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Posted February 2, 2009
A WOMAN AHEAD OF HER TIME
Elsie de Wolfe, born in 1865 give or take a few years, was a woman ahead of her time. She is noted for her taste in interior decoration, although she did not begin that career until after she was 40 years of age. Her earlier life had been spent as a stage actress, an occupation that raised eyebrows during the Victorian era. Nonetheless, when she turned to her new career it was with the following announcement: 'I am going in now for interior decoration. By that I mean supplying objets d'art and giving advice regarding the decoration of their houses to wealthy persons who do not have the time, inclination, nor culture to do such work for themselves. It is nothing new. Women have done the same thing before.' Perhaps so, but probably not with de Wolfe's impressive client list, which included Anne Vanderbilt, the duke and duchess of Windsor, and Adelaide and Henry Clay Frick. This fascinating volume holds some 300 color plates tracing her designs of numerous rooms for the rich and famous, as well as rooms at Barnard College, and perhaps her greatest love, the refurbishment of the Villa Trianon. For this reader, an intriguing section is the one devoted to de Wolfe's private residence in Paris. Marriage to Sir Charles Mendl, a press attache to the British Embassy in Paris, gave de Wolfe entree to English aristocracy, albeit not terribly high on the ladder. Nonetheless the new Lady Mendl needed a proper setting to entertain. In addition to the Mendls, the apartment she found became home to a journalist friend, John McMullin. Lord Mendl chose to also retain his bachelor dwelling. This apartment was pure de Wolfe, reflecting as she had once written: 'It is the personality of the mistress that the home expresses. Men are forever guests in our houses, no matter how much happiness they may find there.' Later, she would decorate rooms for herself at New York's St. Regis, and the Plaza. After going to California in 1941, she refurbished her last house in Beverly Hills for herself and her husband. She was a trendsetter and, undoubtedly, a self-promoter who lived life to the fullest and precisely as she chose to do so. This volume is apt tribute to her style, persistence, and ingenuity. Highly recommended. - Gail Cooke
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