Some people collect coins. Others collect stamps or baseball cards. But one woman is legendary in American history for collecting people: Elsa Maxwell. Maxwell’s name will be familiar to fans of Irving Berlin who may remember her being namechecked in the song ‘The Hostess with the Mostess’ as performed by Ethel Merman in the 1953 musical Call Me Madam. “They would go Elsa Maxwell when they had an axe to grind”, she sings, “They could always grind their axe well, at the parties she designed”. Though the redoubtable ‘Queen of the Party’ had many rivalries during her long tenure as the chosen party giver of New York high society, there was one unlikely figure who most certainly had an axe to grind with Elsa during the 1950s, their feud making headlines for almost seven years; the Duchess of Windsor.
Elsa Maxwell was a Vaudeville performer, songwriter and theatre pianist from Keokuk, Iowa who had risen from humble beginnings to become a tour-de-force in the cutthroat world of 1950s New York high society. Credited with inventing the scavenger hunt (an apparently revolutionary addition to the parties held by the bright young things of the Roaring Twenties), Elsa’s parties were legendary not only for their style but for their impressive guest lists. As a journalist, Ms Maxwell found herself in high demand to share her secrets to planning a perfect party just as much as she was courted by gossip columnists hoping she may spill the beans on some of her favourite “collectables”. This she did so with relish. When Elsa liked you, so too did the readers of American Weekly. When Elsa did not….
It is unclear as to when Elsa and the Duchess of Windsor first met but it should be no great shock to find the Windsors among Elsa’s treasure trove of high-profiled party pals. Never one to drop a celebrity name when a dozen royal titles would do, Elsa boasted about her royal connections long before the Windsors arrived state side looking for a new ‘set’. In 1948, she proudly proclaimed her role in introducing the movie star Rita Hayworth to Prince Aly Khan (the couple married the following year but divorced in 1953) and in her “Most Amusing Guests” column printed in 1938 in the Victoria Advocate, she was sure to include the latest addition to her collection; Prince Christopher of Greece. She took Grand Dmitri Pavlovich’s morganatic wife Audrey Emery under her wing (quickly dropping her after their divorce) and was sued by ex-King (and ex-friend) Farouk of Egypt.
The Duke of Windsor was apparently fond of Elsa, though completely unimpressed by her snobbery. He called her “that old-battering ram” but gave credit to her skills as a party hostess; “They simply are the best gatherings anywhere in the world”. The Duchess’ relationship with Ms Maxwell was far more complicated however and it kept American housewives in regal tittle-tattle for years as their friendship turned sour and erupted into open rivalry. The climax was a bizarre clash over a ball held in 1957 which featured (even more bizarrely) the actress Marilyn Monroe but in fact, Elsa and Wallis had begun hostilities much earlier.
The firing shots in the first battle came in 1953 when Wallis hosted a ball at the Waldorf Astoria to raise money for the Hospitalised Veterans Music Service. The New York times reported:
“The Duchess of Windsor headed the committee for the fete and serving with her as co-chairman were Mrs Lytle Hull, Mrs William C Breed, Miss Elsa Maxwell and Mrs Gardner Cowles. Coral pink ornaments covering the ceiling of the ballroom provided a colourful décor for the fete which began with a dinner. Suspended from the middle of the ceiling was a three tiered perch on which were birds of paradise in glowing hues.
Guests were seated at small tables covered with pink cloths embellished with pink satin bows, silver candelabra with coral pink candles and centrepieces of pink carnations. A feature of the entertainment was an elaborate fashion tableau in which the Duchess of Windsor participated, wearing a gown especially designed in Paris for the occasion fashioned of white taffeta embellished with coral panels and coral beading”.
