Book Review: Inventing Elsa Maxwell – WSJ.com
Inventing Elsa Maxwell
By Sam Staggs
St. Martin’s, 340 pages, $29.99
Elsa Maxwell knew everyone, specializing in royalty and achievers—Cole Porter, Duff and Diana Cooper, Elsie de Wolfe, Jacqueline Kennedy, Gary Cooper, Mussolini, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Maria Callas. Elsa (1881-1963) was everywhere, from Venice to Hollywood. And she did everything: She played the piano, published (“Elsa Maxwell’s Etiquette Book”), took on public relations assignments, ran a gossip column for the Hearst press, appeared in films, introduced wealthy unknowns to society, served as a television talk-show guest and was Seen in the right Places.
Above all, she threw parties: come-as-you-are parties, come-as-your-opposite parties (Fanny Brice showed up as Tosca), gambling parties, cooking parties, scavenger-hunt parties. For the last 30 years of her life, Elsa was one of the best known women in the world, yet, among the millions who recognized her name, very few could have told you what it was that she did. She wasn’t famous for being famous, however. She was famous for being Elsa Maxwell.
In Sam Staggs’s lively biography, Elsa emerges as someone who rose above dreary beginnings with a vague determination to . . . well, rise above dreary beginnings. Born in Iowa to a middle-class family and originally named Elsie, she was raised in San Francisco. She moved to New York in 1907, but in truth she never really “moved,” because for most of her life she scarcely put down roots. Her life was like an old adventure play, the kind Broadway produced before movies came along, with a pile of episodes incoherently bonded.