Sunday, March 8, 2015

170. Elsa and the Duchess

     April 11, 1957: the celebrity-studded April in Paris Ball is underway at the luxurious Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.  Photographers flock to the table of the chicly slender but gently aging Duchess of Windsor, the honorary chair of the affair, who is present with her medal-bedecked ducal consort at a table well positioned to elicit attention.  Suddenly, halfway through the dinner, the lights dim, then come up again, and there at another table presided over by an a short, dumpy, jowly woman are two unannounced guests who had just arrived: playwright Arthur Miller and his wife, Marilyn Monroe.

     Marilyn Monroe – the most sought-after blonde on the planet!  Instantly the photographers desert the Duchess en masse and rush to the table where radiant Marilyn, in a revealing black sequin gown and with her blond curls charmingly awry, laughs heartily while her pudgy hostess whispers mischievously in her ear.  And after the photographers come a bevy of society matrons, hoping to snag an autograph.  Now totally ignored, the stately Duchess masks the sting of the affront with poise, but affront there is, and planned, it would seem, carefully and ingeniously planned.  What’s this all about?

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Elsa and Marilyn at the April in Paris Ball, 1957.

     The short, dumpy, jowly woman receiving the Millers at her table was Elsa Maxwell, the world-renowned party giver and entertainer of the rich and famous.  For years Elsa had had a feud on with the Duchess, which in itself is enough to explain this coup.  “I make enemies deliberately,” the famous hostess once declared.  “They are my sauce piquante to my dish of life.”   And for enemies she aimed high. 

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The Duchess, date unknown.

     (A possible correction:  In a TV interview with Mike Wallace in November 1957, months after the ball, Elsa claimed that the newspapers had invented her inviting Marilyn as an affront to the Duchess.  The Duchess, she insisted, was a dear friend of hers.  Chagrinned by the press reports, Elsa had written her explaining that she had nothing to do with the reports, and that she deplored and detested them, so now all was peace between them.  Still, one wonders, especially given her remark about enemies being her sauce piquante.)

     But who was Elsa Maxwell and how did she get to where she was?  She was born in 1881 (not 1883, as she insisted) in Keokuk, Iowa, though not in a theater box during a performance of the opera Mignon, as she often claimed, but conventionally enough at the home of her maternal grandmother.  Later she would boast of having risen from the ranks of the lowly, but in point of fact her family was solid middle-class. 

     Still, Keokuk … does anyone even know where it is?  She sensed early on that the Corn Belt was not for her, that she was meant for higher things, that she “belonged to the world.”  Fortunately, her family obliged her by moving to San Francisco, where her father sold insurance and worked as a freelance writer.  There the social columns of the local papers were soon mentioning “Miss Maxwell’s talent and versatility,” and her “magnetic cordiality,” which made her a perfect hostess.  Her father died in 1904, but on his deathbed, as she told it, he had given her some valuable advice:

·      Though she was plain and plump, and would get more so in time, she could turn her looks into an asset, since no woman would be jealous of her, and no man suspicious of her. 
·      Never be afraid of what They say; what you do is all that matters.
·      The more you own, the more you are possessed, so keep free of material things.  (She would always claim to be poor.)
·      Always laugh at yourself first, before others laugh at you.
·      Mix talented people who lack money with rich people who lack talent.

Even if she invented or embellished some of his advice, this shows how she intended to make her way.

     Elsa survived the 1906 earthquake, rushing out of the house, as she later said, before it collapsed, but what was left of the city certainly wasn’t big enough for her; the following year, at age 24, she left.  Going to Europe with minimal resources, she made contact with wealthy Britons and snagged invitations, stayed in a dingy London hotel, earned a little money by playing the piano in a music hall, and wrote a few songs that actually got published.  Her letters to her mother in San Francisco reported achievements that had little basis in fact, including her presentation at court.  Accompanying a vaudeville singer on the piano took her in 1909 to Capetown, South Africa, where she was soon getting invitations from British colonials eager to meet the lively American.  To spice things up, she began presenting herself as a wealthy but eccentric heiress having a fling at vaudeville.  After a bit of social climbing, she returned to England with a young heiress, Dorothy (“Dickie”) Fellowes-Gordon, who may or may not have been her lover.  When World War I broke out she decided to remain in London and wrote patriotic songs, but finally she returned to New York, where Fellowes-Gordon introduced her to the socially elite.  Even before the U.S. entered the war, Elsa was busy organizing events in support of the Allies.

     The war ended in November 1918, and the following year Elsa managed to get herself to Paris as the paid chaperone of a divorced young lady of high society who was eager to catch another husband; Elsa qualified as being amusing, reasonably (but not too) respectable, and no competition when it came to beauty.  Thanks to her companion’s funds, Elsa now became a hostess at lavish parties.  Already one sees a pattern emerging, as word spread among English and American society matrons of the delightful American piano player and sometime songwriter who, being socially adept, could be an ideal hostess, though not one to beguile the men of the family or compete with your marriageable daughters.

     By the 1920s she was hobnobbing with Cole Porter (who would become a lifelong friend), Tallulah Bankhead, Noel Coward, and others at parties on the Lido in Venice.  Later she was employed by the principality of Monaco to promote it as a desirable tourist destination for the elite.  Returning to the U.S., she worked on movie shorts during the Depression, but her social success was such that when the Waldorf Astoria opened in New York in 1931, in the very pit of the Depression, she was given a rent-free suite on the 26th floor in hopes that she would lure her wealthy friends to its august premises; she lived there for years.  Later she would describe herself as “a short, fat, homely piano player from Keokuk, Iowa, with no money, no background, who decided to become a legend, and did just that.”  Still, the question is how?  Once she was known, she could coast on the momentum of her fame, but how did she ever get started?  I suggest an ingratiating charm, a nonthreatening but ubiquitous presence, and an inventive mind capable of devising clever ways to entertain the rich.

