leisure 10.17.03

Elsa Maxwell

After returning home from a seriously dull party recently, we couldn't stop thinking about Elsa Maxwell. Here's why…

For many years, Elsa Maxwell was New York's number one party giver. When she turned up on the scene in 1915, she said, "New York's elite was a collection of pompous mediocrities occupied only with petty feuds and suffocatingly dull receptions. The 'young' Mrs. Vanderbilt — then a woman of fifty — was trying to prove to her jealous mother-in-law, the 'old' Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, that she could pack more deadly bores into her drawing room than any other hostess on the North American continent."

Ms. Maxwell landed at the Waldorf, which at that time needed PR almost as much as she did. As she readily admitted in her book R.S.V.P., she didn't have any particular talent but drew her own conclusion about why society was drawn to her and her parties. She wrote, "…I honestly believe they were attracted by the gaiety I radiate as naturally as I breathe."

Her theory about parties was: "Serve the dinner backward, do anything, but for goodness sake, do something weird." Among her many do's in the 1930s-50s in New York were the April in Paris balls. The parties were ostensibly about French-American relations but Ms. M. decided to radiate a little gaiety and weirdness by introducing elephants into the event, which became a recurring feature. Ms. Maxwell, who was small, heavy, and not especially prepossessing, would arrive in the Grand Ballroom riding one of the elephants, prompting columnist Dorothy Kilgallen to write, rather infamously, that she knew Elsa and the elephant had arrived but couldn't tell which was which.

Animals played important roles in Ms. Maxwell's 'barnyard parties' in which the hotel's ballroom was transformed into an American farm, complete with chickens, pigs, cows, horses, and pigeons. The pigeons were invited only once because they ignored the Waldorf's checkout time. After they began making themselves comfortable in the hotel's chandeliers, they were finally evicted with BB guns.

Surely there must be some 2003-style Elsa Maxwells. If we could just score some invites to those parties.
Expect 85 minutes to fly by as those clever Brits showcase their 100 award-winning British commercials made for television and for showing in movie theaters this past year. It takes place at MoMA at the Gramercy Theater, 127 E. 23rd [Lex] 212.777.4900, 8pm tonight and October 25 at 1pm.

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