Stylish, amused, and impressively researched, this biography of actress/decorator/ hostess de Wolfe (a.k.a. Lady Mendl) does...


ELSIE DE WOLFE: A Life in the High Style

Stylish, amused, and impressively researched, this biography of actress/decorator/ hostess de Wolfe (a.k.a. Lady Mendl) does justice to each of her varied, glamorous pursuits; and if there's a lack of dramatic shape or deeper involvement here, it's probably Elsie's fault--not Smith's. After all, though Smith argues that de Wolfe wasn't cold, ""it was only inanimate objects and interiors that would promise her the faithful and unchanging beauty she craved, and for that they received her truest love."" Personal attachments remain secondary, then, as we follow plain, skinny Elsie from middle-class early-1880s Manhattan (""assured that she was an ugly child, convinced that she lived in an ugly world"") to highly successful finishing-school in Edinburgh; from upper-class acquaintanceships to success as an amateur actress at society clubs (""her popularity may have been based on the appeal of bare competence in the face of alternatives too appalling to detail""); or, once money-making became a vulgar necessity, from triumphs on the stage as ""Charles Frohman's clotheshorse"" to ultimate failure as a real actress. The 30-year domestic relationship with well-born, obese Bessie Marbury is interesting--mostly because of Bessie's array of achievements (writers' agent, instigator of the Kern/Wodehouse musicalcomedies, Elizabeth Arden's mentor, Democratic Party godmother), not to mention the strange Sapphic threesome with J. P. Morgan's do-gooding daughter Anne. And there's the predictable slew of chic people (Cole Porter et al.) and places when Elsie at 60 enters platonic Continental marriage with womanizing Charles Mendl. But it is only Elsie-as-decorator who really comes alive here: her early passion for the 18th century, for France (with a beloved villa at Versailles); her pre-professional transformation of her own N.Y. home from Victorian clutter to gracious elegance (influenced by Wharton & Codman's Decoration of Houses); her sensible switch from paid actress to paid decorator, moving toward ""a curiously dainty form of functionalism""--chintz, mirrors, beige, white--as her client list soared (Frick above all) and her business acumen dazzled. And Smith does a splendid job at recreating de Wolfe rooms, object by object, color by color--celebrating (but never exaggerating) her influence . . . which also included blue hair and short white gloves. So, if the personal life here rarely generates much drama or sympathy, the word-pictures and the social details will engage many: readers with either a weakness for sheer high-life or an interest in the history of decoration.

Pub Date: May 25, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Atheneum

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1982