Her private villa in Versailles hosted the last great Parisian party before the storm of World War II, attended by Coco Chanel, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Rothschilds. Paris fashion experts named her the best-dressed woman in the world and her eye for design catapulted her to the higher echelons of Parisian society. But Elsie de Wolfe was not your conventional socialite of the era. Despite her marriage of convenience to a wealthy British ambassador, she enjoyed a lengthy and highly public affair with her great love, a female literary agent and theatre producer. She called herself a “rebel in an ugly world.” Let’s step into the world of this 20th century Marie Antoinette…
Elsie de Wolfe’s Paris was a magic era for those who knew how to live (and could pay the bills). Like Marie Antoinette, she held court in Versailles, at her exquisite home, the Villa Trianon, not to be confused with Marie Antoinette’s “Petit Trianon” mini-palace just next-door. In 1906, she and her life-long partner Bessie Marbury discovered the old, abandoned house in Versailles …
How many, many times we peeped through the high iron railing at this enchanted domain, sleeping like the castle in the fairy tale. The garden was overgrown with weeds and shrubbery, the house was shabby and sadly in need of paint. We sighed and thought how happy would be our fortune if we might some day penetrate the mysteries of the tangled garden and the abandoned villa. Little did we dream that this would one day be our home.
It was here that the prosperous daughter of a New York lawyer would transition from a Broadway stage star to an interior decorator and legendary hostess. “If I have done anything really fine, it is the Villa Trianon. Into it has gone not only the best of my knowledge but the best that I have to give as a hostess whose dearest wish is to make her friends happy and at home.”
According to The New Yorker, “Interior design as a profession was invented by Elsie de Wolfe” and still today, design industry professionals would argue there have been few greater tastemakers than Elsie de Wolfe.
In 1939, at the age of 81 years-old, she was still the hostess with the mostess, and all of Paris wanted to be on Elsie’s guest list for her second annual circus ball, despite the looming threat of Hitler’s army marching across Europe.
But Paris, in the late 1930s, was even more determined to amuse itself, and Elsie made the perfect ringmaster.
For her final ball before the war, Villa Trianon’s great lawn became the setting for a circus ring and a circus tent bar was built around one of the garden’s enormous oak trees.
The guest list was expectedly controversial in true Elsie style: left wing, right wing, exiled royals, Hollywood stars were dazzled by tightrope walkers, acrobats and circus ponies. Alongside German ambassadors and future Vichy collaborationists, the Rothschild heirs and masses of American expats drank “Pink Lady” cocktails (Elsie’s recipe of course) until dawn.
The summer ball was “the last grand gesture of gaiety and frivolity before the storm.” Two months later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. The villa was occupied by Germans during the war, but Elsie returned in the late 1940’s and, in her final years, revived some of the glitter and gaiety that marked the years between the wars.
When she died in 1950, the Villa Trianon was shuttered up and left in darkness for three decades. In the 1980s, every last treasure inside was auctioned off at the Hotel Georges V in Paris. Apparently there were no efforts to preserve the home intact and never again would it be the stage of Parisian high society. An old friend of Elsie’s, French philanthropist Paul-Louis Weiller owned the house until his death in 1993 and it was then sold to an unknown buyer. When a devastating storm ravaged Versailles in 1999, including the iconic Chateau, the villa was not spared and once again, it became a ruin. Only a few clues to the “inventor of interior design” remain: shredded curtains and a gutted garden, where Elsie created a dog cemetery for her beloved pets. There seems to be some activity behind the gates of the villa in recent months, signs of renovation, a property earmarked for development, but details remain private and certainly its history as a legendary party pad, have been long forgotten.