a wolfe at the door

Elsie de Wolfe (December 20, 1865? – July 12, 1950) was an American actress, interior decorator and a prominent figure in New York, Paris, and London society.

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De Wolfe began her professional career in theatre, making her debut as an actress in Sardou’s Thermidor in 1891, playing the rôle of Fabienne. On stage, she was neither a total failure nor a great success; one critic called her “the leading exponent of . . . the peculiar art of wearing good clothes well.”  She became interested in interior decorating as a result of staging plays, and in 1903 she left the stage to launch a career as a decorator.

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She introduced a variety of things, including the cocktail party, comfortable chaise lounges, faux finish treatments, animal prints and delicate writing tables. While Elsie designed the interiors of many prestigious homes she also did opera boxes and a dormitory.

Danish dormitory found here

She continued to design interior spaces for a long list of prestigious clients and wrote several books and articles. During World War I she volunteered as a nurse in France, and it wasn’t until nearly the end of her career that, at the age of 61, she married diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, making front page news in the New York Times.

Shortly after her marriage, she scandalized French diplomatic society when she attended a fancy-dress ball dressed as a Moulin Rouge dancer and made her entrance turning handsprings. A guest chided her: “Elsie, it is wonderful to be able to turn handsprings at your age. But do you think it is in perfect taste for the wife of a diplomat to perform acrobatics in a ballroom?”

unknown Moulin Rouge dancer found here

The Times said that “the intended marriage comes as a great surprise to her friends,” perhaps because since 1892 de Wolfe had been living openly in what many observers accepted as a lesbian relationship. During their nearly 40 years together, Elisabeth Marbury was initially the main support of the couple. Dave Von Drehle speaks of “the willowy De Wolfe and the masculine Marbury… cutting a wide path through Manhattan society. Gossips called them “the Bachelors.” Shortly before the First World War, they both set up house at Versailles with Ann Morgan, heiress to the Pierpont fortune, forming an eccentric menage a trois dubbed the Versailles Triangle. 

Anne Morgan and Anne Dike found here

The parties she gave were always a success as she knew how to hold people’s interest. In 1930, for example, she hatched the idea for “murder parties“, a type of party game that was entirely new. On her appearance, too, she lavished much fervour and fantasy. Her morning exercises were famous. In her 1935 autobiography, de Wolfe wrote that her daily regimen at age 70 included yoga, standing on her head, and walking on her hands.

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Having been at thirty a vaguely plain woman with a marmoset face, Lady Mendl improved her looks throughout the years. She maintained a svelteness of figure throughout her life and introduced pale blue or heliotrope coloured hair. She was also one of the earliest, most successful devotees of facial surgery. In later years there was much speculation about her age, and when she was over eighty Lady Mendl came into her own as a beauty, acquiring an almost mythical look of serenity.

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Published in: on January 26, 2012 at 11:38 am  Comments (56)  
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