Elsa Maxwell: The Salonniere who Embodied Fun

Elsa Maxwell (May 24, 1883—November 1, 1963) was one of the best and most popular salonnieres of all time. She hosted thousands of soirées in New York and beyond between the 1910s and the 1960s and had in spades the two traits that all talented party givers share: she was great fun, and she genuinely loved people.

And people loved her, too. From Marilyn Monroe and Gary Cooper to Winston Churchill and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, there wasn’t a member of Hollywood or European royalty who would consider turning down an invitation to an Elsa Maxwell fête. Her parties were the places to see and be seen and meet and be met. For example, it was Maxwell who introduced opera singer Maria Callas to shipping tycoon Ari Onassis and actress Rita Hayworth to Prince Aly Khan.

Elsa Maxwell: One of the Best Party Hosts of All Time

Marilyn Monroe and Maxwell 

Maxwell’s parties were also highly imaginative. Whether it was a quirky hoe-down featuring a cow-milking competition or a dinner party with physicist Albert Einstein, an accomplished musician, playing the piano or violin, there was no telling what one might see or do at an Elsa Maxwell soirée. In fact, it is Maxwell who came up with the idea of the scavenger hunt as a party game.

Maxwell’s imagination knew no bounds, from her own tall tale that she was born in a theater during a performance of the opera Mignon to her wildly inventive party themes, like her “Come-As-You-Were” fête, which instructed guests to show up in whatever they were wearing when they opened the invitation. That gathering attracted a man with no pants, another with shaving cream on half of his face, and a woman in a slip and little else. Her clever “Come-As-Your-Opposite” party featured Fanny Brice as Tosca; George Gershwin as Groucho Marx; Cole Porter as a football player; and Virginia Fair Vanderbilt as the hostess herself.

Elsa Maxwell: One of the Best Party Hosts of All Time

Maxwell at one of her costume parties

As a party host, Maxwell wasn’t typical, nor was her rise to the top of society’s party pyramid. She had an unremarkable upbringing in Iowa and San Francisco, was schooled only until the age of 14, had very little money (her wealthy friends footed her party bills), and wasn’t particularly stylish or refined. But none of that mattered a whit. As the Duke of Windsor once said, “Old battering-ram Elsa always gave the best parties.”

That’s because Maxwell had flair, as well as intellectual curiosity, an uncanny ability to talk to anyone about anything, and ambition. At various times in her fun-filled life, she was a songwriter, a pianist, a Shakespearean actor, a publicist, a gossip columnist, an author, the host of a radio show called Elsa Maxwell’s Party Line, and a regular guest on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show. As Maxwell said about herself, “I was a short, fat, homely piano player with no money or background who decided to become a legend.”

Elsa Maxwell: One of the Best Party Hosts of All Time

Maxwell with Salvador Dali

Maxwell hosted more than 3,000 parties during her life. Her last fête, the “April in Paris Ball,” took place in New York a week before her death in 1963. Perhaps her best epitaph is something else she said herself. Noting that she never enjoyed many material possessions, she said she had “more friends than any living person. They are my riches.” Indeed.

The 10 Best Elsa Maxwell Quotes of All Time

Serve the dinner backward, do anything—but for goodness sake, do something weird.

Nothing spoils a good party like genius.

Laugh at yourself first, before anyone else can.

Giving parties is a trivial avocation, but it pays the dues for my union card in humanity.

Etiquette is a fancy word for simple kindness.

Fight fire with fire. If you must have bores, always put them together or at the same table. Bores have an effervescent chemical reaction to one another at a party. They invariably have a marvelous time trading banalities in the absence of competition. Cliches roll trippingly off the tongue like sparkling epigrams, and trite observations acquire depth sinking into receptive minds.

To get 50 people to a cocktail party in New York, you ask 100. In Hollywood, you invite 20.

Don’t try for wit. Settle for humor. You’ll last longer.

Down with boredom. It has to go.

Cocktails are society’s most enduring invention!

And here are a few more stories we think you’ll enjoy: 

The story behind the Vanderbilt Ball, the party that changed New York society

How to mingle with purpose and meaning

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