A Rebel In An Ugly World

I bought her because I thought she was pretty.  I liked her solemn eyebrows, the shade of dark intelligence.  I liked the pensive tilt of her head, the eyes that strayed beyond the postcard’s borders that held her melancholy image captive for over 100 years.  She dressed like a society artist:  feminine, excessive, slightly off-kilter.  She tied the bow of her hat to the side of her face.  Her jacket was a mad pattern of lace and buttons.  Finally – possibly best of all – she had placed her hands, one covering the other, atop a wooden cane.  This was no passive woman – this was a lady so overcome by insight that she had to pause:  to take the time to scrutinize her marvelous thoughts.


But I had much more to learn about her.  She was Elsie de Wolfe: an actress, and a most inventive society hostess, delighting the polite elite in New York, Paris and London.  She was also a famed decorator, literally creating the occupation of Interior Designer. Never before had it achieved the stature of a profession: and it was commandeered by a woman.

Since she was a young girl, Elsie was repelled by the muddy colors and dusty rooms of her Victorian childhood.  The heavy shroud-like curtains, the tables obscured by photographs and scattered memorabilia:  her sensibilities cringed at such late-century relics. Her sensibilities were light and feminine, and she yearned for surroundings that were nimble and Baroque:  expressing the brightness of a new world.  Even then she described herself as ‘a rebel in an ugly world’.

As a designer, Elsie was inspired by the 18th century, creating rooms that were elegant and luminous. She painted the walls with pastels, replaced suffocating carpets with tile, painful, wooden chairs with gentle upholstery.  Her languid rooms had delicate writing tables, gilded mirrors, chintz curtains, exotic rugs:  the sentimental trinkets of the Louis XVI style.  Her rococo chic appealed to clients with names like Vanderbilt, Morgan, Frick and Windsor.

Elsie’s rooms encouraged confidences.  They were made to echo sound – the clicking of heels, clouds of laughter, the rapturous tangle of jewelry – not to muffle it.  These were playful, intimate rooms, made for small groups of people:  arrangements that introduced society to the cocktail party.  Some say that Elsie invented that most feminine of cocktails, The Pink Lady.

She made the news when she married Sir Charles Mendl in 1926.  Soon after, French diplomatic society got an idea of whom they had just acquired when Elsie attended a masquerade ball dressed as a dancer from the Moulin Rouge:  entering the room turning handsprings.  A fellow guest felt compelled to inquire, “do you think it is in perfect taste for the wife of a diplomat to perform acrobatics in a ballroom?”

Her marriage raised eyebrows even before this topsy-turvy entrance.  Since 1892 – when she was 27 – Else had been in what had then been called a ‘Boston Marriage’ with Elizabeth Marbury, a successful literary agent and business representative for talents such as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Sarah Bernhardt and Edmund Rostand.  This type of marriage was usually between two women living together for financial reasons.  But in this case, a sexual motive was assumed as well.  Society referred to them as ‘the Bachelors’.

Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl, made history in her weightless, elegant world.  She took interior decoration away from the upholsterer and gave it to the artist.  She appeared in newspapers and magazines.  Cole Porter was suitably impressed by her:

“When you hear that Lady Mendl, standing up/Now turns a handspring landing up/On her toes/Anything goes!

And when she was young, she appeared on a postcard, whimsical, contemplative and dedicated only to beauty.


10 responses to “A Rebel In An Ugly World

  1. I couldn’t find the Lady Mendl line in Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Anything Goes”. It wasn’t in Tony Bennett’s version either. I checked Sinatra’s version on Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! Nope. I skipped over a half dozen instrumental versions.

    I was beginning to doubt you. Then I found the line in the version Cole Porter sang himself. Now that I think of it, I probably should’ve started there.

    • I’m glad you cleared that up. I have the soundtrack to the most recent Broadway production of “Anything Goes!” and the line about Lady Mendl isn’t in the title track. I’m guessing they dropped the reference for contemporary audiences who wouldn’t know who Lady Mendl was. I didn’t recognize the name either, though Elsie de Wofe rung a bell. But good catch.

  2. ah yes.

    lavender marriages.

    a curious thing.

    but then marriage was all about companionship and economics until Relatively Recently – perhaps she was just succumbing to convention for the last chapter of her life 😉


    such a good word.

    her designs contained so much light.

  3. Where do you find these tidbits of history? I’ve never head of this woman, and your opening lines had me immediately fascinated and wanting to know the woman’s story. I think I would have liked knowing her.

  4. For a woman I’ve never heard of, she certainly has left her mark. Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon in New York, Lady Mendl bridal showers and baby showers (!?!), Lady Mendl Vintage Clothing – my goodness!

    I’m rather taken with the handspring, but I appreciate her most for moving beyond those heavy draperies and so on. A light, lovely post, perfect for Springtime.

  5. Oh what a chickie…. Thanks so very much for introducing me to her, for I’ve never heard of her! Of course I adore her.

  6. I love the harlequin like lace shoulder drapes she’s wearing. Just the sort of woman to turn handsprings.

  7. What a fascinating woman! The look on her face reminds me of my grandmother, an artist who loved to decorate her home. She also reminds me of Lady Violet on Downton Abbey, the way she is leaning on her cane. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your delightful biographical sketch of Lady Mendl.

  8. I read a biography of her a few years back and was fascinated, interesting life indeed but I wonder if ever really happy…

  9. She is my daughters great great great great aunt. And the design flare/ and the acting and general quirkiness still seems to have run through the family!

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