TODAY IN LADYHISTORY: Elsa Maxwell’s Name-Dropping Fun-Having Rule-Breaking Reign as Queen of the Party

Or, how to succeed in high society without really trying.
Publish date:
November 10, 2011
etiquette, elsa maxwell, midcentury style, rules are for suckers

I am famously bad at parties. I am bad at giving them, and bad at attending them. I cannot handle small talk, and I am of the sort that prefers to discuss a topic in-depth with one person for several hours, rather than mingle and have superficial conversations with many folks over the party-period. If you are having a party? Don’t invite me. Then I will not feel bad for either failing to attend, or for being a total drag if I do.

The great Elsa Maxwell probably would have labeled me as one of her insufferable “bores” -- people who just plain lack whatever gene is necessary to engage pleasantly in social niceties. In the mid-20th century, Elsa Maxwell was a renowned gossip columnist and “professional hostess,” which basically meant she gave marvelous parties for fabulous people and patiently explained to others how they might also do so.

She hung out with Cole Porter and Noel Coward, and partied with royalty, with political leaders and with Hollywood stars. The frontispiece portrait in her out-of-print memoir, “R.S.V.P.,” was drawn for her by Salvador Dali, and she thanks him quite graciously for it, too.

The art of the party was a critical aspect of social culture for a certain class of people following World War II, in a time during which so much was in flux. Elsa Maxwell specialized in making these parties fun, positioning herself as an authority on having a good time.

This would be curious enough if she managed to do it as a person accustomed to certain privileges, but Elsa Maxwell was the product an upbringing fairly described as impoverished, herself “a short, fat, homely piano player from Keokuk, Iowa, with no money or background, [who] decided to become a legend and did just that,” in her own words.

In Simon Doonan’s view, Elsa Maxwell was:

...not only ingenious, creative, witty, musical, highly intelligent, and extremely naughty, but, most importantly, she was also rather fat... Permit me to explain: Her chosen milieu was the world of international high society, a world where you could never be too rich or too thin. Chunky, rule-breaking, nonthreatening Elsa Maxwell charged in and trampled all the old rules governing this uptight, food-disordered monde. She gave all the aristos, swans, and moguls carte blanche to have fun.

Elsa Maxwell was also an unbashed name-dropper, given to comments like “I remember the first time I met Eleanor Roosevelt,” or reminiscences about the time she encouraged Albert Einstein to play violin at Charlie Chaplin’s house. Seriously. She is further credited with inventing the scavenger hunt, and was very partial to costumes and games at all of her parties.

Elsa is also commonly thought to have been a lesbian, although as with so many historical queer folks, the legitimacy of this story is difficult to confirm. Certainly Elsa was not interested in male romantic attention (she describes Cole Porter as “one of three men I’ve been attracted to in my entire life”), enough that she was disposed to resist even the enormous pressures placed on a woman in her position -- that is to say, poor -- to marry to ensure her own fiscal stability, at one point running away from home to work with a traveling theater troupe.

In “R.S.V.P.,” Elsa tells the story of one man she agreed to marry, but whom later seemed to reconsider. She asks him if there is “another woman":

“When you say another woman,” Alex answered gravely, “you imply there are two women in my life. That is wrong. There is only one woman, but she is not you. You are a fine person, but there is something in you that will always stop you from being a real woman.”

There was nothing I could say, for I knew he was right.

Rule-breaking, indeed.

Below are a few bits of Elsa’s wisdom from two of her books on the art of enjoyable society, “Elsa Maxwell’s Etiquette Book,” from 1951, and “How to Do It, or the Lively Art of Entertaining,” from 1957.

On the origins of dumb social rules:

There was a time when any etiquette book would have been required to devote at least one short chapter to gloves alone... But all of this belongs to a stuffy age when women, inactive in world affairs and disinterested in pretty nearly everything outside of their homes, families, and tiny social orbits, made life difficult and etiquette something to be abhorred.

On being an interesting conversationalist:

In the world today there is no excuse for lack of something to talk about. Five cents buys most newspapers. [...] Don’t skip the editorials that present a viewpoint opposed to yours. Read them more carefully than you read anything else. Those who fear to change their thinking limit themselves to a very small world.

On taxicab drivers:

There are hundreds of jokes about taxicab drivers. Most of them are uncomplimentary. And most of them I find unfunny, probably because I like taxicab drivers; find them warm and interesting human beings.

On tipping:

Whenever tips are mentioned I remember James Cagney, the movie star. ‘I have no patience for those who leave a meager ten per cent when they can afford more, excusing themselves on the grounds that it is vulgar to tip generously,’ Jimmy said. ‘If tips were part of their income I’ll bet their tune would change, I’ll bet they’d be darn glad to have their services recognized with a little more than the minimum.’

On Joan Crawford’s hostessing abilities:

If ever there was anyone who proves that you need not come from rich or social parents to be a charming woman and a great hostess, it is Joan Crawford... At a small party at her house you are almost certain to find one of your favorite dishes included in the menu. She is a busy woman -- but not too busy to keep a little book in which she lists, among other things, her friends’ preferences in food.

The above was written in 1951. Something must have happened between Elsa and Joan between then and 1957 -- I like to imagine they had a passionate romance that ended explosively -- because in her subsequent book, Elsa says:

The necessity of giving careful thought and time to food is, I suppose, one reason actresses so rarely make good hostesses. In a profession that assesses glamour largely in terms of tape-measure and scale, hearty appetites must be sternly put down, and the best way to accomplish that, of course, is simply not to think about food at all. The result is that many actresses find it easier on their powers not to entertain at all (I have never known either Bette Davis or Joan Crawford to give what could properly be called a party)...

BURN. Also the association with Bette Davis? DOUBLE BURN.

On dealing with drunks at your party:

The problem of what to do with excessive drinkers confounds most hostesses because they tend to regard inebriates as being in a mentally deranged state and therefore potentially dangerous... nevertheless my advice to any host who has allowed such a situation to develop is to order to offender off the premises in no uncertain terms, and to back up the order with a discreet show of bodily force if necessary. If you haven’t one strong-armed man in the group to help, ask for a little teamwork from the spindlier ones.

On the profound social changes following World War II:

[World War II] forced families which previously would have been horrified to have their women in business to alter this thinking... At the risk of sounding feminist -- and maybe I am, although I do not think of myself that way -- women have done very well in business. They have taken their places beside men on assembly lines. They have become executives in banks and brokerage and insurance houses. They are presidents and buyers and general managers in the big department stores.

Most of Elsa’s books, including her unexpectedly fascinating memoir, are long out of print, the one exception being “How to Do It,” which was reprinted in 2005. Why her life hasn’t yet been turned into an epic film is beyond me (Hollywood? I’m waiting on your call), as her story bears all the fascination of a traditional rags-to-riches tale with a snarky, self-assured, convention-defying whirlwind of a lady at its center.

Maybe Elsa wouldn’t have called me a bore. Maybe she would have appreciated my inclination toward passionate argument instead of chirping discussions about the weather or... my shoes. Either way, she still has my respect and admiration for being an opinionated lady who dared break the rules.