Inventing Elsa Maxwell: How an Irrepressible Nobody Conquered High Society, Hollywood, the Press, and the World

Overview

One of the twentieth century’s most colorful characters brought back to life in this biography by the author of All About All About Eve

With Inventing Elsa Maxwell, Sam Staggs has crafted a landmark biography. Elsa Maxwell (1881-1963) invented herself–not once, but repeatedly. Built like a bulldog, she ascended from the San Francisco middle class to the heights of society in New York, London, Paris, Venice, and Monte Carlo. Shunning boredom and predictability, Elsa established ...

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Inventing Elsa Maxwell: How an Irrepressible Nobody Conquered High Society, Hollywood, the Press, and the World

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Overview

One of the twentieth century’s most colorful characters brought back to life in this biography by the author of All About All About Eve

With Inventing Elsa Maxwell, Sam Staggs has crafted a landmark biography. Elsa Maxwell (1881-1963) invented herself–not once, but repeatedly. Built like a bulldog, she ascended from the San Francisco middle class to the heights of society in New York, London, Paris, Venice, and Monte Carlo. Shunning boredom and predictability, Elsa established herself as party-giver extraordinaire in Europe with come-as-you-are parties, treasure hunts (e.g., retrieve a slipper from the foot of a singer at the Casino de Paris), and murder parties that drew the ire of the British parliament. She set New York a-twitter with her soirees at the Waldorf, her costume parties, and her headline-grabbing guest lists of the rich and royal, movie stars, society high and low, and those on the make all mixed together in let-'er-rip gaiety. All the while, Elsa dashed off newspaper columns, made films in Hollywood, wrote bestselling books, and turned up on TV talk shows. She hobnobbed with friends like Noel Coward and Cole Porter. Late in life, she fell in love with Maria Callas, who spurned her and broke Elsa's heart. Her feud with the Duchess of Windsor made headlines for three years in the 1950s.

Inventing Elsa Maxwell, the first biography of this extraordinary woman, tells the witty story of a life lived out loud.

 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Elsa was a huge personality who led an amazing life; she knew everyone and everyone knew her. If you relish, as I do, the stories of old Hollywood, you’ll love this book–and you might end up loving her too!”–Miriam Margolyes, actress 

“Only in America could Elsa have lived the life she did.  What a talent Sam Staggs is to be able to write so entertaining a book about a phenomenon.”—Robert Wagner, actor and author of Pieces of My Heart       

"Elsa venit, ea vidit, ea vicit: Elsa came, she saw, she conquered. What a gal! Sam Staggs’ riveting biography of the high-priestess of the twentieth century is a real page turner. It reads like a good thriller, transporting the reader back to a time of real glamour, riveting drama, scandal, two world wars, high aristocracy, betrayal, suicide, kings and queens, and world leaders.”—HSH Principessa Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi

"Lively . . . Staggs writes in a bright, conversational style exactly suited to the worldly affairs he tells of . . . [He's] done his research, too, running down a host of the famed and unknown who knew his subject; they speak and she is among us once more."

Wall Street Journal

"Animated and intelligent." —Kirkus Reviews

"Well-written and entertaining."—EDGE New York

 

