15 July 2009

Etiquette Wednesday -- Elsie de Wolfe

When you hear that Lady Mendl, standing up
Now turns a handspring landing up
On her toes
Anything goes!

Cole Porter

Today’s etiquette tips are legendary. They come in the form of entertaining advice from the legendary Elsie de Wolfe, a.k.a. Lady Mendl. Her advice is passed on to us from the legendary Ludwig Bemelmans. There is so much legend in this post, one might just turn a handspring.

Elsie de Wolfe was one of the great figures of design. Many consider her to be the first interior decorator, crediting her 1913 book, A House in Good Taste, as being the first true tome on decorating. (A lot of people give that credit to Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman whose book, The Decoration of Houses was published in 1897.) For many years, de Wolfe shared her life with Elisabeth Marbury, a theatrical producer. She shocked her friends, including Marbury, by marring Sir Charles Mendl when she was 60. Maybe she was 61, so hard to tell with "women of a certain age."

Elisabeth Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe

Unlike Wharton, Elsie de Wolfe was named the Best-Dressed Woman in the World, in 1935. Both Irving Berlin and Cole Porter wrote of her in song. Cole Porter's lyric makes reference to Lady Mendl's dramatic entrance to a rather formal diplomatic ball. She entered doing handsprings and she was over 60, not to mention married to a diplomat!

The other "legend" in our story, Ludwig Bemelmans, invented one of the most famous characters in literature, Madeline. He was as famous for eating as he was for inventing Madeline.

In the early 50’s Ludwig Bemelmans went to California and Lady Mendl invited him for a visit -- he moved in. She called him "Stevie", he believed because “Ludwig” was a tad Teutonic after the war. He called her “Mother.”

Bemelmans wrote of their relationship in his book, To The One I Love The Best. In Bemelmans notoriously wicked humor, the title of this work was taken from Lady Mendl's pet cemetery in France. She buried her beloved dogs there and each of them had their own headstone that read: The One I Love The Best.

Bemelmans wrote of Elsie, “I have never known any hostess, hotel manager, chef, or maître d’hôtel who gave the attention to a party that Lady Mendl did.”

His description of a party offers sage advice to today's hostess.
The dinners were exemplary and simple, and the rules laid down for the serving of meals were sensible. The basic laws were a cold room and hot plates, the floral decorations low, so that one could look across at the other people and talk to anyone without bending around a vase or candlesticks. Her love of things green and white went so far that the place cards were tropical leaves on which the names were written in white ink. The lighting was indirect and the service the ancient Russian, which is the most convenient for the guest at table as well as the help. It consists of a small rolling table, or, in the case of larger parties, of several of them. The food and the plates are placed thereon, and the servitors arrange the food on the plate and set it before the guest.
Since there was always a small green and white menu at the table the people new what was coming, and they could choose more of the first course, if they liked that, or more of the second, if that course had more appeal to them.

One day Lady Mendl received a package of twelve quarts of cointreau. The liquor was featured in a drink named for her.

Lady Mendl gasped, "What will I do with twelve quarts of cointreau?"

"Have a party," replied her maid.

And she did! I’m sure they served her signature cocktail.

Lady Mendl Cocktail

1/3 gin
1/3 grapefruit juice
1 jigger cointreau

Today is great afternoon to make yourself a Lady Mendl Cocktail and listen to the legendary Cole Porter sing her praises because as you know, Anything Goes.


  1. This is fantastic! I recently finished the biography on Elsie de Wolfe by Jane S. Smith. What an incredible life! Thanks for the drink recipe, I think I'll make one this afternoon!


  2. Charming post! You have captured them perfectly, Lady Mendl in particular...


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