December 20, 1865– Elsie de Wolfe:
“I am going to make everything around me beautiful – that will be my life.”
Believe it or not, the founder of the profession of the modern Interior Designer was not a gay man. That credit goes instead to Elsie de Wolfe, a lesbian who bounced back from a mid-life career crisis & found a way to make a considerably good living & bring influence out of her incredible good taste & smart style.
de Wolfe was raised in upper-class Manhattan, educated in Europe, & presented at Queen Victoria’s court. After “coming out” into society, de Wolfe moved in with her parents & spent her evenings performing in amateur theatrical productions.
Her father died in 1890 leaving the family with his considerable gambling debts. Just like me in the 1970s, in poverty for the first time in her life, de Wolfe was faced with the choice of marrying well or finding a way of supporting herself. Like me, she wisely chose to pursue a professional acting career. It could not have been an easy decision for de Wolfe, in her era working on stage was considered a disreputable occupation for a woman. But, it was probably the best decision a young lesbian on the go could make.
Her career as an actor was a scintillating success, not because of her talents, but because of her wardrobe. Audiences would ogle her up-to-the-minute fashions. Her innovative taste in clothing led her from the theatre world to interior design, a profession she more or less invented. De Wolf’s gift to the world was the introduction of light, airy décor, moving away from the dark & heavy look of the Victorians.
de Wolfe’s taste influenced the very rich & fabulously famous of London, NYC & Palm Beach, but also the more common people. Newspapers & magazines dispensed her advice, which was collected into the bestselling & influential book, The House In Good Taste (1913). She advised Americans to throw out their ostentation in favor of simplicity. She recommended that they do away with draperies in order to let in the light, & to replace the deep browns & burgundies with beige & ivory. De Wolfe:
“I believe in plenty of optimism & white paint, comfortable chairs with lights beside them, open fires on the hearth & flowers wherever they ‘belong,’ mirrors & sunshine in all rooms.”
The interiors of 20th century American homes, wealthy & middle-class, owed everything to de Wolfe’s tastes.
Like de Wolfe, Miss Elisabeth Marbury was also a career pioneering female. She was one of the world’s first theatrical agents. Her clients included Oscar Wilde & George Bernard Shaw. Marbury & de Wolfe became a couple. They were together for more than 40 years. Marbury was initially the breadwinner of the couple. The willowy, winsome De Wolfe & the rather butch Marbury moved easily in Manhattan society. The gossip columns dubbed them “The Bachelors.”
In 1907, de Wolfe & Marbury became pals with the heiress Anne Morgan, who would be an important part of their lives for the next 2 decades. Together, this trio of gay girls undertook the renovation of the Villa Trianon at Versailles. The project became the major showcase of de Wolfe’s portfolio. The gals were called “The Versailles Triumvirate”, & their every move titillated the waiting press. When the threesome bought apartments in Manhattan’s Sutton Place neighborhood, at the time an unfashionable part of town, the NYC gossip rags buzzed with the news that an “Amazon enclave” had sprung up & insinuated that all-female assignations were underway there.
When she was 40 years old, de Wolfe received her first major commission, doing the interiors for famed “American Renaissance” architect Stanford White‘s new women-only Colony Club. She began designing the interiors for residences of the most famous families of her day: The Fricks, The Morgans, The Vanderbilts, & The Windsors.
In her early 50s, de Wolfe stopped designing interiors to become a World War 1 nurse in France. She earned the Croix de Guerre for her gallantry.
Deciding that what she really needed was to have a title, de Wolfe married English diplomat Sir Charles Mendl. Their wedding made front page news in the NY Times, because, since 1892, de Wolfe had been living quite openly as a lesbian. The Times article read:
“The marriage comes as a great surprise to her friends. When in NYC she makes her home with Miss Elizabeth Marbury at 13 Sutton Place.”
Shortly after the wedding, de Wolfe scandalized society when she attended a fancy affair dressed as a Moulin Rouge dancer & made her entrance by doing handsprings in to the ballroom. She was 61 years old at the time.
de Wolfe spent her life making the world beautiful, but she had grown up listening to her mother tell her that she was ugly. Sweet revenge, when she was 70 years old, Harper’s Bazaar named her “Best Dressed Woman In The World”.
Besides living such an unconventional, fabulous life, these are some of the reasons why I really love her so much: de Wolfe had embroidered taffeta pillows made bearing the motto: “Never complain, never explain.” On first seeing The Parthenon, De Wolfe exclaimed: “It is beige… my color!” At her house in France, Villa Trianon, she had a dog cemetery in which each tombstone read: “The one I loved the best.”
De Wolfe is immortalized in song lyrics from her era. In Irving Berlin’s Harlem On My Mind, the lyrics profess to prefer the “low-down” Harlem ambience to that “high-falutin’ flat that Lady Mendl designed.”
One of the color schemes she popularized was the inspiration for Cole Porter song That Black & White Baby Of Mine, with the lyrics: “All she thinks is black & white/She even drinks black & white”.
But, most famously, from the song Anything Goes by Porter:
“When you hear that Lady Mendl, standing up,
Now turns a handspring, landing up-on her toes
In 1941, de Wolfe was forced to leave Villa Trianon when the Nazis marched into Paris. Wanting to be with the America Royalty, which meant, of course, movie stars, she purchased a home in Beverly Hills & named it: “After All”.
In her dotage, de Wolfe surrounded herself with a series of young gay men, taking them on as protégés, & hence an entire industry was born. Because of her sublime exemplary taste, de Wolfe lived to be 90 years old. She made her final exit at Villa Trianon in 1950, attended only by her maid in the place she loved the most.
Her memoir After All (1935), & the bestselling The House In Good Taste are still in print.
“Be pretty if you can, be witty if you must, but be gracious if it kills you.”