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Inventing Elsa Maxwell

by Phil Hall
Contributor
Monday Oct 21, 2013
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Elsa Maxwell was the original Gossip Girl. A one-time actress and composer, Maxwell used her connections to the socially prominent to create a series of careers centered around the cult of celebrity worship. From her extravagant star-filled parties, to her reign as a newspaper and radio tattler on the show biz elite, to her self-promotion as an etiquette expert, to her late-life fame as a garrulous raconteur on Jack Paar’s talk show, Maxwell became famous as the center of a starry universe of rich and glamorous people.

In this new biography, author Sam Staggs comments unkindly that Maxwell was built like a bulldog. Indeed, she was - but she also possessed the bulldog’s celebrated tenacity. The child of a parvenu middle-class family that moved from Iowa to San Francisco, Maxwell made enough connections throughout her life to put her on an equal footing with the crowned heads of Europe and the icons of Broadway and Hollywood.

While her self-effacing humor and considerable charm earned her wide appeal with the general public, she also used her influence to champion against racial prejudice both in print and in her luxurious social orbit. (She took credit for forcing the snooty management of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to allow African American performers including Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson to use the establishment’s front entrance and guest elevators, instead of being segregated to the hotel’s side entrance and service elevators.)

Sadly, Maxwell used her platform as a writer to rail against homosexuals, despite her friendships with prominent gay men including Cole Porter and Noel Coward.

Staggs’ biography is rich with AAA-list name-dropping, with anecdotes ranging from Maxwell’s role in bringing together the union of Rita Hayworth and Aly Khan to her outrage at encountering a less-than-stylish post-MGM Greta Garbo. Despite her reputation for encouraging a good time, Maxwell also seemed to relish public feuds, and her headline-grabbing spats with the likes of the Duchess of Windsor, deposed Egyptian King Farouk and fellow gossip hound Walter Winchell became legendary for their vicious wit.

Staggs also plumbs the question of Maxwell’s sexuality. Loud whispers of lesbianism dogged Maxwell - the Duchess of Windsor tartly referred to her as "the old oaken bucket in the Well of Loneliness" - and Maxwell tried to refute the talk by insisting her stout physique kept men from pursuing her. However, Staggs speculates that Maxwell’s long-term close friendship with British actress Dorothy Fellowes-Gordon, nicknamed Dickie, veered into the intimate, and Maxwell’s embarrassing infatuation with Maria Callas was too difficult to ignore. Sadly, Maxwell used her platform as a writer to rail against homosexuals, despite her friendships with prominent gay men including Cole Porter and Noel Coward.

Maxwell’s star power has faded considerably since her death in 1963, and it is safe to say that those born during the past half-century may not have heard of her. This well-written and entertaining biography should help restore Maxwell to a degree of prominence as a pioneer of celebrity veneration.

"Inventing Elsa Maxwell"
By Sam Staggs
St. Martin’s Griffin
$17.99, 340 pages
ISBN: 978-1-250-03823-4

by Sam Staggs

Phil Hall is the author of "The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time

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