The all-but-forgotten Elsa Maxwell — the pride of Keokuk, Iowa — was known the world over for more than four decades as a hostess, newspaper columnist, press agent and den mother of cafe society. Maxwell realized early on that she could advance her position in society by a simple expedient: throwing parties at which the bold-faced names of her day enjoyed themselves.
In her quest to provide amusement for the rich and famous, she once staged a “murder party” in London at which a model posed as a dead person. The Duke of Marlborough — uninformed about the prank — was momentarily fingered as the guilty party. Maxwell took credit for having introduced playboy Prince Aly Khan to movie star Rita Hayworth, whom he married. She worked with Prince Louis II of Monaco to boost the tiny principality’s allure for the moneyed set.
Maxwell’s success seems to have rested on something quite simple: her ability to help rich and famous people have fun. In one of the better moments in “Inventing Elsa Maxwell,” Sam Staggs, author of a number of Hollywood biographies, contrasts the gaiety of Elsa’s parties with Truman Capote’s “stiff, vainglorious” black-and-white ball. No less a partygoer than the Duke of Windsor once observed, “Old battering-ram Elsa always gave the best parties.”
Maxwell’s self-invention was improbable. For one thing, she looked like a tugboat. The columnist Earl Wilson once cruelly wrote, “Elsa Maxwell took a bad fall on the Guinness yacht in Monte Carlo. The yacht is expected to recover.” In addition, she had no money of her own and was a lesbian in a less-accepting age. When she fell head-over-heels for temperamental opera star Maria Callas, the diva did not reciprocate — to say the least. But Callas was not above cultivating Maxwell to get good publicity in her column.
Maxwell arrived in New York in her 20s, taking a job as a piano player in a nickelodeon. She had a talent for befriending rich people, and when Alva Vanderbilt Belmont asked her to put on a benefit party for a suffragette play, Maxwell was launched. Her life has the makings of a delicious book, especially for those of us who are addicted to society and royal biographies.
Unfortunately, this is not that book. Trouble appears at the start. After quoting a banal telegram sent to Maxwell from President John F. Kennedy, who was thanking her for birthday greetings in 1963, Staggs goes into mind-numbing detail about, of all irrelevant things, the delivery of the telegram — seems it was sent to the wrong address and Maxwell didn’t get Kennedy’s telegram before her “final trip abroad.” Who cares? This is a portent of many infuriating digressions to come, including a footnote on the career of the British diplomat Arthur Balfour — just because he came to dinner and socialized with Maxwell.
Staggs is apologetic when introducing “an anecdote from [gossip columnist] Hedda Hopper that portrays Elsa very badly. What Hopper had recounted was a delicious anecdote of Maxwell sending telegrams to various rich people, asking each for money to bury her mother! Maxwell’s finances are an important and mostly missing element of her saga. Who paid for all those fabulous parties?
Staggs generously shares his thoughts on the gay marriage, but he doesn’t bother to convey much of the personality of Dorothy Fellowes-Gordon — Dickie — Maxwell’s longtime companion. (Unlike Maxwell, Fellowes-Gordon seems to have had liaisons with men, too.) Staggs quotes an authority’s claim that Fellowes-Gordon came from a family that was “armigerous” (they had a coat of arms), but the closest we get for any feel for her is a wrap-up chapter, after Maxwell is dead, that quotes extensively from a tape-recorded interview done by Hugo Vickers, the society biographer whose enjoyable works contrast strongly with this book. Vickers’s material enables Staggs to provide a poignant portrait of Fellowes-Gordon as an old lady in straitened circumstances.
Fun was Maxwell’s currency, and it just isn’t fair that Staggs’s labored treatment of her life doesn’t provide a bit more of that precious commodity.
Hays is the author of “The Fortune Hunters: Dazzling Women and the Men They Married.”