December 07, 2012
Why do so many respectable newspapers and magazines go weak at the knees the moment an unreadable autobiography of some illiterate rock star is published? I guess no hack, however literate, can resist dropped names, or perhaps it is simple hero worship—tout court, as the French say. I’ve never read a single one, only some reviews, and they leave me absolutely cold. So they took a lot of dope, slept with lotsa groupies, and then trashed the hotel suite. Big deal. Seen and done that, and it’s no longer fun. But give me something well written about someone I met, however briefly when I was young, and I’m hooked. Elsa Maxwell, for example.
I just read Maxwell’s How to Do It, and it sure brought back memories. Top Anglo-Saxon society types, especially in New York, turned their noses up at her, but European socialites enjoyed the action at her parties, and she was a fixture in Venice and Monte Carlo.
The great American critic George Jean Nathan said that what a man looks for in a woman is something like a good piano minus the loud pedal. Elsa Maxwell was all pedal, without tone or modulation, just noise. And she was as ugly as they come. I used to see her at El Morocco and various chic parties on the Riviera back in the 50s, and she once told me not to look as eager as I did when meeting some sweet young thing. It was good advice, but I never took it because good advice is useless when one is very young.
Maxwell was born in 1883 and died in 1963, just as the horrible 60s were becoming the vogue. She was a gossip columnist, radio and television personality, and a party-giver extraordinaire. Rich social climbers used to pay her to throw flamboyant bashes, parties that would include minor royalty—always the Windsors—and luminaries such as Onassis and Callas. Maxwell’s great crush was la Callas, an unrequited love to be sure, and fans of la diva still curse Elsa for introducing her to the Greek tycoon.
Elsa grew up in San Francisco and her childhood was hardly humble, a fact she denied later on, posing as a poor girl who made it in society through talent and grit. She sang and played the piano in the manner of Princess Margaret and would shout at people to be quiet while playing, just like the Princess. She had great enemies such as Lord Beaverbrook and many friends, including Cole Porter and Marilyn Monroe. Her life partner was Dorothy “Dickie” Fellowes-Gordon, although in print and on the radio she railed against bum boys and lesbian perversions. She was not a total hypocrite, just smart enough to keep it quiet when it was illegal for boys to kiss boys and girls to kiss girls—on the mouth or other places.