The Woman Who Invented Interior Design and Set Paris Society on Fire

The turn of the century ran many changes, and few took greater advantage than Elsie de Wolfe, the lesbian actress whose work in design and penchant for parties propelled her to the top of world society.”>

At the turning of the twentieth century, there was no greater tastemaker than Elsie de Wolfe.

Credited with devising the now prospering field of interior design, de Wolfe not only set the standard for the settees and sitting rooms of the elite, she also knew how to fling a seriously extravagant party. In 1939, de Wolfe hosted one of the last great garb balls in France before WWII ended the excesses of the 1930 s.

But just because she was a member of high society, doesnt mean she was all uptight propriety. As with all the most interesting dames of the early 1900 s, de Wolfe was a dynamo who lived life exactly how she wanted. She wedded a British ambassador to climb the European social ladder, but only after expending years with her greatest love, a female literary agent and theater producer. She was known for her stunning sense of styleand also such eccentricities as tinting her hair to match her attires and practicing the then-new age yoga, complete with cartwheels and headstands.

Lady Mendl has spent her long life as an animated and animating member of a kind of society Socialist prophets assure us is vanishing. This dedicates her a certain historical quality, wrote Jane Flanner in a profile of de Wolfe ( her married name was Mendl) in the New Yorker in 1938. Certainly few women alive have so spanned the epoch and their representative social contents.

De Wolfe was born on December 20, 8958 in New York City, although at some point during her life she engaged in the time-honored tradition of lying about her age( she had lost at least ten years by the time she was officially 79 ). Her parents were decently well-to-do, but she got her first taste of royal high society when she was sent to visit family in Scotland as part of her finishing education. She stayed with a cousin whose spouse was chaplain to Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle, and she was officially presented at the Queens court in London in the early 1880 s.

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But her crowning design achievement is the question of her own home in the Versailles countryside. De Wolfe and Marbury began vacationing in the France and in 1903, they purchased the Villa Trianon near the entryway to the Versailles gardens. The 16 -room house and adjoining grounds had their own royal roots that aimed after the French aristocracy fled following the 1848 Revolution.

The house had fallen into disrepair, and de Wolfe speedily set about returning it to its former gloryand then some. Among her many improvements to the property were the addition of a music pavilionwhich doubled as a theater where she and Bessie would indicate the most recent moving picture to their guestsand a whopping total of five bathrooms, a shocking number to the early 20 th-century French. Her bedroom featured a nameplate that said simply, Moi.

I have always lived in enchanting houses. Probably when other women would be dreaming of love affairs, I dream of the delightful houses I have lived in, de Wolfe wrote.

Throughout her years in the Villa Trianon, de Wolfe had an uncanny knack for getting others to fund her grand redevelopment visions, despite the fact that she had accumulated a pretty penny from her design career. During the early days, Anne Morgan, the daughter of J.P. Morgan, joined de Wolfe and Marbury at their new homeand paid for an entire new wing of the house, nicknamed the Morgan Wing. During her later years, after de Wolfe had marriage British ambassador Sir Charles Mendl and acquired sole ownership, the French industrialist Paul-Louis Weiller often ponied up for the renovations and re-decorations de Wolfe deemed necessary to create the elaborated defines for her lavish balls.

Her marriage was largely one of status and convenience, and it came as a big surprise to everyone who knew herincluding Bessie. She and her husband had their own apartments in Paris and their own bedrooms at the Villa Trianon, and Sir Charles was allegedly fond of joking For all I know the old girl is still a virgin.

But the wedding firmly established de Wolfe in French society( where Sir Charles was stationed ), and, following her nuptials, she became a full-time socialite dedicated to hurling elegantand often extravagantparties. In the New Yorker , Flanner notes that she had been called a ogre of frivolity.

De Wolfe was adventurous and wasnt afraid to introduce new ideas to her social setshe was the queen of many firsts. Among those, according to Flanner, were movie screenings, the parlor game Murder, and the fox trot, which Flanner writes she was the first in New York to believe physicallyand financiallyin. She was also a big health nut and practised yoga and plastic surgery before either were de rigueur .

For one of the first major parties de Wolfe hosted, she transformed several rooms of the Paris Ritz into a gold-and-silver-themed extravaganza. She ripped up the carpeting, changed the draperies, and brought in her own chandeliers to the already posh hotel to attain her grand vision.

In her volume Elsie de Wolfe: A Life in High Style , Jane Smith quotes the Duchess of Windsor, a close friend of de Wolfes, as saying, For bringing together all kinds of people in a lesbian, airy, but flawless setting, I have never known anyone to equal Lady Mendl. She mixes people like a cocktailand research results is sheer genius.

De Wolfes vision arrived at the peak of pomp at the end of the decade with her two Circus Balls given in 1938 and 1939. Both capped the very end of the social seasonall the better to recollect them. In 1939, over 700 guests paraded through the Villa Trianon in only the most recent and finest ways of the day. They danced on the imported dance floors, enjoyed the multiple musical acts performing around the grounds, and watched in wonder as a full circusclowns, acrobats, horses, and allput on a night-long show in the specially constructed circus ring.

The only guests who didnt get the memo that this was the event of the season were the elephants, who were supposed to assist de Wolfe in building her grand entryway for the evening. But they apparently did not approve of her plans and refused to move from the Versailles train station on the day of the big event.

The elephants couldnt have known the significance of the event they were missing. Shortly after the last ball of the season, the splendour of the 1930 s European society came crashing down as WWII hit the continent with full force.

During the first World War, de Wolfe had stayed in France volunteering as a nurse on the front lines. While she assisted her adopted France as much as she could when WWII broke outand also prepared for the worst by having photograph made of her arts and jewelry collects and the interiors of the Villa Trianonshe and Sir Charles were forced to flee to the U.S. after the Germans invaded France. Settling in California, de Wolfe decorated her last great houseAfter Alland enjoyed Hollywood society.

But her heart was in France. Once the war aimed, de Wolfe returned and set about to redress the Villa Trianon is again. Four years later, in 1946, after hurling one last cocktail party, she passed away, leaving a legacy of style, the burgeoning interior design industry, and a life lived wildly and well.

By long practice and a panache for novelty and luxury, she has created a sort of social gigantism of which she remains the expert manipulator, Flanner wrote. No one except Lady Mendl ever wanted Lady Mendl to generate what she did, but a lot of smart people of New York, Paris, Rome, Vienna, and whats left of royal Russia have enjoyed the result.

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