Monday, January 23, 2012

Elsie de Wolfe and the Circus Ball.

The Circus Ball by Oliver Messel.
Oil and Gouache on Paper.
Elsie is shown as Ringmaster with white steeds.
Ages and ages ago, people with style had money and people with money had style.  It used to be that a celebrity or socialite (a real one, not one from the loins of Kris Jenner) could give a party (without corporate sponsorship) that would live on in the great big social diary in the sky forever (without having to sell footage to the media).  Elsie de Wolfe was one of these people, and on the night of July 1, 1939, she gave the Circus Ball.
Held on the brink of World War II, it was the last great party of the Season, and indeed, the last great party of it's era.  Elsie, the American born Socialite who had been a bad actress, then a ground breaking Decorator, then finally the international hostess known as Lady Mendl, held the Ball at her beloved Villa Trianon; a gift to a royal mistress of the 18th Century which Elsie had purchased with her lover at the time, the theatrical agent Bessy Marbury, and the heiress Anne Morgan.

The Villa was Elsie's true love and life's work.  Purchased in semi decrepit condition, Elsie restored the interiors, added a new wing, and installed modern bathrooms. During her life, she saw it used as a military hospital during World War I, and after fleeing Paris for the United States, returned to find it destroyed by Nazi's after World War II.  Upon each return, she would lovingly restore the home back to it's de Wolfe splendor.

The interior of the Dance Pavilion, now permanent.
For her grandest party, Elsie would add another appendage to her home, a Ballroom.  Elsie sought to recall the late 19th Century trend wherein fashionable ladies with means would construct temporary party rooms for a single evening's use.  The Dance Pavilion, as it was called, was open on three sides to the Villas gardens and painted in green and white stripes.  For the interior, she contracted with Maison Jansen, the first international design firm, based in Paris, and their premier Decorator, Stephane Boudin. 

Elsie could have done the work herself, but it was much simpler for her to hire it out and have all the details sorted by someone else.  As a bonus, Boudin has become one of the most sought after decorators on both sides of the Atlantic.  Having his name associated with one of her parties would surely impress Elsie's elite guests, which numbered 700 for that evening.  Naturally, Elsie, who invented the game Boudin was playing so well, would not be so smitten with his tact and flair as the rest of the world. 

A view of the Dance Pavilion with glass walls,
set up for cards.
Boudin's treatment of the Dance Pavilion was an utter confection.  The green and white stripes of the exterior were repeated on the interior through Regency style draperies.  The furnishings were eccentric pieces shaped like whitewashed tree trunks and there were button tufted leather semicircular banquettes crowned by Venetian Blackamoors wielding parasols that concealed electric lights.  Flanking the entry to the pavilion were two artificial tree trunks that had been whitewashed and ornamented with artificial leaves.  One tree bore a heart pierced by an arrow with the initials 'E& C' inside (for Elsie and her husband, Charles.  By now she had dumped Bessie in favor of marrying a titled English dignitary).  Yet the piece de resitance of the room was surely the spring loaded floor, imported from England, designed to combat weary feet with its diving board qualities.

Elsie's Mainbocher gown from the Circus Ball,
now part of the MET's permanent collection.
Ivory silk chiffon embroidered with white and
silver sequin butterflies over a taffeta slip.
Outside, there was a champagne bar housed in a circular structure with a matching striped roof that had been built around a large tree in the garden.  The main attraction of the Circus themed ball was, of course, the Circus, and Elsie was there to act as it's honorary Ringleader (clad in a size 2 Mainbocher evening dress and her favorite diamond and aquamarine tiara), leading eight trained ponies (white of course) through there paces.  The Circus ring was laid out on the lawn and featured acrobats, tight rope walkers, clowns and jugglers in addition to Elsie's pony routine.

So that her guests wouldn't go hungry (an novel idea for Elsie, who often starved her party guests by limiting the amount of food served), the buffet, which served lamb chops, scrambled eggs, cold salads, cakes and champagne, stayed open until 5 am.  So that her guests could work up an appetite, the Dance Pavilion housed three orchestras on rotation, and the grounds were home to a strolling blind accordion player and a Hawaiian guitarist who floated on a boat in the swimming pool.  Whether eating or dancing, the guest list read as a who's who of European Society (which in reality was just Elsie's little black book); Chanel, Maugham, the Windsors, Eve Curie, all were all at home at the Villa.

A period view of the the formal gardens at the Villa Trianon.
Pleased with her Ball, Elsie decided to make the Dance Pavilion a permanent structure.  She had the spring loaded floor replaced with parquet to match what ran through the Villa, and had the walls glassed in so the views to the garden wound still be open.  She even situated a fireplace in one wall so the room could be enjoyed in cooler weather.

Surely, a party of this magnitude would be met with more criticism than praise, as we are in a tight economic pinch as of late and this was not a frugal effort.  However, how wonderful to reminisce of an era that has past, and of great people that made it what it was.  How marvelous to dream of such a glamorous life and find inspiration in it.  Certainly I feel no shame admitting that I would have loved to be in attendance, even it it meant floating on a dinghy in the pool.

- Ian


Most of the Maison Jansen furniture was purchased at auction by Victoria & Son
in New York.  You can see the Blackamoor banquette and the marvelous 'x' based
stools with faux bois bases.  The Chinese stand and cache pot as well as the snail,
was not part of the lot from the Villa Trianon.  Part of the suite was purchased by
Michael Taylor for a client in San Francisco.


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