Pianist, gossip columnist, TV star, and above all a giver of great parties, Elsa Maxwell was famous for being herself.
She was most likely far more interesting than the celebrities she covered.
Elsa Maxwell first worked as a theatre pianist after leaving school at the age of 14 and before touring with a troupe in various music halls.
Elsa Maxwell, Tyrone Power and the Duke of Windsor at a 1948 party at Maxwell’s house on the French Riviera.
While traveling, she met important figures and began attending society parties and soon turned into a professional hostess, throwing parties for high society and royalty across Europe, making scavenger and treasure hunts highly popular.
In the 1930s, she returned to the United States where she appeared as a caricatured-self in various films such as Stage Door Canteen, in 1943 and Rhapsody in Blue, in 1945 and gained audiences of millions as a gossip columnist while continuing to organize parties.
Elsa Maxwell, New York’s most famous party maker, and Cole Porter, talented composer of music and verse.
The fame-maker who introduced Rita Hayworth to Ali Khan and Maria Callas to Aristotle Onassis had managed to become famous herself and remained known as the ‘Hostess with the mostest’.
Mention a celebrity, and she would reply, “My most intimate friend!” If it was anyone below the level of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she would add, “I discovered him, you know!” Occasionally, for the spice of variation, she would draw the line at, say, Vladimir Horowitz: “I’ve turned on pianists!”
Elsa Maxwell knew everyone, specializing in royalty and achievers—Cole Porter, Duff and Diana Cooper, Elsie de Wolfe, Jacqueline Kennedy, Gary Cooper, Mussolini, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Maria Callas. Elsa (1881-1963) was everywhere, from Venice to Hollywood.
And she did everything: She played the piano, published (“Elsa Maxwell’s Etiquette Book”), took on public relations assignments, ran a gossip column for the Hearst press, appeared in films, introduced wealthy unknowns to society, served as a television talk-show guest and was Seen in the right Places.
Elsa Maxwell (May 24, 1883 – November 1, 1963) was an American gossip columnist and author, songwriter, and professional hostess renowned for her parties for royalty and high society figures of her day.
Maxwell is credited with the introduction of the scavenger hunt and treasure hunt for use as party games in the modern era. Her radio program, Elsa Maxwell’s Party Line, began in 1942; she also wrote a syndicated gossip column. She appeared as herself in the films Stage Door Canteen (1943) and Rhapsody in Blue (1945), as well as co-starring in the film Hotel for Women (1939), for which she wrote the screenplay and a song.
In spite of the persistent rumor that Elsa Maxwell was born at a theater in Keokuk, Iowa, during a performance of the opera Mignon, she actually admitted late in life that the outlandish story was a fabrication that she went along with, since she was actually born at her maternal grandmother’s home in the same town. Elsa was subsequently raised in San Francisco, where her father sold insurance and did freelance writing for the New York Dramatic Mirror.
She developed a gift for staging games and diversions at parties for the rich, and began making a living devising treasure-hunt parties, come-as-your-opposite parties and other sorts, including a scavenger hunt in Paris in 1927 that inadvertently created disturbances all over the city.
In Venice in the early 1920s, Maxwell attracted stars like Cole Porter, Talulah Bankhead, Noel Coward and Fanny Brice to Venice’s Lido shoreline to enjoy its daytime amenities and nightly parties. Later, the principality of Monaco employed Maxwell’s services to put it on the map as a tourist destination as she had done for the Lido. Maxwell and Porter were lifelong friends, and he mentioned her in several of his songs, including “I’m Dining with Elsa (and her ninety-nine most intimate friends)” and “I’m Throwing a Ball Tonight” from “Panama Hattie” (sung by Ethel Merman.)
Returning to the US, Maxwell worked on movie shorts during the Depression, unsuccessfully. “Her imprimatur of social acceptability carried so much weight that the Waldorf Astoria gave her a suite rent-free when it opened in New York in 1931 at the height of the depression, hoping to attract rich clients because of her.”
Following World War II she gained an audience of millions as a newspaper gossip columnist. Beginning in 1942 she also hosted a radio program, Elsa Maxwell’s Party Line, for which Esther Bradford Aresty was a writer and producer.
Maxwell took credit for introducing Rita Hayworth to Prince Aly Khan in the summer of 1948. In 1953, Maxwell published a single issue of her magazine, Elsa Maxwell’s Café Society, which had a portrait of Zsa Zsa Gabor on the cover. Anne Edwards’ biography of Maria Callas (Callas, 2001) and Peter Evans biography of Aristotle Onassis both claim that Maxwell introduced Callas to Onassis.
Edwards also claims that Maxwell was a lesbian who tried to seduce Callas, 40 years Maxwell’s junior.
Callas biographer Stelios Galatopoulos produced love letters from Maxwell written to Callas, who was less than receptive.
