THE CURIOUSLY redundant title on the dust jacket of this interesting biography is misleading. Elsie de Wolfe: A Life in the High Style, The Elegant Life and Remarkable Career of Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl tells the story in great detail of the professional and social lives of two pioneering ladies who initiated or enlarged fields hitherto unexplored by women.
Elsie de Wolfe and Elizabeth Marbury, her dear friend and companion for 40 years, started their long, innovative careers in the early 1890s. Noted between 1907 and 1940 as the first and foremost interior decorator on both sides of the Atlantic, Elsie de Wolfe was born in New York in 1865 of a Scottish mother and Nova Scotian father, a physician. She was sent at 16 to Edinburgh to be educated in the household of her mother's cousin, a distinguished clergyman, chaplain to Queen Victoria at Balmoral castle. In 1885 she was presented to the queen at court. Half a century later she taught her friend and apt pupil, Wallis Windsor, "how to make a home fit for a king." In the interval between her first introduction to royalty and her intimacy with the great queen's great-granddaughter-in-law, Elsie de Wolfe enjoyed to the full many different lives.
Her first daring step was taken at 26 when her father's death necessitated her earning her living. Having achieved a certain renown in amateur theatricals, very fashionable at the time, she became an actress, thereby challenging the opinion of high society that the stage was a disreputable profession for a respectable lady. Mediocre as an actress, she triumphed as a clothes horse, replenishing her wardrobe each summer in Paris.
After 13 years of acting she initiated the hitherto unknown career of interior decorator. That she was able to achieve rapid success in her efforts was due at least in part to the devotion, energy, money, and social connections of Elizabeth Marbury. At 30 this remarkable woman first met and soon fell in love with the 21-year- old Elsie. Fat, without interest in clothes, admittedly a confirmed bachelor, this scion of an old New York family was not superficially attractive. She was, however, immensely cultivated, intelligent, and witty. Her competence and her passion for the theater led her to become the first woman theatrical agent, an occupation which she built into a large international business. Her clientele included Wilde and Shaw, Barrie and Pinero, Sardou, Rostand, Feydeau and many others. Later she would launch Somerset Maugham and Cole Porter.
In 1892 she and Miss de Wolfe set up housekeeping together, occupying a house in Irving Place where their friends dubbed them "the bachelors." In this first of the many houses the two friends shared they initiated the kind of parties that eventually resulted in their becoming the best-known, most elite American hostesses both in New York and in their home at Versailles. Their gatherings were eclectic--visitors from abroad such as Calv,e and Melba, Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt mixed with such guests as Mrs. J.P. Morgan, Mrs. Astor, the millionaire William Whitney and even that scholarly aristocrat Henry Adams. In "the mad cyclone of their salon," he was "struck blind by the brilliancy of their world." The admiration of the wealthy, distinguished guests for Elsie de Wolfe's decor at Irving Place launched her fabulous career.
Not that her first effort was iconoclastic. But during her summers in France she became an enthusiastic student of 18th-century France, falling in love with the light colors and painted paneling, the open space that made French salons so different from the heavy Victorian clutter prevalent in her own day. Gradually over the years the velvet portieres, the ponderous furniture, the dark varnished woodwork, the oriental trappings and heavy carpets of the fashionable "Turkish corner" were replaced by ivory and cream walls, and by light, beautifully designed French furniture.
In 1904 she and Miss Marbury, who now spent all their summers in France, acquired at Versailles a long- abandoned villa which had once been part of the palace grounds. Over a period of years this comparatively small pavillon, called Le Trianon, was restored and enlarged until it became a showplace and the centerpiece of Miss de Wolfe's legendary entertainments between and after the two world wars. However the restoration and furnishing of this expression of her personal taste was only a part-time occupation. It coincided with her first professional commission, the start of the immensely successful business that brought her great wealth and fame.
In 1902 a number of wealthy ladies including Mrs. Borden (Daisy) Harriman, later to become our first woman ambassador and a power in the Democratic party, and Anne Morgan, daughter of the great banker, undertook the organizing of a radical project--the creation of a club for women on the model of an English mens' club. By 1905 550 members had been enrolled and Stanford White, the most fashionable architect of the day, was hired to build a neo-Federal building on Madison Avenue. It was White's influence that convinced any doubting members that the decor of this costly building should be entrusted to so inexperienced a person. "Give it to Elsie," White ordered, "and let the girl alone. She knows more than any of us."