Elsa served as narrator for the tableau, reading out the name of each of the ladies present and describing the gowns on parade as the models sashayed along a catwalk. The gowns could then be purchased by those present in order to raise money for the Duchess’ worthy cause. But when Wallis stepped out in her Parisian finery, Maxwell said nothing. Wallis wandered tentatively along the catwalk to a stunned silence. She looked back at Maxwell who remained silent as the proverbial tomb. Wallis was furious and severed ties with Maxwell. Or rather, this was the version of the story Wallis told. According to Elsa, Wallis had covered the microphone with her hand shortly before stepping onto the catwalk and told Elsa, “Please don’t mention my name”, an order which Elsa simply obeyed,
In her 1955 memoirs, “I Married the World”, Elsa insisted that the fashion show had passed without incident and that it was a party in Palm Beach a few weeks later which caused the Duchess to cut short her friendship with Ms Maxwell. Millicent Hearst, a mutual friend to Elsa and Wallis, was a vaudeville performer who married media tycoon William Randolph Hearst in 1903. They remained married until his death in 1951 but had long lived separate lives, Millicent unable to accept his long-term love affair with the actress Marion Davies. According to Maxwell, Hearst liked to offer a fortune teller as an attraction at her parties and shortly before the Palm Beach soiree began, the teller she had engaged cried off. Eager to please, Maxwell (a former Vaudevillian herself), decided to don a disguise and pose as a mystic.
When Wallis approached her for a reading, Elsa panicked and decided to play it for laughs.
“You have been married one…two…three times!”, Elsa crowed, “Your husband is a sailor, soldier, admiral, general, Prince – King!”
Wallis stiffened in her chair. Elsa continued.
“You have great responsibilities lady”
“Never mind that”, Wallis said, “Tell me the worst, I can take it”.
Elsa was sure to shower Wallis with praise for this remark. “I felt that here was the sure key to this extraordinary woman’s character. She could take it, no matter what it was, she could face up to whatever crisis might befall her”
And so the reading went on. When it was over, Elsa claims that Wallis told the other guests; “That gypsy is marvelous!” and when the joke was revealed, Wallis laughed. So impressed was she by Elsa’s ‘turn’, that Wallis begged her to repeat the performance in Paris at the Windsors’ next party. Elsa insisted that the Duchess hadn’t taken any offence to the routine but Wallis saw things differently. She had been the butt of other people’s jokes long enough and her patience had worn thin. The feud between Elsa and Wallis had officially begun.
The two women now filtered bitchy barbs through the gossip columnists. Elsa said of Wallis; “She is bony and brittle, a distinctly cold woman with no sense of humour at all” whilst Wallis snapped back at Elsa, “She is the old oaken bucket in a well of loneliness”. Elsa claimed that the reason Wallis had insisted she keep her name hidden at the Waldorf earlier that year was because of a tax dodge the Duchess had worked out with the Paris fashion houses. Wallis retorted with unkind remarks about Elsa’s poor background and bemoaned the “young fashionable types” who had now been included in Elsa’s social set who, in the Duchess’ opinion, “were sloppy and insolent”. The American press were enraptured by the feud and begged for more.
Elsa was more than prepared to give the press what they were demanding. In 1954, word reached Wallis in Paris that Elsa was to reveal more details of their rivalry in a book called RSVP and Wallis jumped into self-preservation mode. She invited Elsa to Paris so that they could bury the hatchet. Following their peace talks, Elsa headed to Venice where, by an extraordinary coincidence, Wallis and David were about to spend a long weekend. Elsa invited the Duke and Duchess to a party she just happened to be hosting at the Hotel Danieli. Wallis accepted the invitation. But then failed to appear.
This marked the beginning of a period of radio silence. Or rather, the two women ceased communication (“quite a childish thing for us to engage in”, Elsa later admitted) between themselves. They now turned to print rather than press to lay their cards on the table. In 1955, Elsa published her memoirs ‘I Married the World’ in which she praised Wallis much to the Duchess’ surprise;
“She has perfect taste in food as well as furniture and in those little details of forethought and care that mark the imaginative hostess. For instance, the last time I lunched with them I noticed she had found the most enchanting little round porcelain pots with covers to contain butter and at the bottom of each there was ice to keep it firm“
But just as she gave with one hand, Elsa took with the other. Recounting another temporary truce at a dinner party at which neither knew the other would be present, she wrote;
After our now celebrated, if accidental, diner de rapprochement we sat down and had a frank, heart-to-heart talk. “If only you’ll listen,” I said, “when interesting people are talking to you, you will learn. If you don’t listen, people won’t like you and you’ll have nothing to say in return“
At my seventy-first birthday party given in Paris by my old friend, the Countess de Contades, the Duchess sat between the Spanish Ambassador to France and the President of the French Senate. Afterwards she suddenly turned to me and said, “You say I never listen, Elsa, but tonight I did. Did you see?”
