Getting the Maxwell Out of Life: Biography Celebrates Premier Party Giver

"Inventing Elsa Maxwell" by Sam Staggs
Reviewed by David Marshall James

Molly Brown, who survived the 1912 Titanic disaster, became known as "Unsinkable." Elsa Maxwell, who survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, should have been known as "Unshakable."

One would be hard-pressed to name celebrities who were well-known before World War I, who were even bigger names by World War II, and who added to their international fame into the early 1960s.

The public came to know her as the World's premier party giver. Perle Mesta, "Hostess with the Mostess," was immortalized by Irving Berlin in the Broadway show and movie, "Call Me Madam."

Elsa met Cole Porter and Noel Coward when both were still up-and-comers. They became two of her closest friends, and Porter immortalized her in more than one-dozen of his songs. For that matter, even Berlin referenced her in "Call Me Madam."

Mrs. Mesta was chiefly concerned with politicoes, though, while Elsa feted politicoes, artists of every stripe, East Coast and Hollywood luminaries, royalty, and Big Buck-aroos everywhere.

Long before there was a jet set (she was well past 40 when Lindbergh landed in Paris), she was a jet-setter. First, she trouped across the country from California with a theatrical company to New York, where her musical and songwriting talents were much in demand in Vaudeville and Broadway venues.

More than one person who knew her believed she could have become a concert pianist, as she could play any tune by ear, with full flourishes and key transpositions, from Porter to Puccini. She loved Classical music and opera as much as the popular fare.

Elsa thus started on the party circuit chiefly as "entertainment." Truly, though, she never stopped being the life of any party. Plain and plump, she could have worn a pageant sash that read "Smithfield," for she could ham up any occasion into a success. She once turned an audience of uptight Midwestern women upside down by distributing paper mustaches.

Still and all, why set her sights on nonstop hostessing?

First and foremost, she enjoyed it. It gladdened her heart. She was a natural bon vivant who liked to liven up others' lives.

Second she earned a living through press agentry and public relations. She also gave radio broadcasts-- from her bed at The Waldorf hotel; wrote a syndicated column for the Hearst newspapers-- Mrs. William Randolph (Millicent) Hearst remained a close friend for many decades; and she wrote how-to guides on entertaining and etiquette.

Along with film, stage, and television work, she co-owned two nightclubs in Paris during the 1920s. She helped Jean Patou select his signature perfume scent, dubbing it "Joy" (still available, at $450 an ounce). She worked for the city of Venice, the country of Monaco, and later the Greek monarchy as a PR consultant on tourism, and proved enormously successful.

Author Sam Staggs, who has written four outstanding film "biographies," brings his all to his latest book, turning over every available stone along the path of Miss Maxwell's life's journey. That did not prove an easy task, especially because she apparently disposed of all correspondence and other papers.

Devotedly peripatetic, Elsa never purchased an abode. She either lived off the largesse of others, or in hotels. The Waldorf was her NYC headquarters for many decades (Porter also resided there).

Particularly interesting in this account are Miss Maxwell's highly public rows and rapprochements with the Duchess of Windsor, as well as her operatic relationship with Maria Callas.

Noel Coward remarked that, if he had not been born, then "the public would have invented him." By careful design, Elsa Maxwell allowed the public to invent her-- although she controlled the patent.