The New Year’s Eve, 1953, celebration you see here is resonant of another world. Kitty Miller, the hostess, the wife of theatrical producer Gilbert Miller, was a hefty social presence in postwar Manhattan.
One painting on the wall, visible in some images from the evening, is of Goya’s Red Boy, bought by Kitty’s financier father, Jules Bache, who had left it to the Metropolitan Museum, who let her hang it at home now and again, perhaps as part of s discreet understanding, perhaps as a message to other likely donors.
Slim Aarons, who took the picture, was an affable fellow who shot the Beautiful People in Beverly Hills, Sardinia, and the Caribbean for magazines like Town & Country and Vogue, and whom I met on occasion when I first moved to New York.
It was no secret that, despite his fondness for Old Hollywood—one of his best-known pictures, Kings of Hollywood, shows Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart, each in white tie and tails, at a West Coast event—he was no fan of the media-drenched celebrity culture that was replacing his world.
So it’s ironic that one of the women you see in this New Year’s Eve picture—tubby, and bearing some resemblance to Tenniel’s Duchess in Alice in Wonderland—is none other than one of the motors of change, the then most famous party-giver in the world, Elsa Maxwell.
From the ’40s through to the ’70s Cleveland Amory was the go-to fellow for a crisp analysis of American celebrity. Including, of course, the celebrity party.
Amory, the author of The Proper Bostonians and The Last Resorts, once told me that society used to regard celebrities with condescending curiosity.
“I mean, they had them come after dinner, and they did sort of strange things,” he told me at a meeting soon after I moved to New York. “But they had ’em come! And they would just sparkle up a party. It was not exactly the way it would be done today. You know what I mean? They would be called in after dinner, not necessarily for dinner.”
Elsa Maxwell changed all that. But Maxwell, who invented the Celebrity Party as we know it, rejoiced in feuds and took an exceedingly dim view of Cleveland Amory.
When Mike Wallace interviewed her on ABC in the late ’50s and quoted something that Amory had written, she demanded “What does he know about what you call high society?” adding that she had met Amory for the very first time just a few months before.
Wallace said “You mean and because you met him—”
“I meet everybody,” she said.
“You meet everybody?”
“And unless you have met somebody, he has not arrived?”
“Not yet,” Elsa Maxwell said with a confident laugh.
Her rise had been remarkable. Short, stout, and with a striking resemblance to a pug dog, she was born in 1893 in Keokuk, Iowa. But she pulsed with energy and was a fearless self-creator. She promoted her humble Iowa origins, and claimed to have been born in a theater during the staging of the opera, Mignon. This was an invention.
Also her family had moved to San Francisco’s genteel Nob Hill when she was a child. There she was scarred when her parents were left off the guest list for a Vanderbilt event.
This and other such snubs to her parents for being insufficiently well-heeled gave Elsa both her social appetite and her understanding that party-giving was a form of warfare. Thus she boasted years later that nobody gave parties with “less Vanderbilts” than hers.
Elsa dropped out of school, played piano in a theater, joined a traveling Shakespeare troupe, and went as far as South Africa. She would meet interesting people on her travels, and being high-energy, fun, and unthreatening, she had a knack of getting on terms with social high-rollers.
In 1916 she got credits, both for the writing and the music, on Melinda and Her Sisters, an opera which was mostly the work of the formidable suffragist, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, which was put on at the Waldorf Astoria in 1916, with a cast of debutantes which included her future hostess, Kitty Bache.
And by the end of World War I, Elsa Maxwell was giving parties for assorted European royals, capped in 1919 by a famous do for Britain’s posh foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, at the Paris Ritz.
Maxwell was, you might say, a harbinger of Mondo Kardashian in that she had become giga-famous—“The Hostess with the Mostest”—not just for nothing in particular, but rather for using celebrity as her raw material in what could nowadays be regarded as a sort of performance art.
For instance, she either invented or perfected such amusements as high-society cross-dressing parties, where men would come as women and vice versa (and seldom perhaps has the Latin tag vice versa been as appropriate), come-as-your-enemy parties, and scavenger hunts.
What strikes one most nowadays studying the pictorial and printed evidence is that there was a kind of innocent high spirits about the goings-on, which took place in a time when boredom was the principal enemy, before that world was smothered by media coverage, blanketed by the marketers, and replaced by the faux universe of reality television, the mass narcissism of selfies.
Indeed, Elsa Maxwell’s guest list, when read nowadays, has the resonance of reality. Winston Churchill frequently attended, as did Gianni Agnelli, Stavros Niarchos, Diana Vreeland, and the Shah of Iran.
Elsa Maxwell was a staunch supporter of Cole Porter. It was she who introduced Callas to Onassis and Rita Hayworth to Aly Khan. That world is gone.
Maxwell moved to New York in the early ’30s and she transplanted to Hollywood in 1938. She starred on Elsa Maxwell’s Party Line radio show and she became a regular on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show.
She appeared in several utterly forgettable movies, including Stage Door Canteen, a 1943 movie, in which she appeared with Katherine Hepburn, Yehudi Menuhin, Benny Goodman, and Harpo Marx, all playing themselves.
Truly she was a blast from Celebrity Past who played a significant part in turning celebrity from a light into the heavy industry of Celebrity Present. “Not bad for a short, fat, homely piano player fron Keokuk, Iowa, with no money or background,” she once said, adding that she had “decided to become a legend, and did just that.”