This first experiment did not exemplify Elsie's later predominantly French taste. Because the directors of the club expected some sort of reflection of a London mens' club, she bought in England traditional 18th-century furniture and along with it she had shipped to New York dozens of samples of patterned chintzes. Her use of this bright, inexpensive material at first horrified the club ladies. But "instead of giving people what they thought they wanted, Elsie gave them what she thought they ought to have, and taught them to want it."
Miss de Wolfe's work at the Colony Club was immediately popular. Acclaimed as the Chintz Lady, newspapers and magazines publicized her taste throughout the country. Her business flourished and for the next eight years she designed a variety of interiors. However in 1913 she had a windfall that not only insured her future wealth but brought her the enviable status of being sought out by both the elite and those who were on their way to becoming so.
Henry Clay Frick, the multi-millionarie steel magnate and art collector, hired Miss de Wolfe to design the living quarters of the mansion-museum that he was having built at the corner of 70th Street and Fifth Avenue. The larger world of collectors and dealers, of personages in the art world such as Mrs. Jack Gardner and Bernard Berenson into which the Frick museum brought her, enlarged her outlook both aesthetically and financially. She was, as her biographer says, "firmly committed to keeping her eye on the main chance."
The general pattern of her transatlantic life as business-woman and hostess continued until the summer of 1914 when the outbreak of war caused the Villa Trianon to be transformed into a hospital for the wounded. The sight of their suffering brought out an unpredictable facet of Miss de Wolfe's nature. This fastidious, luxury- loving, emotionally shallow woman, admitting that she loved Le Trianon more than any person, not only became a dedicated nurse behind the front lines but chose to care for the burn patients, the grimmest and most physically horrifying of all the wounded. For nearly two years, never far from the risk of German shelling, she devoted herself to relieving the suffering of her patients, largely enlisted men to whom she related as successfully as to her famous guests. Once the war was over its impact on her life was either buried or forgotten. Having been the best-dressed actress on Broadway and the best-paid decorator in the world, she now embarked on a third career as the best-known American hostess in Europe.
Most of the latter half of this remarkable book is devoted to her bizarre, extravagant entertainments in the '20s and '30s, her marriage at 60 to the charming lady- killer, Sir Charles Mendl, her melodramatic escape from occupied France in 1940, and the elaborate household she established in Hollywood at the age of 80.
If Elsie de Wolfe's name rings any bell for younger generations outside of the interior decorator business, it is as winner of the best-dressed woman award in her 70th year, originator of blue-dyed hair, and exhibitionist who even in very old age enjoyed displaying her ability to stand on her head.
Jane S. Smith, the author of this long but never tedious book, herself a visiting scholar at Northwestern University's Program on Women, only implies in her occasional astute, ironic comments the degree to which Elsie de Wolfe after 1912 ignored the great social forces at work. That year she carried a banner in the famous Woman Suffrage parade. Although the backing of Alva Belmont, the former Mrs. Vanderbilt, made the votes- for-women cause chic, Elsie de Wolfe's participation was economic rather than political--it would be good for business.
The author's combination of empathy and detachment, the absence of propaganda for womens' rights, may well be a significant commentary on the techniques of today's active feminists. In the early '90s--shortly after Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Stanton at last established the National Woman Suffrage Association--we have two women who overcame conventional prejudices both in their personal and professional lives with no sexist chip on their shoulders. That being women, even lesbians, might hinder their careers never seems to have occurred to them. Elsie's success was due as much to the backing of men who appreciated her charm, her daring, and her expertise as to the many thousand women whose homes reflected her taste. Miss Marbury, at the age of 62, became an active member of the Democratic party, not only campaigning for Al Smith as governor of New York and for Franklin Roosevelt as president, but also becoming personal advisor to both men. No male chauvinist pigs on her horizon.
Perhaps in spite of the emphasis on conspicuous display, high life, and elegance, there is in this scholarly but never academic biography a lesson in tactics for the National Organization for Women.