“I am going to make everything around me beautiful. That will be my life”
Elsie de Wolfe (born Ella Anderson de Wolfe, married name Lady Mendl, December 20, 1865 – July 12, 1950), was an American actress, hostess, tastemaker, and a pioneer in interior design. De Wolfe was reared and educated in New York City and Scotland, where at an early age she was introduced to London society, even being presented at Queen Victoria’s court. When she eventually eturned to New York in her late-teens, she became involved in the amateur theater circles which lead her to becoming a professional actress. While she experienced some success as an actress, it was her personal style that garnered more attention and earned her praise. At the time, in an arrangement with her producer, she was allowed to select her own clothes – pieces that she usually ordered from Paris.
“Good dressing is largely a question of detail and accessories.”
A self-described ugly child, de Wolfe had a bit of a obsession with dressing well and appearing her very best. Some would say that de Wolfe was no beauty – she was thin, with a pale complexion, small dark eyes, and no distinctive features. De Wolfe was discontented with her lack of good looks (as defined by that time), and so she made it a priority to stay healthy and fit, in addition to dressing well.
“I was an ugly child and I lived in an ugly age … From the moment I was conscious of ugliness and it’s relation to myself and my surroundings, my one preoccupation was to find my way out of it. In my escape, I came to the meaning of beauty.”
De Wolfe did not begin her career in interior decoration until around 1905, at 40 years old and it was completely by happenstance. Since early 1887, de Wolfe she had shared a home with her close friend and her theatrical agent, Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury in what was called a “Boston marriage” at the time – two unmarried women, living independent of the wealth or financial support of a man. For a number of years, de Wolfe and Marbury were hostesses in of high society in their home. De Wolfe hated the Victorian style which was prevalent in decorated houses at the time. Marked by heavy velvet curtains, dark woods, densely patterned wallpapers, uncomfortable furniture, she preferred 18th-century French and English elegance. De Wolfe opted for soft upholstered chairs that were actually comfortable, chaise lounges, soft, warm colors, faux finishes, light paints and fabrics, delicately framed mirrors with gold and silver. She removed Marbury’s “Victorian clutter” and replaced it with her flare, introducing this European inspired style to America for the first time.
“There never was a house so bad that it couldn’t be made into something worthwhile.”
Marbury was a highly successful literary agent and business representative for many notable names and her connections in society really aided de Wolfe in becoming a prominent figure in New York Society. When the Colony Club, NYC’s first club exclusively for women was organized in 1905, it commissioned de Wolfe to design the interior of its headquarters. From their she was commissioned to do more clubs, private homes, and other projects including opera boxes and even a dormitory at Barnard College. Her travels back and forth between the United States and Europe influenced her style of living and it was featured in everything from her personal style, decoration choices, and her entertainment of guests in her private parties at home.
Eventually, de Wolfe and Marbury purchased and restored a home in Versailles, France where they continued their social states are preeminent hostesses.
Later in life, at age 61, de Wolfe became Lady Mendl when she married British diplomat Sir Charles Mendl. During the second World War, they moved to California and remained until after the war. Ultimately though, France had her heart and was her home – she died in Versailles in 1950.
Elsie de Wolfe was a innovator of style and elegance during her time. She set her own trends, was a tastemaker, and used what she had to make herself and her life pretty even when she thought she was not. I once had a professor emphasize, “first impressions are lasting impressions,” noting that your personal appearance and style are critically important. While my professor may have meant this saying in the context of presentation in career arena, it’s applicable to life – our personal style, our homes. De Wolfe recognized this decades ago.
“Be pretty if you can, be witty if you must, but be gracious if it kills you.”
At a time when Victorian décor was all the rage, de Wolfe rejected it and created her our style based on what she liked. That’s a lesson that we can incorporate in our lives.
Are there current trends in décor and fashion that you find “ugly”? What are you opting for instead? I’d love to hear!
Sending you dreamy bliss,