Publishers Weekly
Though largely forgotten today, Elsa Maxwell (1883—1963) was vastly influential all over the world infrom the 1910s to the 1950s, holding court with royalty, dignitaries, and famous actors and musicians. She was best known as a party planner to the stars, inventing clever themes like a murder mystery dinner (for bored British aristocratsand a "Come As You Were" party in which the guests were asked to show up "in the state of dress—or undress—they were in when the invitation arrived." Maxwell began as a songwriter and pianist, attracting the attention of actress Marie Doro, who paid for Maxwell's first trip to Europe. Maxwell was also a journalist, radio personality, and in later years, a frequent guest on The Jack Paar Show. She starred in several films during a brief stint in Hollywood in the late 1930s, including Elsa Maxwell's Hotel for Women. She had an amusingly stormy friendship with Duchess of Windsor Wallis Simpson. But her most notorious relationship was with the opera singer Maria Callas, with whom Elsa, then in her 70s, was desperately, obsessively in love; their friendship ended with an ugly public falling out. Maxwell is a fascinating character and Staggs does an excellent job exploring her life and honoring her memory. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Oct.)
Library Journal
While Elsa Maxwell (1883–1963) is no longer a household name, in the early and mid-20th century, she was a cosmopolitan hostess—first as an expat in Paris and Venice, and later in New York and Hollywood—as well as a writer, a witty interviewee, and so renowned for her parties that the press dubbed her "The Hostess with the Mostest." As Staggs (Born To Be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation of Life) tells it, she threw some 3000 glamorous parties during her life, regularly hobnobbing with celebrities and royalty. Born in Iowa but raised in San Francisco, she made her way to New York City, where she reinvented herself, fabricating just about everything about her early years. A rather homely woman, she eventually fell in love with Maria Callas and had a notorious feud with the Duchess of Windsor. VERDICT Staggs delves deep to try to find the truth of Maxwell's life amid all of her fabrications, though his prose is a bit over the top at times (e.g., "Elsa's working-class fantasy is jiggery-pokery."). Fans of celebrity culture will enjoy this biography of a fascinating personality.—Rosellen Brewer, Sno-Isle Libs., Marysville, WA
Kirkus Reviews
Movie biographer Staggs' (Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation of Life, 2009, etc.) lively account of how a jowly plain Jane from Iowa became the 20th century's most celebrated "party giver for the rich, the royal, [and] the famous." Elsa Maxwell (1883–1963) was once "as famous a name as Martha Stewart or Joan Rivers today." Born into an upper-middle-class milieu she would later disavow, her social-climbing sensibilities emerged early on. The author traces the origins of Maxwell's desire to be surrounded by the beautiful people of the world to the fact that her family was never asked to attend the high-society functions that had so captivated their daughter. Her life became an exercise in making up for this affront by giving parties "to which no rich people would be invited," but would still be the talk of the town. Gifted with a silver tongue, musical talent and a knack for being at the right place at the right time, Maxwell began her career by befriending a dazzling array of actors and entertainers, including such luminaries as Enrico Caruso, Cole Porter and Nöel Coward. These individuals in turn helped launch her into circles frequented by socialites, heiresses, politicians and European royalty. By the early 1920s, Maxwell had fulfilled her dream and become a much-in-demand international hostess whose parties were more like "impromptu carnival events" than simple social gatherings. Her peripatetic life eventually took her to Hollywood where, from the mid-1930s on, she wrote screenplays, appeared in several movies and had her own on-again/off-again radio show. What makes Maxwell so compelling a figure isn't just the improbable nature of her achievements, but her personal complexities, which Staggs discusses in depth. A closeted lesbian, she condemned homosexuality despite an almost 50-year partnership with another woman and an unrequited passion for opera legend Maria Callas. An animated and intelligent biography.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250038234
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2013
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Sam Staggs

SAM STAGGS is the author of five books, including four biographies of movies: All About All About Eve, Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard, When Blanche Met Brando, and Born to be Hurt.  He has written for publications including Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest. He lives in Dallas, Texas. 

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Read an Excerpt

1   The Sun Never Sets on Elsa Maxwell

 

 

Elsa Maxwell, introduced by Jack Paar on his late-night talk show in 1958: “Elsa, your stockings are wrinkled.”

Her response: “I’m not wearing any. Those are varicose veins.”

*   *   *

I first met Elsa Maxwell in the summer of 1922. I found her dynamic, gay, bursting with energy, courageous, insanely generous and, to me, always kind.

—Noël Coward, in his introduction to Elsa Maxwell’s last book, The Celebrity Circus, 1963

*   *   *

“Elsa was one of my aversions,” Walter Winchell wrote in his memoir. “Now along comes Mr. Paar and makes a brand-new life and career for Elsa, who’d publicly announced that she had ‘never had a man in her life.’

“The Lez said about it, the better.”

*   *   *

While filming The Black Rose on location in England in 1950, Tyrone Power sent a picture postcard to Clifton Webb back in Hollywood. Power, in costume, is holding a prop from a banquet scene: a boar’s head on a silver platter with an apple in its mouth. On the back he scrawled: “I’ll be home on the 15th. As you can see, I ran into Elsa Maxwell over here and she’s in fine fettle. Ty.”

*   *   *

Elsa Maxwell? Just another pretty face.

