How a ‘poor, plain, plump’ gadfly became party thrower of the century
- Last Updated: 11:29 PM, October 20, 2012
- Posted: 10:09 PM, October 20, 2012
Inventing Elsa Maxwell
by Sam Staggs
St. Martin’s Press
One of the most widely successful high-society hostesses in the world has been described as:
“The ugliest woman I’ve ever seen.”
“Shaped like a cottage loaf with currant eyes.”
“A fat old son of a bitch!”
Yet, as the Duke of Windsor put it, the “old battering-ram Elsa gives the best parties.”
Elsa Maxwell was the frumpy queen, the dowdy denizen of high society, a woman who had neither looks nor pedigree, yet all of white-gloved society bowed to her for an invitation to one of her outrageous soirees.
Earls and dukes hobnobbed with Cole Porter and Marilyn Monroe at her events, which ranged from murder-mystery parties to barnyard-themed hoedowns on Park Avenue.
She was as “famous a name as Martha Stewart or Joan Rivers today,” notes author Sam Staggs in a new biography, and her legendary parties — of which she’s thrown over 3,000 according to her own estimations — made international news spanning decades from the 1910s to the 1960s.
Maxwell, with a no-name family and a minor inheritance, managed to climb the social ladder by aligning herself with powerful benefactresses, many of whom were allegedly her lovers.
Maxwell sums her own childhood up in one neat sentence: “A short, fat, homely piano player from Keokuk, Iowa, with no money or background who decided to become a legend.”
Rarely does life fit into such a neat archetype — and when it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. And so it goes with Elsa’s largely fabricated backstory.
She only spent a little over a year of her toddler life in Iowa. Shortly after her christening in 1882, her family moved to San Francisco and never returned to the Midwest.
And her family was far from poor. Her father, who spent his days as a successful insurance salesman, also worked as a Pacific Coast correspondent for the New York newspaper the Dramatic Mirror, covering theater and art.
Still, they were nowhere near A-list status. Often, Maxwell would later recall, her family would not be invited to events because as her mother put it, “We weren’t rich enough.”
This was Maxwell’s tragedy, one that she would make good: “Some day I would give parties — big parties, expensive parties — to which no rich people would be invited. That is, of course, unless they happened to be nice people or talented people as well,” Maxwell said in a 1941 interview.
She got another nudge toward the pursuit of her unique version of the high life from her father on his deathbed.
“It won’t be easy for you after I’m gone,” he told his daughter. “You are plain and plump, and as time goes by you will get plainer and plumper. You can turn your looks into an asset because no woman will be jealous of you and no man will be suspicious of you.”Follow @NYPostOpinion