Sunday, 23 December 2012

"I am going to make everything around me beautiful"

From the Architectural Digest:
Though dead for half a century, Elsie de Wolfe remains an icon to this day, revered as America’s first decorator. The key elements of her style are as fresh as ever, and the aura of celebrity she brought to her profession has been passed on from one to another of her successors.

Born in New York City, (“Our home is now Macy’s front door”), ugly little Elsie spent some early years in Scotland and in 1885 was presented at court to Queen Victoria (“a little fat queen in a black dress and a load of jewels”). After having had some success in amateur theatrical circles in New York, she became a professional actress and performed various light comic and historical roles throughout the 1890s. Her appearances, however, were praised more for the clothes she wore than for what she did in them, as de Wolfe enjoyed the unusual arrangement with her producer of being allowed to choose her own wardrobes - usually couture ensembles she ordered in Paris from Paquin, Doucet or Worth.

As early as 1887 de Wolfe had settled into what was then called a “Boston marriage” with Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury, a formidable figure in New York society who also happened to be a wildly successful literary agent and business representative for, among others, Wilde, Shaw, Bernhardt, Sardou, Rostand and Feydeau; she even brought the play Charley’s Aunt to the United States.

After having restyled with some panache the house the two women shared on Irving Place - sweeping out her companion’s Victorian clutter, opening spaces and introducing soft, warm colors and a bit of eighteenth-century French elegance - de Wolfe decided in 1905 to become a professional decorator, issuing smart business cards embellished with her trademark wolf-with-nosegay crest. That same year a group of powerful New York women, named Astor, Harriman, Morgan, Whitney - and Marbury - organized the city’s first club exclusively for women, the Colony Club. Its handsome headquarters at Madison and Thirty-first Street were designed by Stanford White, who, along with Marbury and other friends on the board, got de Wolfe the commission to do the decoration.

When the Colony opened in 1907, the interiors established her reputation overnight. Instead of imitating the heavy atmosphere of men’s clubs, de Wolfe introduced a casual, feminine style with an abundance of glazed chintz (immediately making her “the Chintz Lady”), tiled floors, light draperies, pale walls, wicker chairs, clever vanity tables and the first of her many trellised rooms. The astonished reaction of the members to her illusionistic indoor garden pavilion put de Wolfe’s name on many lips and led to a number of lucrative commissions across the country.
Philip Core (who features her in my bible Camp: The Lie That Tells The Truth and also The Original Eye: Arbiters of Twentieth Century Taste) said of her:
"Of all our century's arbiters of elegance, Elsie probably left a more definite heritage than any other: no superb collection, no trend-setting discoveries among bohemian artists, no political applications of taste, but rather the whole concept of Taste as a career."
She was also renowned as a society hostess. From Lucindaville blog:
In the early 50’s [the author] Ludwig Bemelmans wrote of Elsie, "I have never known any hostess, hotel manager, chef, or maître d’hôtel who gave the attention to a party that Lady Mendl did."

His description of a party offers sage advice to today's hostess:

"The dinners were exemplary and simple, and the rules laid down for the serving of meals were sensible. The basic laws were a cold room and hot plates, the floral decorations low, so that one could look across at the other people and talk to anyone without bending around a vase or candlesticks.

Her love of things green and white went so far that the place cards were tropical leaves on which the names were written in white ink. The lighting was indirect and the service the ancient Russian, which is the most convenient for the guest at table as well as the help. It consists of a small rolling table, or, in the case of larger parties, of several of them. The food and the plates are placed thereon, and the servitors arrange the food on the plate and set it before the guest.

Since there was always a small green and white menu at the table the people new what was coming, and they could choose more of the first course, if they liked that, or more of the second, if that course had more appeal to them."
Facts about Elsie de Wolfe:
  • She is credited, among other things, with the introduction and popularisation of faux-Louis XV mirrored walls; pale greens, blues and greys as colour themes for walls, fabrics and furniture; and the blue rinse for old ladies.
  • Despite her four-decade lesbian relationship with Bessie Marbury, Elsie shocked everybody when, at the age of 61, she married and became Lady Mendl.
  • Her exclamation on first seeing the Parthenon, "It's beige - my colour!" has been cited by many, Mr Core included, as a classic example of the frivolity of camp.
  • Cole Porter included the oft-repeated anecdote of Elsie's outrageous entrance to a society ball, turning cartwheels as she went, in the lyrics of Anything Goes.
  • She was invited by the future Edward VIII to redecorate some of the apartments at Buckingham Palace, but the abdication crisis began before the commission did.

"The cardinal virtue of all beauty is restraint."

"Be pretty if you can, be witty if you must, but be gracious if it kills you."

"It is the personality of the mistress that the home expresses. Men are forever guests in our homes, no matter how much happiness they may find there."

"I am going to make everything around me beautiful. That will be my life."

"You can't take it with you. There are no pockets in a shroud."

Elsie de Wolfe (20th December 1865 – 12th July 1950)

Read the lovely Stephen's excellent tribute to her over at Post Apocalyptic Bohemian


  1. So she's the one responsible for popularising blue rinse!

    1. Are you going to get one, dear? Jx


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