Elsie de Wolfe a.k.a Lady Mendl: The Theatrical Angle

Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950) is best known as one of America’s first interior decorators and its most prominent one prior to the 1930s. But that is not what gets you a spot on Travalanche. First, she was a woman of the theatre.

Elsie’s father, Stephen Etienne de Wolfe was a New York physician whose habit of dabbling in risky business ventures kept the family in debt and shunned by the best society (although her mother had helpful family connections). Amateur theatricals became Elsie’s way of gaining entry. Her first parts were with the Amateur Comedy Club in 1886. It was during these years that she met future producer and agent Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury, who was to be her lover and longtime companion for four decades.

When Elsie’s father died she was obliged to turn professional for the income. In 1891, she made her debut in Sardou’s Thermidor. Starting in 1893 she began appearing on Broadway, acting in 14 productions over the next dozen years. Most tended to be comedies or farces, though not all. The plays were Joseph (1893), Christopher Jr (1895), Marriage (1896), Never Again (1897), A Marriage of Convenience (1897), One Summer’s Day (1898), Catherine (1898), The Surprises of Love (1900), The Lash of a Whip/ The Shades of Night (1901), The Way of the World (1901-02), Cynthia (1903), The Other Girl (1903), and A Wife Without a Smile (1904-05). For most of that time, she was under the management of Charles Frohman. Her sister Drina de Wolfe followed her onto the stage as an actress in 1902. Her brother, Edgar de Wolfe, married Rambova. 

As an actress, Elsie de Wolfe did not receive glowing notices, however she excited endless comment on the excellence of her wardrobe, often drawn from the latest Paris fashions. Gradually, her eye became her living. As early as 1897’s A Marriage of Convenience she had designed costumes and wardrobe in addition to playing the starring role. In 1905, with the help of Stanford White she secured a commission to do the interior decoration of the Colony Club, and her second career was launched. She became in demand for the interior design of fashionable private homes. Her clients would include the likes of Amy Vanderbilt, Anne Morgan, Henry Clay Frick and his wife Adelaide, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. By 1913, her business had grown to such an extent that her studio occupied an entire floor of a Fifth Avenue building. That year, she also published her influential book The House in Good Taste.

At the same time, she had not given up the theatre. Only, now Broadway employed her as a designer. She did costumes for The Prima Donna (1908), The Fair Co-Ed (1909), The Candy Shop (1909), Miss Princess (1912), and The American Maid (1913); and set design for Nobody Home (1915), Very Good Eddie (1915), and Go To It (1916). She also tried her hand at film acting, appearing in three silent movies: The Pretender (1915), For Love of Mary Ellen (1915), and Democracy: The Vision Restored (1920).

In 1926, she made tongues wag (being quite an open lesbian) by marrying British diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, largely for social reasons. As “Lady Mendl” you may recognize references to her in songs by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Mendl was British press attache to Paris; Elsie made her way into French society by this time. In 1934 she designed sets for her last Broadway show Ode to Freedom (1934). In 1935 she published her memoir, After All. 

In her old age Lady Mendl was known for her eccentricities, such as a daily yoga routine that include headstands, and a dog cemetery on the grounds of her French villa.

Again, many readers will find it heretical that we don’t discuss her interiors at any length, but that’s really not our bailiwick here, and there are plenty of sources for that. On Travalanche we’re all about the show business!