Eternal Elsie

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Circus Ball guests on lawn for performance: Daryl Zanuck, Marquise Nina de Polignac, Virginia Fox Zanuck, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Sylvia Fairbanks, Elsa Maxwell, Christian Bérard, and Marie-Louise Bousquet. Photo by Roger Schall © Jean-Frédéric Schall

In 2013, I was perusing the Getty Images website and stumbled upon several dozen photos that were identified as being from January 7, 1939, by LIFE photographer William Vandivert taken “at Lady Mendl’s party” in Paris. Although many of the personalities in the photos were familiar to me — they were not identified. I called Eric Rachlis, who was then editor of Getty Images about it.

Circus Ball, 1939, Oliver Messel, Elsie de Wolfe (center), and Virginia Cherill in the library of Villa Trianon. Photograph by William Vandivert, © Time Inc.

A few weeks later I was sent all the pictures and realized that they were not from January 7, 1939, but instead from July 1, 1939 (the French put the numbered day before the month and year). They were of Lady Mendl ‘s (famous decorator Elsie de Wolfe) legendary Circus Ball for nearly 1000 people that she hosted at her Villa Trianon in Versailles. It was the last great ball given in France only two months before the start of Second World War.

One day I mentioned to Susan Train, who ran the Condé Nast office in Paris, that I’d become obsessed with Elsie de Wolfe’s Circus Ball. I added that there was a French photographer named Roger Schall who had also shot photos at Elsie de Wolfe’s. Susan immediately responded that she knew his son Jean-Frederic.

In seconds, she was on the phone to Jean-Frederic and an appointment was made for me to see him at his studio near Montmartre. A few days later I arrived and found a trove of never-before-published negatives and contact sheets from both of Elsie’s 1938 and 1939 summer balls.

The Schall photos were far better than the American Vandivert’s. As one of Paris’s top photographers in the 1930s Schall knew who all the people were. I studied the 250 Schall photos and recognized several of the ball gowns that had become part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. They had been loaned for a war charity exhibition at Wannamakers store during the war. Afterwards Elsie donated them to the Met.

For the balls, de Wolfe turned Villa Trianon’s former loggia into a semi-permanent summer ballroom, complete with green-and-white-striped tented walls and a spring-supported portable dance floor. Photo by Roger Schall, © Jean-Frédéric Schall.
At her 1938 Circus Ball, Elsie de Wolfe with Sir George Clerk (left), a former British ambassador to France, and her husband, Sir Charles Mendl. Photo by Roger Schall, © Jean-Frédéric Schall

Coco Chanel arrives at de Wolfe’s 1938 Circus Ball with writer Paul Morand (left) and Paris Opéra Ballet master Serge Lifar. Photo by Roger Schall, © Jean-Frédéric Schall
Guests at the 1939 Circus Ball included María Cristina Patiño, who wore a sleeveless Mainbocher gown, and Cécile de Rothschild. Photo by Roger Schall © Jean-Frédéric Schall
Circus Ball, 1939, Monsieur Strasburgher takes the Lipizzaner horses in jeweled harnesses through their paces. Photo by Roger Schall, © Jean-Frédéric Schall
Circus Ball, 1939, Ballet Russes impresario Boris Koschno (center) and guest at the Tent Bar in the garden of Villa Trianon. Photo by Roger Schall © Jean-Frédéric Schall
Circus Ball, 1939 Guests dancing in the summer ballroom to Willie Lewis jazz orchestra from Paris’s Chez Florence nightclub. Photo by Roger Schall © Jean-Frédéric Schall

I approached the Mona Bismarck Foundation about doing the show there especially since Mona had been one of Elsie’s guests that night.  But they had no interest. Then back in New York, Eric Himmel at Abrams expressed interest in them as a book, asking me “isn’t it more about the end of an era more than just one or two parties?”   

Charlie with with Jean-Frederic Schall, son of Roger Schall, in Paris at Ma Bourgogne restaurant at Place des Vosges soon after the book came out in 2014.

I agreed and within a year out it came: Elsie de Wolfe’s Paris: Frivolity Before the Storm.

Over the next summer, while in Paris working the book, I learned a man named Michel owned Elsie’s fabled Villa Trianon. I met with an assistant of his who told me that I could not visit the house because it had fallen into ruin and was too dangerous.

A few months later, Michel the owner emailed that he would welcome me for a visit to the Villa when I was next in Paris. That came in May 2014, after I had already handed in the manuscript. My brother Teddy, who lives in France, drove me to 57 Boulevard Saint Antoine and Elsie’s rusting gates.   

The visit was extraordinary. More than 70 years had passed since Elsie’s famous ball. The house was in total ruin but there were vestiges everywhere — of the curtains, wall treatments, treillage. There were still stacks of old bottles of Dom Perignon in the basement kitchen; Elsie ‘s hand painted “Moi” on her bedroom door, and in the garden Pavilion sat the old rusty film projector that Douglas Fairbanks Sr. had installed for Elsie in the 1920s to give private screenings — the first to do so in France.

Circus Ball, 1939, Summer Ballroom, decor by Stephane Boudin for Jansen.

That September, preparing to return to New York, Michel suggested that we have a drink at the Café de Nemours at the top of the Palais Royal. That was the appropriate venue because back in the 18th century, the Duke of Nemours had been the original owner of the Villa Trianon after the fall of the monarchy.  However he had abandoned it in the early 19th century where it was left to ruin until Elsie and her partner/companion Bessie Marbury bought in the early 20th century.

Bessie Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe (from My Crystal Ball, 1923)

Michel arrived on a motorbike — carrying a copy of my book which I had not yet seen! He’d got it from the chic Paris bookstore Galignani had received early copies; and he liked it!

We had champagne and toasted to Elsie. Michel told me that he’d decided to restore Elsie’s house. A couple years later I visited Villa Trianon again, and Michel showed me what he planned to do. But soon after the Covid pandemic took over. I haven’t heard from him lately.

After publishing the book I happened to find out that Elsie’s 1934 custom Rolls-Royce Phantom II Sedanca de Ville still existed!

It had been in that car that her chauffeur had driven Elsie and her diplomat husband Sir Charles Mendl from Paris to Biarritz. Her friend, former Vogue society columnist Johnnie McMullin, and her secretary Hilda West followed behind in a station wagon filled with luggage.

Elsie’s 1934 custom designed Rolls-Royce Phantom II Sedanca de Ville.

Eventually traveling through Spain to Lisbon, the Mendls and Johnnie McMullin reached New York on the Pan American clipper, with the flight taking nearly 24 hours! Hilda West had stayed behind to organize shipping the Rolls and the luggage by ship.

For the first few months of the War, a suite at the St. Regis Hotel was home to the refugees. But with bank accounts frozen in Europe they eventually decamped to Beverly Hills and a house Elsie named “After All.”  The Rolls was eventually sold to film mogul Jack Warner and was later auctioned off in the late 1970s. The car was bought and lovingly restored. It has appeared during the past decade at prestigious car shows around the world and is in the process of finding a permanent home for this amazing icon of a vanished age.

Elsie de Wolfe’s Paris is now out of print.

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