Above all, she threw parties: come-as-you-are parties, come-as-your-opposite parties (Fanny Brice showed up as Tosca), gambling parties, cooking parties, scavenger-hunt parties. For the last 30 years of her life, Elsa was one of the best known women in the world, yet, among the millions who recognized her name, very few could have told you what it was that she did. She wasn’t famous for being famous, however. She was famous for being Elsa Maxwell.
In Sam Staggs’s lively biography, Elsa emerges as someone who rose above dreary beginnings with a vague determination to . . . well, rise above dreary beginnings. Born in Iowa to a middle-class family and originally named Elsie, she was raised in San Francisco. She moved to New York in 1907, but in truth she never really “moved,” because for most of her life she scarcely put down roots. Her life was like an old adventure play, the kind Broadway produced before movies came along, with a pile of episodes incoherently bonded.
Becoming, in 1909, the accompanist for Dorothy Toye, a touring vaudeville singer with a trick voice that could sound as soprano or tenor, confirmed her life’s themes: travel and show biz—or, really, celebrity biz. From then on, Elsa maintained a nomadic existence inextricably connected with people of note. Soon, though, she wasn’t accompanying; she was directing. Her 1917 benefit for French war relief at the old Metropolitan Opera House established her as a woman who could put an evening together; this one included Ignace Paderewski at the keyboard, a suite of opera stars, Ethel Barrymore, Maude Adams (Broadway’s original Peter Pan) and Field Marshal Joseph Joffre.
Putting evenings together, then, was what Elsa Maxwell did, often in London or Paris and invariably with the Best People. Plain and overweight, she never let her looks slow her down. Friends marveled at her nerve, her ability to be where great social events were occurring—or, if necessary, to create them. She could be tactful or outspoken, as the opportunity struck, now unreliable and now true-blue. She applied unpredictability to her comings and goings as one daubs on a rare cologne, for that hint of mystery. Mr. Staggs imagines a Hollywood montage of Elsa’s life in the late 1920s as “nightclubs, foxtrots and the Charleston . . . motor cars whizzing along a Mediterranean corniche . . . roulette wheels spinning, liquor and laughter.” And of course parties, including one at a certain Lady Ribblesdale’s in London in 1930 in which a “murder” was staged, complete with actors playing detectives. “CLUE OF DUKE’S CIGARETTE,” the Daily Express intoned.
Lifestyles like Elsa’s, so mated in public perception with leisure-class frivolity and so dependent on the indulgence of bigwigs, often run out of welcome after a few years. But as Mr. Staggs says, it was a very long second act. In the 1950s, Elsa was living as ever, only now she was in love—with Maria Callas. As Mr. Staggs recounts it, Elsa gave Callas bad notices in her column till the scandal-prone Greek diva initiated a friendship—”scripted,” he writes, “like the plot of a verismo opera.” Elsa already had a life partner, Dorothy “Dickie” Fellowes-Gordon, a Scots heiress of impressive family. But Callas became Elsa’s obsession. She not only supported Callas with her writing but followed her all over the map as if moonstruck, “dazzled,” says Mr. Staggs, “by the beautiful calamity always on the verge of happening.”
Elsa Maxwell and Calas.
By the time Elsa first appeared on Jack Paar’s “Tonight” show, in 1957, she had reached that age at which one’s native tact is spent and one’s tongue wags recklessly. In her 70s, Elsa finally became one of the few things she hadn’t been already: a television star, playing the guest who could be counted on to say shocking things about famous people, including herself. Mr. Staggs quotes Paar: “She was so brazen and outspoken that ‘our act’ became the talk of television.” Now the author invents another montage, of Paar’s introductions of Elsa: “And here she is, the little Orphan Annie of the Waldorf” or “The winner of the Nobel Prize for Catering.” If Elsa invented herself, she had plenty of assistants.
Mr. Staggs writes in a bright, conversational style exactly suited to the worldly affairs he tells of. With so many has-beens to discuss, he includes side boxes as sotto voce explanations, for instance, of Maxine Elliott, once arguably the most beautiful actress on Broadway; John Barrymore’s sometime wife, the aptly named Michael Strange; Elsa’s rival partygiver Perle Mesta; even Greta Garbo, who Elsa thought cut so dismal a figure in retirement that she sent her a batch of Helena Rubinstein cosmetics. Mr. Staggs has 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. “It was always exciting to be with her,” says Mary Carter, who met Elsa at the time of l’affaire Callas. “And she enjoyed every second she was alive.”
Maxwell told interviewer Mike Wallace in 1957:
I did not feel fit, to be only married. I belong to the world. I knew it instinctively when I was quite young. I belong to the world. Certainly I am the most shall we say immodestly, [among] the best-known people in the entire world today. Why, because I did not marry and I felt that I was not for marriage. It wasn’t my … thing to do.
She died of heart failure in a Manhattan hospital.
Her longtime friend Dorothy “Dickie” Fellowes-Gordon was Maxwell’s sole heir.