The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

July 12, 2016

July 12, 1950

Today the "Cat Lover's Almanac" looks at the life of Elsie de Wolfe, (December 20, 1865 to July 12, 1950).  Although she was born an American, her mother's relatives in Scotland  (a cousin whose husband was chaplain to Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle), ensured de Wolfe was officially presented at the royal court in London in the early 1880s. 

De Wolfe is credited with inventing the modern profession of interior decorating. Our account draws largely 
on her article in Britannica and another at the Daily Beast website.

Her first project was 
 the Washington Irving house on Irving Place in Manhattan, the home she and Elisabeth Marbury shared:

Their home became a gathering spot for members of the New York creative set like Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, and Nancy Astor. ....Architect Stanford White helped her win a commission to design the interior of the Colony Club, New York’s first social club for women. There she demonstrated her signature principles of design: simplicity, airiness (through the use of mirrors and light hues of paint and fabric), and visual (rather than simple stylistic) unity.....

De Wolfe’s pronounced and distinctly anti-Victorian taste helped shape that of her generation...

Her wealthy clients brought her wealth, and she and Marbury became noted hostesses. In 1903 they bought and began restoring the Villa Trianon in Versailles, France, which became a second hub for their social lives.

...[T]he Villa Trianon [was] 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.....

[W]hat 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's clients included figures like]... publishing impresario Conde Nast, actor Gary Cooper, and industrialist Henry Frick (she furnished the second floor of what is now the Frick Museum).

During 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. In March 1926 she married Sir Charles Mendl, a British diplomat in France. 

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, ....” She was also a big health nut and practiced yoga and plastic surgery before either were de rigueur.

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.

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.

On the outbreak of World War II they moved to Hollywood; Lady Mendl was restored to American citizenship, which had been lost by her marriage, by special act of Congress. After the war de Wolfe returned to Villa Trianon, where she died in 1950. Her autobiography, After All, was published in 1935....

“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.

Leave us recall: interior decoration as a profession is merely a stage in the evolution of the middle class. The aristocracy was not bothered by the need to demonstrate their "taste." Merely sometimes where to find the money for artists and architects and builders.

But it is hard not to like this lady, seen in a photo credited as "Paris 1946 Photo Louise Dahl-Wolfe."

And we are happy to give Janet Flanner the last word:

“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 the New Yorker in 1938. “Certainly few women alive have so spanned the epochs and their representative social contents.”

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