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How an Irrepressible Nobody Conquered High Society, Hollywood, the Press, and the World

by Sam Staggs

Pub Date: Oct. 16th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0312699444
Publisher: St. Martin's

Movie biographer Staggs' (Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation of Life, 2009, etc.) lively account of how a jowly plain Jane from Iowa became the 20th century’s most celebrated “party giver for the rich, the royal, [and] the famous.”

Elsa Maxwell (1883–1963) was once “as famous a name as Martha Stewart or Joan Rivers today.” Born into an upper-middle-class milieu she would later disavow, her social-climbing sensibilities emerged early on. The author traces the origins of Maxwell's desire to be surrounded by the beautiful people of the world to the fact that her family was never asked to attend the high-society functions that had so captivated their daughter. Her life became an exercise in making up for this affront by giving parties “to which no rich people would be invited,” but would still be the talk of the town. Gifted with a silver tongue, musical talent and a knack for being at the right place at the right time, Maxwell began her career by befriending a dazzling array of actors and entertainers, including such luminaries as Enrico Caruso, Cole Porter and Nöel Coward. These individuals in turn helped launch her into circles frequented by socialites, heiresses, politicians and European royalty. By the early 1920s, Maxwell had fulfilled her dream and become a much-in-demand international hostess whose parties were more like "impromptu carnival events" than simple social gatherings. Her peripatetic life eventually took her to Hollywood where, from the mid-1930s on, she wrote screenplays, appeared in several movies and had her own on-again/off-again radio show. What makes Maxwell so compelling a figure isn't just the improbable nature of her achievements, but her personal complexities, which Staggs discusses in depth. A closeted lesbian, she condemned homosexuality despite an almost 50-year partnership with another woman and an unrequited passion for opera legend Maria Callas.

An animated and intelligent biography.