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Elsa with wealthy socialite William Rhinelander Stewart (left) and Cole Porter in 1934.

     And entertain them she did, providing their bored souls with the notion – or maybe the illusion – that their world was full of interesting and amusing people (themselves) having a marvelous time.  Among the accomplishments attributed to her:

·      Introduction of the scavenger hunt as a party game.
·      Introduction of the treasure hunt as a party game.
·      Come-as-you-are parties, with the invitations arriving at the oddest hours, causing guests to come in their underwear or nighties, or men with shaving cream smeared on their face.
·      Come-as-your-opposite parties.  (Fanny Brice showed up as Tosca, George Gershwin as Groucho Marx, and a socialite as Elsa herself.)
·      A party where pink pigs walked down the aisle.
·      A “hate party” where guests came as the people they most despised.  (Elsa came as King Farouk, who had sued her for defamation of character.)
·      A murder party where a model posed as a victim and the other guests screamed and panicked, until the ruse was revealed.
·      A circus ball in 1935 with acrobats and elephants.
·      Introducing Maria Callas to Aristotle Onassis.
·      Introducing Rita Hayworth to Ali Khan.
·      A newspaper gossip column that reached millions.
·      A radio program entitled “Elsa Maxwell’s Party Line.”

     Elsa claimed to live without alcohol (except for an occasional glass of wine), and without sex or marriage: “The world is my husband.”  But she lived with her close friend, heiress Dorothy Fellowes-Gordon, for half a century and evidently came on to Callas, who recoiled.  “A fat old son of a bitch!” Callas is said to have called her on another occasion, which, if true, shows that her English was improving.  (They made up later.)  And the Duke of Windsor allegedly observed, “Old battering-ram Elsa always gives the best parties.”  As for the Duchess, always ready with an acid quip, during their feud she called Elsa “the old oaken bucket in the Well of Loneliness.”  (A sly reference to Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness.) 

     (A personal note:  I was aware of the Duchess of Windsor long before I heard of Elsa Maxwell.  Back in the mid-1930s I well remember my mother reading a best-seller entitled Her Name Was Wallis Warfield, recounting the Duchess of Windsor’s earlier years before she became a Duchess.  She was hot copy back then, since the King of England, who reigned ever so briefly as Edward VIII, abdicated so he could marry her.  And what did the British establishment have against her?  She was American and – horrors! -- a divorced woman and therefore not fit material for a queen.  Her picture was in all the magazines and papers, always chic and slender, tastefully but never garishly dressed, her black hair flat against her skull, dark eyebrows, her lipstick a slash of red across her face against white skin that some have called “vampiric.”  The Brits never forgave her for stealing away their king.)

     Elsa’s longtime relationship with Fellowes-Gordon was discreet.  “Dickie,” whom Elsa described as having beauty and a sharp wit that made her one of Europe’s femmes fatales, was evidently an equal-opportunity partner, having affairs with men but always returning to Elsa.  Whether they actually had sex is unknown, but the relationship was stable and close.

     Elsa herself was often quoted:

·      Serve the dinner backward, do anything, but for goodness sake, do something weird.
·      The best you can offer your guests is the unexpected.
·      Under pressure, people admit to murder, setting fire to the village church, or robbing a bank, but never to being bores.
·      Giving parties is a trivial avocation, but it pays the dues for my union card in humanity.
·      Nothing spoils a good party like a genius.

     Not that things always went well.  Presented to Queen Mary, the widow of King George V, she started to curtsy and promptly keeled over on all fours.  To her credit, though, she got up and carried on as if nothing had happened.  What Queen Mary thought of this is not recorded.

     ''It will be my fate, I suppose,” Elsa said in 1963, “to go down in social history as Elsa the Party Giver.  Lest that statement smack of bitterness, let me hasten to add that I'm not one bit ashamed of my reputation.  My butterfly life has been exactly what the term implies: gay, colorful, quick, full of the sweetness of perpetual change.''

     Later that year, on November 1, 1963, she died of heart failure in a New York hospital at age 82.  According to Time magazine, only a hundred mourners attended the funeral, few among them of the elite whom she had called “darling” and “dear.”  Well, after all, a funeral is not a party.  Her estate of less than $10,000 went to  Fellowes-Gordon.  She is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum in Hartsdale, in Westchester County, New York.  (Also buried there is Madame Chiang Kai-shek, though I’m not aware of their ever having met.)

File:Maxwell, Elsie - by Carl van Vechten.jpg     In the end, what is one to make of this woman?  For coming out of nowhere – albeit a nice, snug middle-class nowhere – to be hostess and party-giver to the “great,”  was no small feat for a dumpy, frumpy woman who knew from an early age that her looks were not her fortune, and for this, I admire her.  Whether being an internationally acclaimed party-giver is a rewarding and meaningful life can be debated, but compared to those she entertained, she comes off rather well.  What was meaningful about the life of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who went from one gala event to another and did little else?  And who was paying for their meaningless career?  The taxpayers of Great Britain, I assume.  So far as I can tell, U.S. taxpayers didn’t support Elsa; she made it on her own.

     Coming soon:  The Jewish Jezebel, aka the Queen of Tarts.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder


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