve, a Russian attaché to Washington who married an American, Maxine Slater. Her mother left Russia in 1904 to marry her father, whereas her aunts returned to Russia to marry. After the Russian Revolution, they ended up in Paris as part of the émigré community.

Early life[edit]

With such wealth and cultural advantages, Elena enjoyed a privileged childhood. She and her siblings were educated by private tutors, and she spoke and wrote fluent German, French, English, and some Russian. She attended art school in Munich where she studied with Hans Hoffman at the age of seventeen and in Paris, at the atelier of André Lhote[1] with fellow students Henri Cartier-Bresson,[6] Simon Elwes, Guy Arnoux, and Conrad O'Brien-Ffrench.

In her memoirs, Tatiana von Metternich recalls Elena and her mother Olga visiting her aunts in the Paris émigré community, bringing luxurious gifts to leaven their reduced circumstances. (Later, when Tatiana married Prince Paul Metternich, the owner of Schloss Johannisberg, she lived up the hill from the Mumm family's estate, on the famed wine-growing terroir of Johannisberg, a small mountain girdled by vineyards which overlooks the Rhine, near Frankfurt am Main.[1])

Elena's sister, Olga, was for over 26 years the companion and partner of the Whitney heiress and horse racing queen, Dorothy Paget.[7][8]

First marriage[edit]

In 1930, Elena met James "Jimmy" Worth Thornton, the son of Sir Henry Worth Thornton and Lady Virginia Blair, while he was working and studying in Germany. James and Elena married in 1931[9] and soon after moved to Montreal, Canada, living among the English-speaking elite. Edmund Wilson would later write that her years in Canada were “stuffy”, as she was surrounded by conservative, conventional people,[10] including her own husband. She seemed to get along better with her more gregarious father-in-law. However, by 1933, Sir Henry had been forced to resign his position and lost most of his wealth. He moved to New York City, where he later died of complications from surgery. James and Elena followed Sir Henry to New York. James then went off to war in Europe. Cut off from her husband and her family in Germany and living in reduced circumstances, Elena took various jobs. When she became a secretary for the editor of Town and Country magazine, she worked her way up to the position of assistant editor. Elena met Edmund Wilson when he submitted a piece which she edited. He was at that time separated from his third wife, Mary McCarthy. They fell deeply in love, went to Reno, Nevada, divorced their respective spouses, and remarried there in December, 1946, when he was 51 and she was 40. They brought three children to their marriage: Rosalind who was the child of Edmund and the actress Mary Blair; Reuel, the son of Mary McCarthy and Edmund; and Henry, the son of James and Elena.[1][11]

Second marriage[edit]

After a whirlwind honeymoon, in which Edmund tussled with photographers and reportedly received a kick in the rear that left an imprint on his pants,[12] the couple began a 26-year marriage that, while largely successful, was also sometimes made difficult by Edmund’s alcoholism and occasional infidelity. However, Elena proved to be tolerant and attuned to Edmund’s domestic and literary needs.[13] Her warmth, her enjoyment of life, and her pleasure in making their home a place where family members, friends and literary colleagues loved to visit gave him a stability that did everything to help his work and his sense of well-being. Her lifelong, omnivorous reading habits in three languages and her deep understanding of history and literature made her a most valuable first reader of all that Wilson wrote while he was with her.[1] Starting in 1946, both of them lived in Wellfleet, year-round for the most part, until their deaths. They had a daughter, Helen Miranda, in 1948. The rural community was small but mixed, including many artists and writers and a seasonal influx of sophisticated professionals who came for the summer. A childhood friend of Elena's, Nina, and her husband Prince Paul Chavchavadze were residents. Princess Nina Georgievna of Russia (née Romanov) was the daughter of Grand Duke George Mikhailovich of Russia (1863-1919) and Princess Maria Georgievna of Greece and Denmark. Prince Paul was a Georgian nobleman. The couple also lived in Wellfleet all year and provided some continuity with what Elena had left behind in Europe.

After Edmund’s death in June, 1972, Elena collected and edited a book of Wilson's literary correspondence, studied ancient Greek, became involved with public service,[1] and assisted Leon Edel in the editing of Edmund’s journals,[14] the first two volumes of which were finished by the time of Elena’s death in 1979.[15] Her private papers and family information are stored at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.[16] She died in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.


Helene-Marthe Mumm von Schwarzenstein married James Worth Thornton[17] and had issue:

  • Henry Hermann Mumm Thornton (born 1932); married Rita Daphne Sellar and had issue:
    • a) Dr. Sandra Christine Thornton married Sheldon Whitehouse, US Senator from Rhode Island
      • 1) Mary Elena Whitehouse
      • 2) Alexander Whitehouse
    • b) Elena Martha Thornton married Michael Case Kissel, 3rd great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt
      • 1) Siena Kissel
      • 2) Lucy Kissel
      • 3) Rosalie Kissel
    • c) Nina Rosalie Thornton married Joseph Michael McMann of Martha's Vineyard
  • A) Married to Deborah Anne Speno, granddaughter of Frank Speno,[18] founder of Speno Railroad Ballast Cleaning Co. and had issue:
    • a) James Speno Mumm Thornton married Sara Lynn Russell of Connecticut
      • 1) Keely Mumm Russell-Thornton
      • 2) Henry Hart Russell-Thornton

Married to Edmund Wilson and had issue:

  • Helen Miranda Wilson, artist, public servant and beekeeper


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Helen Miranda Wilson
  2. ^ Eventually, in the 1960s, the family sold the rights to the vineyards. See Mumm family citation in Almanach de Gotha: 1930–45
  3. ^ See history of Swiss Bank Corporation: www.ubs.com
  4. ^ Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels. Published 1958
  5. ^ See writings of Melchior, Vicomte de Vogue 1890–1900
  6. ^ Galassi, Peter, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Henri Cartier-Bresson: the Early Work. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1987.
  7. ^ Quentin Gilbey Queen of the Turf
  8. ^ (See talk page: this claim has been disputed and lacks primary source material)
  9. ^ “James Thornton Marries”; New York Times, Sept. 6, 1931: page 27
  10. ^ Castronovo, David and Janet Groth. Critic in Love: A Romantic Biography of Edmund Wilson. Shoemaker & Hoard Publishers, 2005
  11. ^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edmund Wilson: A biography. Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
  12. ^ “Honeymoon for Camera-Shy Author Is Started in Reno with Swift Kick in the Pants.” Nevada State Journal 12 Dec. 1946: 14.
  13. ^ Dabney, Lewis M. Edmund Wilson: Centennial Reflections. Princeton University Press, 1997
  14. ^ Levin, Harry. Memories of the Modern. New Directions Publishing, 1980 (pg. 200)
  15. ^ Elena Wilson Obituary; New York Times, July 29, 1979: page 36
  16. ^ Contact Email: beinecke.library@yale.edu
  17. ^ See Thornton genealogy: www.thorntonsoky.blogspot.com
  18. ^ See Speno patent information: www.freepatentsonline.com/3900392.html