Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Born Today In 1859: Actress, Pioneering Interior Designer Elsie de Wolfe

Elsie de Wolfe, also known as Lady Mendl, was born today, December 20, in 1859 (or so). She was an American actress, interior decorator, nominal author of the influential 1913 book The House in Good Taste, and a prominent figure in New York, Paris, and London society. According to The New Yorker, "Interior design as a profession was invented by Elsie de Wolfe." 

Bessie Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe in 1923
Though De Wolfe was certainly the most famous name in the field until the 1930s, the profession of interior decorator/designer was recognized as a promising one as early as 1900, 5 years before she received her first official commission, The Colony Club in New York. During her married life (from 1926 until her death in 1950) the press often referred to her as Lady Mendl.

Among de Wolfe's distinguished clients were Amy Vanderbilt, Anne Morgan, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Henry Clay and Adelaide Frick. She transformed the interiors of wealthy homes from dark wood, heavily curtained palaces into light, intimate spaces featuring fresh colors and a reliance on 18th-century French furniture and accessories.

In her autobiography, de Wolfe — born Ella Anderson de Wolfe and the only daughter of a Canadian-born doctor —called herself a "rebel in an ugly world." Her sensitivity to style and color was acute from childhood. Arriving home from school one day, she found her parents had redecorated the drawing-room: She ran [in]... and looked at the walls, which had been papered in a [William] Morris design of gray palm-leaves and splotches of bright red and green on a background of dull tan. Something terrible that cut like a knife came up inside her. She threw herself on the floor, kicking with stiffened legs, as she beat her hands on the carpet.... she cried out, over and over: "It's so ugly! It's so ugly."

Hutton Wilkinson, president of the Elsie de Wolfe Foundation, clarifies that many things de Wolfe hated, such as "pickle and plum Morris furniture," are prized today by museums and designers. “De Wolfe simply didn't like Victorian, the high style of her sad childhood," Wilkinson said, "and chose to banish it from her design vocabulary."

De Wolfe's first career choice was that of actress. 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 theater to launch a career as a decorator.

According the the Encyclopedia Britannica, "[d]uring World War I de Wolfe remained in France and won the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour for her hospital relief work, particularly among gas-burn cases."

Many elements aided her in becoming such an influential figure in the emerging field of Interior Design, though it was dominated by only men at the time -- her social connections, her reputation as an actress, and her success in decorating the interior of the Washington Irving House, she shared with her "close friend," Elisabeth Marbury.

Preferring a brighter scheme of decorating than was fashionable in Victorian times, she helped convert interiors of dark, heavy draperies and overly ornate furnishings into light, soft, more feminine rooms. She made a feature of mirrors, which both illuminated and expanded living spaces, brought back into fashion furniture painted white or pale colors, and indulged her taste for Chinoiserie, chintz, green and white stripes, wicker, Trompe-l'oeil effects in wallpaper, and trellis work motifs, suggesting the allure of the garden. As de Wolfe claimed: “I opened the doors and windows of America, and let the air and sunshine in.” Her inspiration came from 18th century French and English art, literature, theater and fashion.

De Wolfe's taste was also practical, eliminating in her schemes the clutter that occupied Victorian homes, enabling people to entertain more guests comfortably. She also popularized the chaises longue, faux-finish treatments, and animal print upholstery.

In 1905, Stanford White, the architect for The Colony Club and a longtime friend, helped de Wolfe secure the commission for its interior design. The effect centered on the illusion of an outdoor garden pavilion. (The building is now occupied by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.) The success of the Colony Club proved a turning point in her own life and career, launching her fame as the most sought-after interior decorator of the day.

Over the course of the next 6 years, Elsie designed interiors for many prestigious private homes, clubs and businesses on both the East and West coasts. By 1913, her reputation had grown so that her studio took up an entire floor of offices on 5th Avenue. That year she received her greatest commission -- from coal magnate Henry Clay Frick, one of the richest men in America at the time.

De Wolfe's 1926 marriage to diplomat Sir Charles Mendl was page one news in the New York Times. The marriage was platonic and one of convenience. The pair appeared to have married primarily for social amenities, entertaining together, but keeping separate residences. In 1935, when de Wolfe published her autobiography, she didn't mention her husband in it. Although his career had been of no great distinction, Mendl's knighthood was allegedly bestowed due to his retrieval of letters from a gigolo who had been blackmailing Prince George, Duke of Kent.

The Times reported "the intended marriage comes as a great surprise to her friends," a veiled reference to the fact that since 1892 de Wolfe had been living openly in what many observers accepted as a lesbian relationship. As the paper put it: "When in New York she makes her home with Miss Elizabeth Marbury at 13 Sutton Place."

The daughter of a prosperous New York lawyer, Elisabeth (Bessy) Marbury, like de Wolfe, was also a career pioneer. She was one of the first female theater agents and one of the first woman Broadway producers. Her clients included Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. During their nearly 40 years together, 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." Expecting nothing to change in their relationship due to her marriage to Mendl, de Wolfe remained Marbury's lover until the latter's death in 1933.

In 1926 the New York Times described de Wolfe as "one of the most widely known women in New York social life," and in 1935 as "prominent in Paris society."

Her morning exercises were famous. In her memoir, de Wolfe wrote that her daily regimen at age 70 included yoga, standing on her head, and walking on her hands. "I have a regular exercise routine founded on the Yogi method," Elsie said, "introduced to me by Anne Vanderbilt and her daughter, Princess Murat. I stand on my head (and) I can turn cart wheels. Or I walk upside-down on my hands."

In 1935, Paris experts named her the best-dressed woman in the world, noting that she wore what suited her best, regardless of fashion.

According to an article in The New Yorker:
In her old age, de Wolfe surrounded herself with a series of younger men whom she took on as protégés, and she continued to conduct her life in the high style. When the Nazis’ approach forced her and Charles into exile in California, she rescued a Beverly Hills mansion from ruin, named it After All (a favorite expression that was also the title of her autobiography), and turned it into a palace of mirrors and palms. Objects, not people, still seemed to offer her primary emotional sustenance. “Probably when another woman would be dreaming of love affairs, I dream of the delightful houses I have lived in,” she had written in “The House in Good Taste.” “I think that is why some people like my rooms—they feel, without quite knowing why, that I have loved them while making them.” As the Second World War destroyed the French countryside she was so fond of, she labored to rescue a cherished stool from her house in Versailles (it had been Marie Antoinette’s), and when it finally joined her in California she spent a morning moving it around the room so that it could sun itself after its traumatic voyage. She died at the Villa Trianon in 1950, attended only by her maid, in the shelter of her most adored creation. 


paul said...

I believe that you answered a question for me. When Cole Porter performed his song "Anything Goes" he sang about "Lady Mendl doing handsprings". I always wondered who was this Lady Mendl? Now I know. What a fascinating, colorful period of time that was.

TGA said...

That is correct Paul! You certainly know your Cole Porter. The lyric to the song "Anything Goes," goes, "When you hear that Lady Mendl, standing up/Now turns a handspring landing up-/On her toes/Anything goes!"