|A matt silver print printed on textured, double-weight paper showing Elsa Maxwell, the American gossip columnist and author, songwriter, and professional hostess whose parties for royalty and high society earned her the nickname ‘the hostess with the mostest.’
There’s a wonderful paragraph about Maxwell in Diana Vreeland’s Allure (1980), under a photograph showing the society hostess cavorting in the sea in the South of France: ‘Elsa Maxwell wasn’t a vulgar woman. Why do I say that? She looked vulgar. Her nose was vulgar. I mean, you see a picture like this of her on the rocks at Antibes where she looks like a cook on her day off … of course, she’d no doubt just been dining with a king – always kings!’
Born on 24 May 1883 at Keokuk in Iowa, Elsa Maxwell grew up in California. She left school at the age of 14. Although she never had a music lesson, she began to earn a living as a theatre pianist and accompanist in her early teens. She left San Francisco in 1905 as an odd-job girl in a Shakespearean troupe and subsequently appeared in vaudeville and for a time in South African music halls. In 1907 she began to write songs, eventually publishing some 80 compositions.
About this time Maxwell started meeting socially important people, turning up at soirées in the United States and in Europe, and working her way up the social ladder into the international set. By the end of World War I she was giving parties for royalty and high society throughout Europe. Her parties were noted not only for the chicness of her guests but also for the novelties Maxwell designed to keep them amused, and she is credited with the introduction of the scavenger hunt and treasure hunt for use as party games in the modern era. Maxwell returned to New York in the early 1930s, but the Depression prompted her to move to Hollywood in 1938, where she appeared in several not very successful movie shorts, including Elsa Maxwell's Hotel for Women (1939) and The Lady and the Lug (1940). She later appeared in Stage Door Canteen (1943), alongside such luminaries as Tallulah Bankhead and Gertrude Lawrence, among others.
Her radio program Elsa Maxwell's Party Line began in 1942; she also wrote a syndicated gossip column. All the while she continued to organize parties for prominent social figures. In 1936 her I Live by My Wits was published serially in Harper's Bazaar, and two years later her Life of Barbara Hutton was serialized in Cosmopolitan. Her autobiography R.S.V.P. appeared in 1954. In 1957 she published How to Do It: The Lively Art of Entertaining and began making weekly television appearances on Jack Paar's Tonight show.
Anne Edwards' biography of Maria Callas (Callas, 2001) and Peter Evans biography of Aristotle Onassis both state that Maxwell introduced Callas to Onassis. Edwards also claims that Maxwell was a lesbian who tried to seduce Callas herself. In his Maria Callas: Sacred Monster, Stelios Galatopoulos does not assert the former but he does show considerable proof of the latter by producing love letters sent by Maxwell to Callas.
Elsa Maxwell died in New York City on 1 November 1963.
Photographed by Carl Van Vechten.
The photographer is identified by his blue wetstamp on the reverse of the print. A pencilled inscription identifies the sitter as ‘Elsie [sic] Maxwell’ and the date, 16 May 1935, is given in red ink.
The print, which is unmounted and has no border, measures 9.7” by 7.1” (247 mm by 180 mm).
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