Should Elise de Wolfe (also known as Lady Mendl) lived today she would surely be a fixture in weekly celebrity periodicals more often than not for her eccentric habits, open relationship with a woman and, if for nothing else, showing up to a black tie function in Paris dressed as a Moulin Rouge dancer… doing handstands. Perhaps to be such a creative talent and female pioneer of the design world she needed to be so outlandish; de Wolfe started her career in design after leaving the stage around 1905 to shake up the drab Victorian era color palette. In her memoirs she calls herself a “rebel in an ugly world.”
“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.”
Responding to her mother’s constant comments on her physical appearance de Wolfe, “just what ugly was she did not know… Now she was to know.” Referring to her mother’s sad attempts at interior decorating. In a dramatic third person account of discovering her parents had redone the drawing room she says:
She ran [in]… and looked at the walls, which had been papered in a [William] Morris design of gray palm-leaves and splotches of bright red and green on a background of dull tan. Something terrible that cut like a knife came up inside her. She threw herself on the floor, kicking with stiffened legs, as she beat her hands on the carpet…. she cried out, over and over: “It’s so ugly! It’s so ugly!”
At the age of forty she left acting center stage in favor of creating sets backstage. By 1905 she was working with family friend Stanford White, the architect of The Colony Club, on Madison Avenue in NYC as the building’s interior designer. In 1926 she made the front page of the New York Times for marrying Sir Charles Medel, and not because she was marrying a diplomat. For sometime de Wolfe had shared a Sutton Place address with Elizabeth Marbury. Marbury was famous for being one of the first theatrical agents ever counting Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw as clients. The two were prominent fixtures throughout New York Society; gossips called them “The Bachelors.”
Despite the rumors and her new marriage de Wolfe was able to keep her interior design work on par with her notoriety, decorating homes for some of the world’s wealthiest socialites like Anne Vanderbilt, Anne Morgan and the Dutchess of Windsor. She chose to disregard the ominous looking portraits that hung on Victorian styled walls in favor for beautifully framed mirrors in gold and silver finishes. In order to best entertain she de-cluttered her spaces and replaced clunky arm chairs and sofas with delicate chaise lounges.
It was for entertaining de Wolfe, or Lady Mendl as she now was, really made a name for herself. She was the premier hostess in New York, London and Parisian society, in fact, she created the cocktail party as we know it, making formal balls passé.
Throughout her extensive travels to London and Paris she melded abroad sensibilities with American Living. Her book, The House is Good Taste, is considered one of the most important books on interior design to date.