If the words, Elsa Maxwell, mean anything to you, we are betting that you have hit the mid-century mark or older.

Younger readers may scratch their collective head, but for those that DO remember, Maxwell surely was (using an over abused world) a “unique” phenomenon.  There was and is just no one else like her.

Hello, everybody.  Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, who confess that they only came to know Maxwell towards the end of her life (she died in the fall of 1963) thanks to her many appearances on Jack Paar’s late-night tv talk show in the late Fifties.

Ok, then, who was Maxwell, and why all the fuss?

She was a short, homely, gnomish woman who (born in 1883) came out of Belle Epoque San Francisco, and went on to conquer international high society as the world’s premiere party giver. She knew everyone. From Monroe (above) to Cole Porter (below)

Her soirees were no ordinary Saturday night drop-ins.  No, they were highly expensive (always paid for by someone else; Elsa pleaded fashionable poverty her whole life) and highly orchestrated affairs that drew the creme de la creme of American and European society from the 1920’s into the 1960’s. Royalty, business magnates, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the whole expensively turned-out crew.

A woman of assorted talents, Elsa was also a capable pianist, a smart composer, an interesting journalist (her society column ran for years), a keen opera savant, an avid Francophile, a witty conversationalist, public lecturer and, by all accounts, a loyal generous hostess and friend.

For more on all this, we suggest picking up the highly readable new biography by Sam Staggs, Inventing Elsa Maxwell: How an Irrepressible Nobody Conquered High Society, Hollywood, the Press and the World.  

Elsa’s world comprised New York, Paris, Venice, Rome, London, Monte Carlo, provincial France, the Greek Islands, and on and on. As Staggs’ book title suggests, Maxwell also had a Hollywood connection. It began in the early 1930’s — when Maxwell was approaching the mid-century mark herself  — and lasted little more than a decade.

As Staggs writes:

Given that every day in Elsa’s life was tops…it is difficult to assign one period more importance than another. And yet her beachhead in Hollywood stands out because that rich province …capitulated overnight….Elsa arrived in Hollywood not starry-eyed but silver tongued…Like Mae West, Elsa was no little girl in a big town; she was a big girl from a big town comin’ to make good in a little town. 

Hollywood parties, she decreed, were just “plain dull.”

Maxwell regarded studio bosses as equals, at the very least. She borrowed money from Jack Warner. David O. Selznick sought her out as a lushly paid “consultant” on his pictures. Producers Walter Wanger and Sam Goldwyn were also interested.

She regarded Gary Cooper as a faithful old chum. She was screen tested by MGM as possible substitute for the deceased Marie Dressler. Director George Cukor offered her a supporting role in a picture starring Greta Garbo.

Elsa later said it was Twentieth Century Fox boss Darryl Zanuck who “discovered” her, according to biographer Staggs.  He told her, “You have a warm personality that will project well on the screen. How about making a picture for me?”

The result was 1939’s Hotel For Woman, starring Ann Sothern, which marked most notably the screen debut of a very young Linda Darnell. Then came director Gregory Ratoff’s Public Deb. No. 1, which Maxwell correctly characterized as “a real flop.”

The early Forties brought three short features, Riding Into Society, The Lady and the Lug and, suitably enough, Throwing A Party. And, then, after an appearance in 1943’s Stage Door Canteen, Maxwell’s movie “career” came to (in her eyes) a triumphant conclusion.

 

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