“Yes, Duchess,” I replied, “but did you learn?”
“I’ll let you know,” she answered.
At the same time as Elsa was going into print, so too was Wallis. Her 1956 memoir, the Heart Has its Reasons, was an attempt by the Duchess to silence her critics and to set the record straight. The book chronicled Wallis’ childhood, marriages, the crisis of 1936 and the aftermath, as well as the Duke and Duchess’ time in the Bahamas during the Second World War. The Duchess paid glowing tributes to her fervent supporters and even gave readers her advice on what made the perfect hostess. But one name was curiously absent; Elsa Maxwell. Wallis had simply erased her.
Elsa responded viciously. She reviewed Wallis’ memoirs to friends and left them in no doubt that the Duchess had gone too far this time;
“When you see the Duchess today it is difficult to picture her as the heroine of one of the greatest love stories of all time. She’s so brittle, hard and determined. Her hands, which were always large, never compliant or feminine, are less attractive than ever…one incident that stands out unpleasantly in my memory is the Duchess’ reaction to the death of Iles Brody shortly after he published his unflattering book ‘Gone with the Windsors’. ‘See’, Wallis said snapping her fingers, ‘See what happens when they go against me?’”
Despite this, by the end of 1956 the two had apparently conquered their differences and once again patched things up; the result of a dramatic and emotional rapprochement aboard the S.S United States in May. To celebrate this monumental peace, Elsa invited Wallis to the Waldorf Astoria for a ball. She told every journalist in town that this would be the picture of the night; Wallis and Elsa, arm in arm, past skirmishes forgotten and all smiles. Wallis arrived at the ball and greeted Elsa with a kiss.
But Elsa seemed distracted. Whilst Wallis may have expected to be the front page story, she was about to be very rudely dislodged. Elsa had one final surprise up her sleeve. She had invited Marilyn Monroe to her ball and sailed away from Wallis arm-in-arm with one of the most famous women in the world. The blonde looked back at Wallis who shot her a glare and then left the Waldorf. The newspapers had a field day.
But Elsa was no longer thrilled by the chase and the following morning, she appeared full of remorse. She wrote a grovelling apology to the Duchess and then met with journalists to explain that Marilyn had played no part in the apparent snub and that Elsa had in no way meant to offend Wallis. Wallis softened and invited Elsa to Paris where Ms Maxwell was served dish after dish of humble pie. When she returned to America, Elsa spoke fondly of “the dear Duchess”. “I’m a violent woman”, Elsa confessed, “Perhaps it was all my fault. Now I can only speak of her in friendship. I’m going to do everything in my power to make amends. I’m an older and wiser woman”.
This time, the peace was permanent. The feud had come to an end and the American press looked elsewhere for a rivalry between two strong women they could use to sell their newspapers. Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait long and within a few years, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford began shooting on ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’. As for Elsa, she found new foes and spent the last few years of her life battling against the ex-King of Egypt, among others. When she spoke of the Duchess, she did so devotedly and with nothing but kindness. Elsa died in 1963 at the age of 80.
Glowing tributes came from every corner of high society. Princes and pop stars, Dukes and designers, Barons and bankers; all bade a fond farewell to the “hostess with the mostess”. Wallis said nothing publicly. But many years later, she was reminded of her former sparring partner when she saw Elsa’s photograph in a magazine. Turning to the Duke, Wallis held it up and remarked wistfully, “Oh! Wasn’t life more fun when Elsa was around?”