Elsa Maxwell

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Elsa Maxwell
File:Maxwell, Elsie - by Carl van Vechten.jpg
Maxwell photographed by Carl van Vechten
Born (1883-05-24)May 24, 1883
Keokuk, Iowa, U.S.
Died November 1, 1963(1963-11-01) (aged 80)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Occupation Gossip columnist, author, songwriter, hostess

Elsa Maxwell (May 24, 1883 – November 1, 1963) was an American gossip columnist and author, songwriter, and professional hostess renowned for her parties for royalty and high society figures of her day.

Maxwell is credited with the introduction of the scavenger hunt and treasure hunt for use as party games in the modern era.[1] Her radio program, Elsa Maxwell’s Party Line, began in 1942; she also wrote a syndicated gossip column. She appeared as herself in the films Stage Door Canteen (1943) and Rhapsody in Blue (1945), as well as co-starring in the film Hotel for Women (1939), for which she wrote the screenplay and a song.


In spite of the persistent rumor that Elsa Maxwell was born at a theater in Keokuk, Iowa, during a performance of the opera Mignon, she actually admitted late in life that the outlandish story was a fabrication that she went along with, since she was actually born at her maternal grandmother's home in the same town.[2] Elsa was raised in San Francisco, where her father sold insurance and did freelance writing for the New York Dramatic Mirror.[3] Maxwell never completed grammar school because her father did not believe in formal education; as a result, he tutored his daughter at home. Her interest in parties began when she was 12 years old and was told she would not be invited to a party because her family was poor.[4] She developed a gift for staging games and diversions at parties for the rich, and began making a living devising treasure-hunt parties, come-as-your-opposite parties and other sorts, including a scavenger hunt in Paris in 1927 that inadvertently created disturbances all over the city.[3]

In Venice in the early 1920s, Maxwell attracted stars like Cole Porter, Tallulah Bankhead, Noël Coward and Fanny Brice to Venice's Lido shoreline to enjoy its daytime amenities and nightly parties.[5] Later, the principality of Monaco employed Maxwell's services to put it on the map as a tourist destination as she had done for the Lido. Maxwell and Porter were lifelong friends, and he mentioned her in several of his songs, including "I'm Dining with Elsa (and her ninety-nine most intimate friends)" and "I'm Throwing a Ball Tonight" from "Panama Hattie" (sung by Ethel Merman.)[6]

Returning to the US, Maxwell worked on movie shorts during the Depression, unsuccessfully. "Her imprimatur of social acceptability carried so much weight that the Waldorf Astoria gave her a suite rent-free when it opened in New York in 1931 at the height of the depression, hoping to attract rich clients because of her."[5] Following World War II she gained an audience of millions as a newspaper gossip columnist.[3] Beginning in 1942 she also hosted a radio program, Elsa Maxwell’s Party Line,[7] for which Esther Bradford Aresty was a writer and producer.[8]

Maxwell was responsible for the success of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Bergen had been playing small theaters for 17 years; when he decided to ask for Maxwell's help, He was persistent enough in his telephone calls that Maxwell agreed to meet with him. When Bergen arrived, Maxwell asked him if he was a singer; Bergen replied that he was a ventriloquist and told her he wanted her to meet Charlie McCarthy. Charlie's meeting with Maxwell was an instant success; Maxwell asked crooner Rudy Vallée to find him a place on his radio program.[9]

Maxwell was a closeted lesbian who publicly condemned homosexuality despite enjoying an almost 50-year romantic partnership with the Scottish singer Dorothy "Dickie" Fellowes-Gordon. The two met in 1912, and remained together until death.[10]

Maxwell took credit for introducing Rita Hayworth to Prince Aly Khan in the summer of 1948.[11] In 1953, Maxwell published a single issue of her magazine, Elsa Maxwell's Café Society, which had a portrait of Zsa Zsa Gabor on the cover. Anne Edwards's biography of Maria Callas (Callas, 2001) and Peter Evans's biography of Aristotle Onassis both claim that Maxwell introduced Callas to Onassis.[12][13] Edwards also claims that Maxwell fell obsessively in love with Callas, 40 years Maxwell's junior.[14] Callas biographer Stelios Galatopoulos produced love letters from Maxwell written to Callas, who was less than receptive.[15]

Maxwell told interviewer Mike Wallace in 1957:

I did not feel fit, to be only married. I belong to the world. I knew it instinctively when I was quite young. I belong to the world. Certainly I am the most shall we say immodestly, [among] the best-known people in the entire world today. Why, because I did not marry and I felt that I was not for marriage. It wasn't my ... thing to do.[16]

She died of heart failure in a Manhattan hospital.[3] Maxwell's last public appearance came a week before her death. She attended the annual April in Paris Ball which she had helped found, in a wheelchair.[17] Fellowes-Gordon was Maxwell's sole heir.[18]



  1. Time Magazine, The Press: Elsa at War. Nov. 7, 1944.
  2. Staggs, Sam (2012). Inventing Elsa Maxwell. St. Martins Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-312-69944-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "The Cruise Director". Time. November 8, 1963. Archived from the original on December 22, 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Elsa Maxwell Dies at age 80". Kanses City Times. November 2, 1963. p. 6 – via Newspapers.com.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> open access publication - free to read
  5. 5.0 5.1 Cole Porter: A Biography by Charles Schwartz. Da Capo Press. Retrieved May 8, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Inventing Elsa Maxwell by Sam Staggs. St. Martin's Press. Retrieved May 12, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Elsa Maxwell. Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Retrieved 22 November 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Finding Aid for the Esther B. Aresty papers". University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Retrieved 22 November 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Burson, Marion (November 14, 1940). "Elsa Maxwell Has Good Time Laughing at Herself". Decatur Herald. p. 3. Retrieved April 28, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> open access publication - free to read
  10. The Spectator Magazine, December 2012
  11. Adrienne McLean Being Rita Hayworth, p. 91, Rutgers University Press, 2004 ISBN 978-0-8135-3389-6
  12. Edwards, Anne (2001). Maria Callas: An Intimate Biography. Macmillan Publishers. p. 156. ISBN 978-0-312-26986-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Peter Evans Nemesis, p. 44, Harper Collins, 2004 ISBN 978-0-06-058053-7
  14. Edwards, p. 159
  15. Stelios Galatopoulos Maria Callas, Simon & Schuster, 1998 ISBN 978-0-684-85985-9
  16. "The Mike Wallace Interview: Guest: Elsa Maxwell". Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. November 16, 1957. Archived from the original on June 15, 2011. Retrieved September 9, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Hostess Elsa Maxwell Dies at 80". Kanses City Times. November 2, 1963. p. 1 – via Newspapers.com.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> open access publication - free to read
  18. Time, November 22, 1963. "Only 100 gathered to say a final goodbye to the woman who had given thousands of parties for thousands of people, and few of the glittering names she had called 'dear' and 'darling' were on hand. One mourner there who didn't get much society-gossip-column attention was Dorothy Fellowes-Gordon. And to this longtime friend, the international party giver left her entire estate. It amounted to less than $10,000."

Further reading

  • Ari: The Life and Times of Aristotle Socrates Onassis, by Peter Evans, 1986

External links