—Hermione Gingold

*   *   *

I went to a big party she gave in Paris. I don’t know why she bothered to ask me. I think it was because she needed extra men at these affairs from time to time, and I had a clean shirt.

—Claus von Bülow to author, 2009

*   *   *

The ugliest woman I have ever seen.

—Giovanni Battista Meneghini, divorced husband of Maria Callas. (He hated Elsa for her lesbian designs on his wife.)

*   *   *

A fat old son of a bitch!

—Maria Callas

*   *   *

As I remember every single person who was ever kind to me, I remember that often maligned woman very well.

—Maria Riva (daughter of Marlene Dietrich)

*   *   *

“I May Not Be Good Looking but I’m Awfully Good to Ma”

—one of many songs composed by Elsa, this one published in 1909

*   *   *

Old battering-ram Elsa always gives the best parties.

—the Duke of Windsor

*   *   *

The old oaken bucket in the Well of Loneliness.

—the Duchess of Windsor’s vicious epithet during their noisy feud in the mid-1950s

*   *   *

Elsa Maxwell was part of the old generation, a generation for whom sexuality was not intrinsic to public identity, whose community—even if predominantly with homosexuals—was defined more by class and privilege than anything else.

—William J. Mann, Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910–1969

*   *   *

Elsa to the formidable Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, wife of sugar baron Adolph Spreckels and, like Elsa, a San Franciscan: “How old are you, Alma?”

A. de B. S.: “Old enough to remember when there was no such person as Elsa Maxwell.” (She meant it figuratively, since they were born the same year. The remark implies, also, that Elsa’s social status as a girl in San Francisco was not of the highest rank.)

*   *   *

She preferred rich women with large houses in which she could stage her parties. What most people regard as amusing interludes were to Elsa a profession.

—R.V.C. Bodley, a military attaché at the British embassy in Paris after World War I, when Elsa was making an international name for herself.

*   *   *

Shaped like a cottage loaf with currant eyes.

—Stanley Jackson, Inside Monte Carlo

*   *   *

Monte Carlo. Elsa Maxwell, the cumbersome butterfly, staged her night parties with unbelievable mixtures of the great and near great.

—film director Jean Negulesco, recalling his youth on the Côte d’Azur in the Roaring Twenties

*   *   *

Asked why Elsa hadn’t been invited to a celebrity bash at his famed Hollywood restaurant, con man and faux Russian royalty “Prince” Mike Romanoff replied, “No phonies.”

*   *   *

Personal and Confidential Memo to J. Edgar Hoover from E. E. Conroy, an underling at the FBI, dated July 26, 1945:

“Miss Elsa Maxwell has been a Special Service Contact of this office since September of 1942 but contact has been had with her infrequently. The Bureau is aware, of course, that presently she is writing a column for the New York Post and for some time now she has enjoyed the reputation of a successful hostess at gatherings which she arranges for socially prominent people. However, it has come to the attention of this office in the recent past that generally they consider her now to be a person of somewhat unsavory background and reputation. In addition, the Bureau itself has evidence of the fact that she is indiscreet and not entirely trustworthy, as is indicated in G-2 reports forwarded as enclosures to this office with a letter from the Bureau dated January 8, 1943.

“For the reasons outlined above it is deemed advisable therefore to discontinue the services of Miss Maxwell as a Special Service Contact and this will be done unless the Bureau advises to the contrary.”

*   *   *

Elsa’s indictment of racism, from her column in the New York Post, November 16, 1943:

“Let’s look this matter of prejudice straight in the eye. I’m sick and tired of all the pussyfooting that’s been going on about Jim Crow. Either we are believers in the principles of democracy—as we piously declare, three times a day—or we are a collection of the greatest frauds the world has seen.

“For generations the conventional and learned citizens of this republic have stood stolidly silent while the American Negro has been vilified, libeled, and denied almost all access to the privileged places of sweetness and light.… Democracy has been wayward in the cause of democracy.”

*   *   *

Although as lively and perky as a sparrow, Miss Maxwell never strikes me as being a particularly happy woman herself. She has unsmiling eyes. She is restless. One of her idiosyncrasies is to eat chocolate continually between the courses of meals—which is to me only less disconcerting than that abominable habit of smoking between the courses.

