The Woman Who Invented Interior Design and Set Paris Society on Fire
Lesbian actress Elsie de Wolfe’s work in design and penchant for parties catapulted her to the top of world society.
At the turn of the twentieth century, there was no greater tastemaker than Elsie de Wolfe.
Credited with inventing the now thriving 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 throw a seriously extravagant party. In 1939, de Wolfe hosted one of the last great costume balls in France before WWII ended the excesses of the 1930s.
But just because she was a member of high society, doesn’t mean she was all uptight decorum. As with all the most interesting ladies of the early 1900s, de Wolfe was a dynamo who lived life exactly how she wanted. She married a British ambassador to climb the European social ladder, but only after spending years with her greatest love, a female literary agent and theater producer. She was known for her stunning sense of style—and also such eccentricities as tinting her hair to match her outfits 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 form of society Socialist prophets assure us is vanishing. This gives 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 epochs 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 husband was chaplain to Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle, and she was officially presented at the Queen’s court in London in the early 1880s.
When she returned to Manhattan, de Wolfe became an amateur actress, a move that was en vogue for young ladies of a certain class at the time. But what was an entertaining pastime for most became a professional career for de Wolfe after her father unexpectedly died and left her family nearly penniless.
There was just one problem: she wasn’t very good at it. While de Wolfe subsisted as an actress for several years, she was better known for her amazing on-stage style than for any particular talent for acting.
During her time on the stage, de Wolfe met Elisabeth Marbury—known as “Bessie”—and the two became lovers. The couple quickly acquired a nickname, “The Bachelors,” and the Washington Irving house on Irving Place in Manhattan. Their home became a gathering spot for members of the New York creative set like Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, and Nancy Astor. It also was de Wolfe’s first interior design project.
She enjoyed renovating the house so much, in fact, that in 1904, de Wolfe officially gave up acting and dedicated herself full-time to the then-nonexistent field of interior design. Her first major commission was outfitting the new Colony Club, the first female-only social club in Manhattan built by architect Stanford White.
“When the project was completed in 1907, Elsie’s position as America’s first and leading female professional interior decorator was secured,” writes Charlie Scheips in his book Elsie de Wolfe’s Paris: Frivolity Before the Storm. “She was launched as a household name, and over the next thirty years she became the world’s most famous interior decorator and expert on fashion, style, and entertaining.”
De Wolfe had a distinct vision that was the antithesis of the heavy and dark aesthetics that characterized the popular Victorian style. Instead, she focused on natural light, open and airy spaces, and mirrors. She also loved everything having to do with 18th-century French decor and incorporating nature into the home. Her big principles were simplicity and practicality in all things, although by today’s modern standards of minimalism, her idea of simplicity was something a little different.
But, above all, she was a worshipper at the altar of taste and beauty.
“After all, what surer guarantee can there be of a woman’s character, natural and cultivated, inherent and inherited, than taste? It is a compass that never errs,” de Wolfe wrote in her 1913 book, The House in Good Taste. “If a woman has taste she may have faults, follies, fads, she may err, she may be as human and feminine as she pleases, but she will never cause a scandal!”
De Wolfe quickly became the go-to designer for the upper crust. She picked up such major clients as publishing impresario Conde Nast, actor Gary Cooper, and industrialist Henry Frick (she furnished the second floor of what is now the Frick Museum).
But her crowning design achievement was that 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 entrance to the Versailles gardens. The 16-room house and adjoining grounds had their own royal roots that ended after the French aristocracy fled following the 1848 Revolution.
The house had fallen into disrepair, and de Wolfe quickly set about returning it to its former glory—and then some. Among her many improvements to the property were the addition of a music pavilion—which doubled as a theater where she and Bessie would show the latest moving pictures to their guests—and a whopping total of five bathrooms, a shocking number to the early 20th-century French. Her bedroom featured a nameplate that said simply, “Moi.”
“I have always lived in enchanting houses. Probably when another woman 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 renovation 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 home—and paid for an entire new wing of the house, nicknamed the Morgan Wing. During her later years, after de Wolfe had married 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 elaborate settings for her lavish balls.
Her marriage was largely one of status and convenience, and it came as a big surprise to everyone who knew her—including 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 marriage firmly established de Wolfe in French society (where Sir Charles was stationed), and, following her nuptials, she became a full-time socialite dedicated to throwing elegant—and often extravagant—parties. In the New Yorker, Flanner notes that she had been called a “monster of frivolity.”
De Wolfe was adventurous and wasn’t afraid to introduce new ideas to her social set—she 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 physically—and financially—in.” She was also a big health nut and practiced 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 drapes, and brought in her own chandeliers to the already posh hotel to achieve her grand vision.
In her book Elsie de Wolfe: A Life in High Style, Jane Smith quotes the Duchess of Windsor, a close friend of de Wolfe’s, as saying, “For bringing together all kinds of people in a gay, airy, but flawless setting, I have never known anyone to equal Lady Mendl. She mixes people like a cocktail—and the result is sheer genius.”
De Wolfe’s vision reached 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 season—all the better to remember them. In 1939, over 700 guests paraded through the Villa Trianon in only the latest and finest fashions 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 circus—clowns, acrobats, horses, and all—put on a night-long show in the specially built circus ring.
The only guests who didn’t get the memo that this was the event of the season were the elephants, who were supposed to assist de Wolfe in making her grand entrance 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 couldn’t have known the significance of the event they were missing. Shortly after the last ball of the season, the grandeur of the 1930s 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 out—and also prepared for the worst by having photographs made of her art and jewelry collections and the interiors of the Villa Trianon—she 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 house—After All—and enjoyed Hollywood society.
But her heart was in France. Once the war ended, de Wolfe returned and set about restoring the Villa Trianon once again. Four years later, in 1946, after throwing 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 flair 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 create what she did, but a lot of smart people of New York, Paris, Rome, Vienna, and what’s left of royal Russia have enjoyed the result.”