Maxwell, Elsa (1883–1963)

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Maxwell, Elsa (1883–1963)

Renowned American hostess of the international society set who became a popular writer and radio host . Born on May 24, 1883, in Keokuk, Iowa; died on November 1, 1963, in New York City; daughter of James David Maxwell and Laura (Wyman) Maxwell; never married; no children.

An enormously popular personality in the decades before the middle of the 20th century, Elsa Maxwell was usually referred to as a professional party giver, though she termed her carefully engineered soirées veritable "works of art." According to her own life history, Maxwell was supposedly born in an opera box in Keokuk, Iowa, in 1883. She moved to California as a child, where she attended a private school for girls in San Francisco. Her first ambition was to be a musician, for it was apparent early on that she could play nearly any instrument by ear, although she never took lessons or pursued that goal seriously. One of her first jobs was playing the piano to accompany silent films. In 1905, she joined a traveling Shakespeare troupe as an assistant, visiting South Africa and other locales, and found she had a lucrative talent for song writing; she would eventually publish some 80 songs. Maxwell appeared in vaudeville, and later landed in Europe, where she fell in with a "smart" crowd. In the years before World War I, Maxwell was esteemed as a hostess by high-living American expatriates and wealthy Europeans, first in Venice and later on the French Riviera. It was said that she single-handedly changed many of the stuffy social customs that characterized formal entertaining during this era, most notably by forgoing the "dinner at eight" rule and serving her guests at ten, which was initially regarded as a near-heresy. In Venice, she organized a golf course, was the force behind an international motor-boat race, and ran a nightclub on a barge in the city's Grand Canal. Maxwell is credited with helping to make the French Riviera a desirable vacation spot during the 1920s, and in 1926 was invited by Monaco's royals to work her magic on that city; there, her name was associated with the success of a beach club and restaurants.

Elsa Maxwell returned to the United States in the 1930s. While living in New York City, she organized the revue Who's Who and wrote two books for serial publication: I Live by My Wits, which appeared in Harper's Bazaar in 1936, and The Life of Barbara Hutton , published in Cosmopolitan in 1938. She then moved to Hollywood, where her daring ideas about entertaining found a ready audience—she once put a live (albeit tethered) baby duckling on every woman's plate at a dinner party. Maxwell lived at Constance Bennett 's house. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, she made a number of short films, including Elsa Maxwell's Hotel for Women, Elsa Maxwell's Public Deb Number One, and The Lady and the Lug. In 1942, she started a radio program, "Elsa Maxwell's Party Line," in which she chronicled the comings and goings of the rich and famous. She also began to earn money by sharing her hostessing secrets with the masses. Among her break-the-ice schemes for parties were the game of scavenger hunt, about which she noted that "it is inadvisable to include objects which can be procured only by violating the law," and a real-life version of what would later become the board game "Clue," complete with a play-acting dead body. Maxwell also wrote a nationally syndicated gossip column, appeared in the wartime revue Stage Door Canteen, and gave lectures. Her autobiography, R.S.V.P., was published in 1954, followed in 1957 by How to Do It: The Lively Art of Entertaining. She was a frequent guest on Jack Paar's "The Tonight Show" before her death in 1963.


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1943, 1964.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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Maxwell, Elsa (1883–1963)

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