To The One I Love The Best

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Tulips stretching their stems. 10:00 PM. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023.  Sometimes sunny yesterday, sometimes gray, a coolish late April day — with the landscape and the parks all over town flourishing in this weather, delivering the beauty for us. If we look.

A friend sent me a book, a beautifully published softcover book (Pushkin Press), a memoir-ish sort of book by Ludwig Bemelmans called To the One I Love The Best.

Click to order To The One I Love The Best.

If you remember who Bemelmans was or how you knew him, I  knew him only as the artist who did the murals in the Carlyle Hotel’s bar. I also knew he was very prominent in his world — a world which included the Hotel Carlyle; and that he was from the age before us — those who came into the world at the beginning of the last century. A hundred years ago. Yet Bemelmans’ artwork on the walls of the Carlyle Hotel is what grabbed me when I received the book, and remains fresh to the eye all these years later.

I didn’t know he was writer — which  meant I knew nothing  about the man — except his very attractive and compelling artwork. But, the subject of To The One I Love … is Lady Mendl, also and originally known by her birth name Elsie de Wolfe. I’m familiar with her as member of the world of the 20th century in its development socially, economically, technically, and politically.

She was a fascinating character. Born in New York in the 19th century (1865 or thereabouts), she was the last of four children and evidently neglected or ignored enough, yet disciplined by her upbringing to be not only independent but imaginative about her life. 

De Wolfe in the late 19th-century, when she was a popular and best dressed Broadway actress. Photo: History and Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

She began in her teens as an actress on the stage in New York where she was noted in the press for her costume or couture. But obviously not her acting talent. A fashionable lady she was always visually artistic and with an eye for style. She was drawn to it and had a reputation for it.

When she put the theatre behind and began to assert herself as an interior decorator, her friend Anne Morgan, the daughter of J. P. and the force behind the founding of the Colony Club in New York, hired her to do the first clubhouse. From that, along with being Mr. Frick’s interior decorator of his new mansion that is now the museum, across from the Park on 70th Street and Fifth Avenue, she became very high recommended.

She was also, it should be noted, socially prominent in that world of social prominence — both here and in Europe. She had a long time domestic relationship with Elizabeth Marbury a very powerful and prominent literary agent and stage producer who was ten years Elsie’s senior. 

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

It was a very open relationship to the world in a time when such relationships were very private and often concealed from all but closest family and friends. Interestingly, the block in Manhattan’s Upper East Side known as Sutton Place, was architecturally developed by Elsie and Ms. Marbury, Anne Morgan, and Anne Vanderbilt who built her mansion on the northeast corner of 57th Street and York Avenue/Sutton Place. All the houses are still standing. The women were all close friends and neighbors, and shared similar domestic relationships. Morgan’s house is now the official residence of the Secretary-General of the UN.

Over time Elsie became the most prominent interior designer in the world, and was living mainly in Europe and eventually mainly in an 18th century mansion in Versailles that actually had belonged to Louis XV who used it privately and quietly. It was there that Elsie entertained along with Miss Marbury, and even her friend Miss Morgan was a frequent guest and eventually an occasional resident. 

Elsie’s parties were the style of the time in Europe and attended by many of the royals from the various monarchies across the European and Asian continent. She went all out to entertain the guests — with men in their white tie and tails de rigueur — and the women in their haute couture. Life there was like something out of a fashion magazine, as well as a compendium of tales of the jewels worn by the very rich, and titled, and celebrated royals.  

The final great party at Elsie’s mansion at Versailles came during the Second World War when the Nazi’s had invaded Paris. It was time for everyone to leave not only their residences, but also their country.

Lady Mendl‘s legendary Circus Ball hosted at her Villa Trianon in Versailles on July 1, 1939 — the last great ball given in France only two months before the start of Second World War. L. to r.: 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

Getting out was a chapter all its own. Elsie lent her Rolls to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and moved everything and everyone she could of her staff in taxis over the border to Spain and finally to the last of the passenger ships moving across the Atlantic to New York.

Everything I have just written on this page was from memory in an effort to describe this remarkable personality, a tiny woman no more than 5 feet, who was born to entertain with a style and panache that was (and still is elsewhere) tempting to one and all who were invited. She was unique. 

If the party theme was “circus” there were real elephants that brought in the hostess and her honored guests — into her backyard at Versailles, that is. The party was so spectacular that almost a century later it is still written about — most notably seven years ago by Charlie Scheips: Elsie de Wolfe’s Paris: Frivolity Before the Storm. All the visuals that established her international reputation as an interior designer are there.

Circus Ball, 1939, Monsieur Strasburgher takes the Lipizzaner horses in jeweled harnesses through their paces. Photo by Roger Schall, © Jean-Frédéric Schall

So when I received the aforementioned book  To The One I Love The Best by Mr. Bemelmans, I couldn’t help being curious about Elsie’s life in Beverly Hills where she settled during the War. It was such a difference between  her international social life and the movie business. I wondered “why there?” Beverly Hills was very social in its way but its royals came from the masses, singled out by talent, ambition and artistry. 

Ludwig Bemelmans saw himself as a painter, despite his considerable success at writing for both children (the Madeline series in particular) and adults.

Nevertheless, Ludwig Bemelmans — who is a very comfortable writer — at ease with his voice and his story — is a natural story teller. In that time in the early 1940s, he happened to be in Hollywood writing screenplays as well as painting, and he met Elsie who when questioning him about where he lived, learned that he was living in a beach shack out in Topanga. 

She advised him that in the film business and as a writer, it would better for him to have a place in town. Near at the producers. She then invited him to stay at After All where he could have his own room and come and go as he pleased.

Bemelmans took her up on the offer, and moved in. The house was also occupied by her husband Sir Charles Mendl whom she met and married late in life after Miss Marbury died. It was a marriage of convenience for both parties, but he was the husband and living in the house.  And she was the wife and it was her house.

To The One I Love The Best is Mr. Bemelman’s story of being a resident. Firstly everyone in the house including staff, maids, gardeners, chauffeur had been given names by Elsie who was self-named for the household; Mother. Bemelmans was given the name Stevie. Sir Charles had another name as did the secretary, the chauffeur, the chef, the maid, etc. 

Elsie was at least in her late 70s when she moved in. Bemelman’s story has her at 90 and maybe even 100. All of which refer to a miraculous presence, a woman full of energy, imagination, domination, restoration and enterprise. Everything becomes a drama of one kind or another, like series of episodes in what in Mr. Bemelman’s book become comedies, movie comedies, laugh out loud comedies.

Lady Mendl photographed with one of her poodles in her bedroom at After All, 1950.

I say “laugh out loud” because Bemelman’s report has had me laughing out loud at some of the moments and dramas that the lady produces. Or rather produced. I could hardly wait to read on.

She was a character but theatrical, and brilliantly witty and imaginative, and still that little girl from New York who may very well been ignored by her mother as the child, and ignored by her family. Because life at “After All” was fascinating, hilarious, and sensitive but clever. I kept thinking this would be a great TV series about a 90-year-old with a smart teenage girl’s imagination.

Bemelmans’ sketch of Lady Mendl at After All; she is seated with one of her toy poodles.

I’m three-quarters finished and I’m still in awe of Mr. Bemelmans’ ability to recall and amuse. He published the book in 1955, five years after Elsie’s passing, so undoubtedly she was never there to question his memory. It doesn’t matter: the book’s the pleasure, and without question, the irrepressible star of that life in Hollywood was Elsie. So Hollywood and divine, if you catch my drift.

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