—“The Talk of London,” a pseudonymous column by “The Dragoman” in the Daily Express, October 22, 1932

*   *   *

Headline in the New York Herald-Tribune, 1957: ELSA MAXWELL ORDERED TO PAY $840 TO FAROUK FOR INSULT, which, decoded, was reporting that a court in Paris had ordered Elsa to pay that amount to the deposed King of Egypt for defamation of character. While still on the throne, he had invited her to one of his parties. Elsa replied with a telegram to his equerry which read, “I do not associate with clowns, monkeys, or corrupt gangsters.” An intemperate reaction, surely, from the author of Elsa Maxwell’s Etiquette Book, published around the time of the king’s party. In it, Elsa wrote that “whenever you are asked to be a guest you are paid a compliment. Your host or hostess, in effect, looks upon you as someone who will contribute to the success of their party. A prompt reply will express your appreciation of the invitation.”

*   *   *

Elsa Maxwell took a bad fall on the Guinness yacht in Monte Carlo. The yacht is expected to recover.

—Earl Wilson’s column, 1961

*   *   *

Telegram sent from the White House, May 31, 1963, to Elsa at the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York: “Thank you very much for your birthday message. It was kind of you to remember me on this occasion, and I am most appreciative of your thoughtfulness. John F. Kennedy.”

The following day, Western Union notified the White House that the telegram was undelivered because Miss Maxwell was on the high seas aboard the SS France. It was her final trip abroad. (The telegram was missent to the Park Sheraton Hotel, rather than the Delmonico, where Elsa lived at the time. Had the address been correct, she would have received the telegram before departure. The great irony is that both Elsa and President Kennedy celebrated their last birthdays in that month of May 1963. She died on Friday, November 1, exactly three weeks before the assassination.)

*   *   *

In 1969, the director of Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum, in Hartsdale, New York, assured Mickey Deans, widower of Judy Garland, that “your wife will be the star of Ferncliff. Jerome Kern rests here, and Moss Hart, Basil Rathbone, and Elsa Maxwell, but your wife will be our only star.”

—Anne Edwards, Judy Garland, page 305

*   *   *

As this book goes to press, there are 133 memorial “flowers”—i.e., kitschy floral icons and visual bric-a-brac—posted on findagrave.com at Elsa’s page (or should I call it her ePlot?). Many bear weepy sentiments such as “Happy Heavenly Birthday, Dearest Angel” (posted May 24, 2011) forty-eight years after Elsa’s death) and “Rest in peace, Great Lady.” But Judy Garland remains, as predicted, the star of Ferncliff, at least electronically; she has 6,150 tributes.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Sam Staggs

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Table of Contents

1 The Sun Never Sets on Elsa Maxwell 1

2 The Duchess of Keokuk 7

3 An Oasis of Civilization in the California Desert 17

4 Where Were You at 5:13 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906? 34

5 Now Voyager, Sail Thou Forth 42

6 Send Me a Tenor 50

7 I've Written a Letter to Mother 57

8 Dickie 63

9 A Night at the Suffragist Opera 73

10 Fifty Million Frenchmen 79

11 A Perfect Blendship 84

12 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Versailles 91

13 A Footnote as Big as the Ritz 100

14 I Love the Nightlife 110

15 Jean, Joy, and Noël 116

16 Noblesse Oblige 123

17 Everything's Coming Up Elsa 128

18 The Guilty Party 138

19 We Open in Venice 145

20 Sunrise at Monte Carlo 153

21 The Rotunda of Generous Matrons 159

22 How to Become a Movie Star at Fifty-five 171

23 Upstaged by Her Own Underwear 183

24 When in Doubt, Give a Party 196

25 Put the Blame on Elsa 209

26 Enigma Variations 224

27 And Say Hello to My Niece, Princess Margaret 225

28 The Isles of Greece 229

29 One God, One Callas 240

30 Snakes on a Plane 247

31 Rome Trembled 256

32 "Jack's Guests Tonight Are …" 264

33 Cocktails and Laughter, but What Comes After? 271

34 When Death Occurs 283

35 Renewer of Hearts 293

36 Dickie Revisited 304

37 Elsa's Kingdom 309

Acknowledgments 313

Selected Bibliography 315

Index 323

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