|I received a copy of writer and designer, Adam Lewis’s new book ‘The Great Lady Decorators: The Women Who Defined Interior Design, 1870-1955’, (Rizzoli, $65.00) less than 48 hours before the interview and I was not looking forward to slugging through almost 300 pages of any subject in such a short amount of time.
To my relief, once I sat down to the task at hand, I was immediately engaged. The book focuses on the extraordinary lives and contributions made by a group of strong, if privileged, women whose work forever shaped the direction of decoration. It’s written in an informative, chatty way that makes it a wonderfully easy read. Much like his books, Adam is a literate and intriguing man who loves to tell stories, and converse on just about any subject from his friendship with Albert Hadley to divulging his favorite meat loaf recipe.
Well, a word in the title was a big problem, and that was ‘lady’ because it’s a generational thing and we’re now PC in our references to both men and women that when this got to the marketing focus group at Rizzoli, which is made up of very young people, they did not want to use the word ‘lady’ because they felt it was old-fashioned and reminiscent of English society.
I had to fight for the word and the reason that I was so insistent that this be the title was because this was the period this book covers. The women all come from a very privileged background and they would never have been called ‘women’. But we were able to compromise, so I subtitled it ‘The women who defined interior design.’
And what else?
The second question I’m asked: why did you pick the year? That is because 1870 is five years after the American Civil War. In the American Civil War more men were killed than all of the other wars of this nation put together, more than in the First and Second World Wars, Korean War, Vietnam War and now Iraq. This left women in a very strange place because women were widowed—they had no money. They did things to earn a living like taking in boarders and some women had beauty parlors in their kitchens. Decorating was another thing they could do.
|You know you’re saying that people were offended by the word ‘lady’ but what I found interesting about the book is that they really were tough women.
Oh my God, they were tough!
They were ambitious, and particularly Elsie de Wolfe, they were social climbers and she was money-crazy—these were really tough cookies.
Well, as I say, that’s the one thing Elsie de Wolfe never was, was a lady. Until she marries Sir Charles Mendel and she gets the title of Lady Mendel—but she was a very crude woman.
And being an actress was really frowned upon.
Well [in that period] actresses enjoyed the same place in society as prostitutes did.
|But she was able to climb her way out of that …
And to live openly as a lesbian.
With Elizabeth Marbury …
Who was a very powerful woman and who did come from one of the most prestigious families. There were rumors that she was actually the lover of the man who built Tuxedo Park , Pierre Lorillard.
What I also took away from reading about these ladies was that they weren’t necessarily trained in design. Think of Dorothy Draper and the others, they were taught how to entertain, how to dress and their decorating was an offshoot of that.
The only one of these women who had any training is Eleanor Brown. She went to Parsons School of Design.
|It’s interesting because I actually found her designs the least appealing.
Well, it’s very reflective of the French company Jansen. She went in for these very formal heavy, ornate things. But let me tell you something, she was also the most forward thinking of all the women. When we got into modern design, Eleanor Brown more than any other used modern design. She and Frances Elkins were the first to import work of Jean Michel Frank. America wasn’t quite ready for it but they were daring enough to do it.
The other thing I was thinking while reading this was that they all had great assistants--Dorothy Draper in particular, and she had that great marble carver.
Dorothy Draper was not really a decorator as much as she was a businesswoman. She was a very powerful businesswoman. She called the men that she worked with “my little tycoons” because she was bigger than most of them.
What was it she said about other people’s opinions?
“I don’t mind people offering their opinions but I don’t listen to them.”
|How many of these women have you actually met?
I briefly met Mrs. Henry Parish once at her house in Maine but I did not know her at all. I had gone down to Dark Harbor for a luncheon.
Part of me cringes when I go through this book probably because of my own background. Years ago I went to Dark Harbor and I felt just like I would feel when I went to Tuxedo Park or any of these closed communities. It was such an breeding- based, elitist world, most people including myself just wouldn’t fit in.
|But most of these women, except for Frances Elkins who happened to be Jewish, wanted to be part of this world …
Well it’s often said that you can’t ever take anything away from the brilliant talent of Frances Elkins and her brother, the architect David Adler. But their greatest genius was making a place for themselves in a WASP community.
I read that later Frances Elkins went to Montecito and her brother poo-poohed some of her clients.
That’s right. He saw himself as a WASP. Again I think it’s very interesting that Lake Forest [in Chicago] was the center of the WASP community. Jews did not live there. They lived a little bit further out in Libertyville and he lived in Libertyville.
Decorating is not based on social status anymore. It’s based on money, money, money.
Money, money, money!
• Sian Ballen • Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Friday, June 11, 2010