Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Pygmalion and Galatea


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She was once among the most famous Americans. Joan Fontaine claimed she was "dangerous to know." Noel Coward, however, "found her dynamic, gay, courageous, insanely generous, and to me, always kind." She never came out as a lesbian, but she and Dorothy "Dickie" Fellowes-Gordon were a well-known couple for 50 years. She fascinated royalty, high and cafe society, yet retained her common touch and humanity. Sam Staggs' Inventing Elsa Maxwell: How an Irrepressible Nobody Conquered High Society , Hollywood, the Press, and the World (St. Martin's Press, $27.99) brilliantly recounts this improbable life.

Born in 1881 in Keokuk, Iowa, the only child of a prominent family, she was reared on San Francisco's Nob Hill. Yet Elsa (nee Elsie) insisted that her background was humble, a Cinderella who never made it to the ball. She may have done this to make her later success appear more remarkable. Short, heavy, plain, she was nonetheless popular – her personality enlivened any event. She was a gifted singer and pianist, equally at home with popular and classical music. Her knowledge of opera was prodigious. On the night of the 1906 earthquake, she had an engagement with Enrico Caruso.

While still young, she moved to New York, supporting herself as a singer/pianist in clubs and at private parties. Her San Francisco social network opened doors for her in Manhattan. All her life, Maxwell had a gift for friendship. Some called her a climber, but Staggs points out that she wasn't interested in status as much as she was in having fun – and showing others how to do so. She was imaginative, tireless, and thus became the most celebrated party-giver of the first half of the 20th century. She hosted legendary affairs in Paris, London, New York, Monte Carlo, Venice, and other chic places. Staggs convincingly argues that she created modern public relations.

He excels at depicting how the elites celebrated during the Belle Epoque , the jazz-infused 1920s, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the pre-jet-set 50s. Maxwell, who became a widely-read newspaper columnist, helped set the tone for those decades. Readers trusted her judgments and enjoyed her stories, followed her advice in several books and articles, and made her autobiography a bestseller. Hollywood beckoned with Elsa Maxwell's Hotel for Women (1939), starring Ann Sothern and Linda Darnell.

Her friends included Alma de Bretteville Spreckels (founder of SF's Legion of Honor museum), C.Z. Guest, the Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth), the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (she had known HRH as Prince of Wales and as Edward VIII), Princess Margaret, and King Paul of the Hellenes and his wife Frederika of Hanover. Prince Aly Kahn asked Maxwell to invite Love Goddess Rita Hayworth to a party. Their subsequent elopement and tumultuous marriage was front-page news in the early 1950s. She helped Monaco's princely Grimaldi family make Monte Carlo an international destination.

For years, she resided at Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria, paying little or no rent because she brought the hotel welcome publicity. She was a popular guest on Jack Paar's TV talk show in the 1950s.

Even if her greatest achievements were ephemeral, she was far from superficial. For example, she raised huge sums to aid the Allied causes in both World Wars. Unlike many of her upper-crust English and American friends, she denounced Fascism. She was an early, vocal critic of American racism.

She was, however, a product of her era regarding homosexuality. Staggs compellingly argues that Elsa and Dickie, a member of the British gentry with a wealthy stepfather, had an open marriage. Tall, striking, Dickie periodically had affairs with men. By 1912, they were living together in London and remained companions until Maxwell's death.

Among her close friends were Coward, Cole Porter, Alexis, Baron de Rede (considered the most beautiful kept boy of the era, who inherited half the estate of his fabulously wealthy married lover, Chilean industrialist Arturo Lopez-Willshaw), all homosexuals who never came out publicly, which to Maxwell seemed appropriate. She disapproved of openly gay men like Jimmy Woolworth Donahue. She herself was targeted by columnist Walter Winchell, who wrote, "The lez said about [her], the better."

Staggs compellingly discusses her infatuation with Maria Callas. Maxwell criticized Callas' 1956 Metropolitan Opera debut in Norma, and her subsequent Tosca. When Callas triumphed in Lucia di Lammermoor, however, Maxwell extolled her performance. Then Callas, who had transformed herself from an overweight, coarse-looking woman to a slim, soignee beauty, asked to meet Maxwell, praising her candor and charming her. Maxwell was smitten. "When I looked into those amazing eyes, I realized she is an extraordinary person." Henceforth, she exhausted superlatives in praising La Divina.

Callas' feelings for Maxwell were complex. She was repelled by her lesbianism and privately called her "a fat old son of a bitch," but seems to have needed her maternal-like approval – something she never got from her own mother. Maxwell hosted the party at which Callas met Aristotle Onassis, with fateful consequences for them both. Publicly, their relationship survived what was likely a spurned physical advance by Elsa, but after that Callas grew distant.

In 1961, while dancing the Twist with Onassis, Maxwell suffered a stroke. Her health declined, and she had financial anxieties. She had never been good with money. She died in 1963, leaving her estate, valued at $12,000 (about $100,000, when adjusted for inflation) to Dickie, who lived until 1991.

Even in today's celebrity-obsessed culture, Elsa Maxwell would have been a media sensation. She was her own . Staggs' lavishly illustrated, well-researched biography, written in lively, page-turning prose, does justice to a remarkable life.

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