INVENTING ELSA MAXWELL
By Sam Staggs
St. Martin's Press, 340 pages, illustrated, $29.99
At the beginning of his lively, revealing and insightful biography, Sam Staggs assembles a group of delicious quotes about his subject. The one that provides the best jumping-off point for the extraordinary life of this American force of nature who became partygiver extraordinaire to the world is this colloquy between two grande dames of a certain age:
"Elsa to the formidable Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, wife of sugar baron Adolph Spreckels and, like Elsa, a San Franciscan: 'How old are you, Alma?'
"A. de B.S.: 'Old enough to remember when there was no such person as Elsa Maxwell.'"
"Inventing Elsa Maxwell" not only charts the remarkable journey that took her from birth in Keokuk, Iowa, to the increasingly large stages on which she strutted her stuff for so many decades, but manages to illuminate the qualities that enabled this daughter of the American heartland to make international high society her oyster. Mr. Staggs' text fairly pulsates with wit and wisdom as he delights the reader with his knowledgeable judgments on Elsa and the many glamorous seas where she swam.
How many of those who thought of Elsa Maxwell only as a kind of action-Zelig had any idea that she had a perfect musical ear or that she was a gifted songwriter and performer? The places most associated with her were New York, London, Paris, Hollywood and the French Riviera, but who knew about her star turn in South Africa, before World War I? Thanks to Mr. Staggs, we know that she charmed everyone there from the British garrison commander to the Boer general Louis Botha, recently installed as the new Union of South Africa's first prime minister. She then went on to find a perch right at the heart of Johannesburg gold mining aristocracy, with Sir Lionel Phillips and his cultivated wife who founded the city's art gallery and stocked it with her own superb collection:
"Elsa remained at the Phillipses' estate for more than a year. While there she helped Lady Phillips edit The State, the first illustrated magazine to be published in Johannesburg. Elsa also occasionally conducted the Wheeler Light Opera Company, and founded a Browning Society When not involved in local culture she spent her days 'in Florrie [Lady Phillips]'s gorgeous drawing room, composing what I thought was great music.'"
Clearly, in addition to her musical talent, Maxwell had some extraordinary qualities that were enough to compensate for her odd appearance: she seemed to resemble nothing so much as an extremely animated fireplug.
Perhaps the most amusing pages in this book concern Maxwell's feud with the Duchess of Windsor, who had been a friend, although never as dear a one as the duke, whom she had known -- and admired -- since he was Prince of Wales. (Interestingly enough, she changed her mind after World War II about whether a great king had been lost. One of the more surprising facets revealed by Mr. Staggs is a strong anti-totalitarian attitude and a sturdy strain of patriotism.) The way Maxwell exploited this falling out with the duchess to her own advantage and the consummate tact and skill with which she then mended fences, again to her own benefit, reveal a true champion.
Still, the Windsors got in some zingers that Mr. Staggs cannot resist passing along to the rest of us. The backhanded duke's praise "Old battering ram Elsa always gives the best parties" pales beside what Mr. Staggs rightly terms his viper-tongued wife's vicious epithet: "the old oaken bucket in the Well of Loneliness." The sly reference to Radclyffe Hall's infamous groundbreaking lesbian novel is the duchess' way of "outing" Maxwell's lifelong, discreet relationship with Dorothy "Dickie" Fellowes-Gordon, whom she met in South Africa and who, Mr. Staggs informs us, was a cousin of "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes.
Before reading this biography, it was possible to think that Maxwell was simply a magnet with an extraordinary capacity to attract the rich and famous, a partygiver for the sake of throwing bashes for celebrities. It is perhaps Mr. Staggs' greatest achievement to separate the person from the woman who invented the public persona the world knew as Elsa Maxwell, each in their own way remarkable.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.