Inventing Elsa Maxwell: How an Irrepressible Nobody Conquered High Society, Hollywood, the Press, and the World

  • Sam Staggs
  • St. Martin's Press
  • 321 pp.

A woman of no importance makes herself important to the movie world and millions all over the globe.

Reviewed by David Bruce Smith

In a near half-century swath of time — World War I to John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot” — Elsa Maxwell defined the social milieu in Europe and America. From San Francisco to New York, London and Paris to Rome, Monte Carlo and Athens, she imprinted, influenced and entertained everyone in the rich-to-royal cache.

Sam Staggs’ Inventing Elsa Maxwell: How an Irrepressible Nobody Conquered High Society, Hollywood, the Press, and the World reappraises a woman of contradictions whose life has not been probed since her death in 1963.

Raised in San Francisco in the late-19th century by a prosperous insurance businessman-father and an emotionally reticent mother, Maxwell abandoned school at 14 to be a piano accompanist in the theater even though she had no formal training. Ever resourceful, she departed San Francisco in 1905 at the age of 24, joined a Shakespeare troupe, appeared in Vaudeville and — through a performer-friend — serendipitously ended in South Africa and back to Europe.

Opportunistic, overweight and unattractive, Elsa managed to meet Important People wherever she traveled. She lured schools of socialites with her musical talent and compositions — 80 of which were published in her lifetime. Enthusiastic, loyal and a nimble connoisseur of embellishment, Maxwell nevertheless downgraded her childhood status from a comfortable mid-level upbringing to one of poverty — a semi-conscious deflation — perhaps in order to appear fascinating as her triumphs unfolded within the world of the wealthy. Staggs comments, “Given so much irrefutable proof that Elsa was anything but poor, we may well ask why, throughout her life, she labored at pretending to be. It’s likely … Elsa herself had no full explanation.” Ironically, she widened her ever amorphous pedigree to squeeze the University of California and the Sorbonne into her stream-of-consciousness past, even though she never attended either.

As she intersected with more prominent people, Maxwell shaped a retinue by volunteering for inclusion on the “right” committees; she got noticed for her event-planning and organizational skills, and soon was the subject of mentions in all the major columns. Eventually, she was bounced from one soiree to another as The Hostess in Charge; in return, benefits trickled up —  configured as costly gifts, cash and high-octane recognition.

By 1919, Maxwell was established as one of Society’s premier toastmistresses; but, after she contrived a dinner consisting of a menu-without-mimic at the Ritz in Paris for the prickly British diplomat, Arthur Balfour, Society levitated her to “The Hostess with the Mostest.” Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Maude Adams, Ethel Barrymore, Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, Millicent Hearst, Barbara Hutton, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Alva Vanderbilt were her friends; later she would cultivate the confidences of Wallis Simpson, Maria Callas, Aristotle Onassis, Stavros Niarchos and Aly Khan.

Maxwell’s social splurges bred renown with their conscientiously conceived guest lists and her pretentious ploys to engage sustained interest. She devised the Come-As-You-Are party, fabricated the “scavenger hunt” and fashioned costume balls at which some patrons showed in opposite-gender attire.

In the 1920s Maxwell rejuvenated Venice’s passé Lido beach with the inauguration of the International Motor Boat Races. Monaco’s Grimaldi majesties contracted her to pep up their principality. Staggs writes, “In the years following World War I, Elsa’s repute as a mastermind of fantastically successful events, and huge publicity, radiated from her friends and patrons in Paris and New York to governments, industries, and charities, all curious to learn her trade secrets.” He adds, “Given her druthers, Elsa preferred a crown to a CEO.”

In the 1930s the peripatetic Elsa was in New York and then settled in Hollywood. There, Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century-Fox, employed her — at the age of 55 — to appear in the movie “Elsa Maxwell’s Hotel for Women,” a box office success that co-starred Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern. Her succeeding films — “Public Deb No. 1” and three shorts — did not garner as much praise or popularity.

While in California, Elsa augmented her kinetic career with interests that lasted to her death. The round-up of this impressive book is commensurate to Maxwell’s prominent “presence”: she wrote a Hearst-backed syndicated column, authored magazine articles, lectured, hosted a radio show, appeared regularly on Jack Paar’s “Tonight” television program, produced four books and never stopped arranging an abundance of lavish feasts, fetes and festivals for the famous and the sort-of.

David Bruce Smith reviews books for several publications. He is also the president of David Bruce Smith Publications, a firm that specializes in the writing and designing of limited-edition books.

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