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.