Inside Elsie de Wolfe’s last ball: Incredible images of pre-war party

Elsie de Wolfe’s last hurrah: How Paris socialiate who had lesbian lover for 40 years held final bash before WWII with Coco Channel and Rothschilds as guests

  • Designer Elsie de Wolfe was a socialite who bucked expectations and threw the most lavish parties in Paris  
  • She caused scandal late in adult life including when she attended a ball dressed as a Moulin Rouge Dancer
  • De Wolfe was known to be in a lesbian relationship with literary agent Bessie Marbury – but married for convenience in 1926 – to Sir Charles Mendl, the British press attache in Paris

Elsie de Wolfe was 81-years-old when she threw her final annual Circus Ball – one of the most lavish events of the era – just months before war broke out.

The socialite, known as the ‘best dressed woman in Europe’ pulled out all the stops for guests including Coco Chanel, the Rothschilds, with jewelled horses, a circus ring and gallons of champagne. 

It was not just the parties Elise de Wolfe, then known as Lady Mendl, threw which were extravagant – the woman herself was quite remarkable.

Images of her life and lavish parties have revealed how the socialite – known to be in a lesbian relationship for decades – shunned society’s expectations for glitz, glamour and scandal. 

De Wolfe was born in New York in 1865 before being sent to Scotland for finishing school. She was presented at Queen Victoria’s court in 1883 and officially introduced to London society. During her travels she met the children of the rich and famous and soon became a face on society circuits in France, London and the US. 

Elsie exercised frequently and was often seen clutching a medicine ball on a folding mattress in the mornings. The popular interior designer was an entertainer until the day she died in 1950

American socialite and interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe was later known as Lady Mendl after she married diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, the British press attache in Paris, in 1926. It was largely seen as a marriage of convenience. Pictured: Elsie speaks with guests during her Circus Ball Reception gala party at Villa Trianon, Versailles, France, July 1, 1939

Elsie de Wolfe threw the most lavish parties in France before the outbreak of the Second World War. The socialite organised entertainment in circus rings and endless bottles of champagne

A ringmaster leads a team of horses before reports say Elsie herself got into the ring. The horses wore jewelled harnesses and were paraded around the gardens 

Elsie De Wolfe lived with literary agent and society woman Bessie Marbury. The pair were known to be in a lesbian relationship which lasted four decades, before Elsie’s marriage of convenience. The two women conquered high society together and both enjoyed successful careers while living together on Irving Place in what was then known as a ‘Boston marriage’

After her death in 1950, the Villa Trianon was shuttered up and left in darkness for three decades. In the 1980s, every last treasure was auctioned off at the Hotel Georges V in Paris

The last ball: Guests at the gala party thrown by Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl, at Villa Trianon, Versailles, France, July 1, 1939. High society rolled out for the lavish party which would be Elsie’s last extravagant event

A quartet of guests are escorted along a tree-lined path by a white-gloved footman as they arrive at the Circus Ball Reception, including Coco Chanel

Famously intolerable of her dull surroundings as a child she began acting, while exploring her interest in interior design.

After returning to New York she met socialite Bessie Marbury, her partner for forty years.

The pair lived together in Irving Place and both enjoyed successful careers. They were each pioneers in their fields, with Maybury becoming a literary agent and de Wolfe an interior designer.

In 1906, she and Bessie Marbury discovered the old, abandoned house in Versailles, Villa Trianon.

But Elsie gave in to a marriage of convenience in 1926, wedding diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, the British press attache in Paris.

Shortly after their wedding Elsie was rebuked for attending a ball dressed as a Moulin Rouge dancer – and entering the room doing handsprings. 

After the war de Wolfe returned from Hollywood to Villa Trianon, where she died in 1950. Her autobiography, After All, was published in 1935.

When she died, the Villa Trianon was shuttered up until the 1980s when her treasures were auctioned off at the Hotel Georges V in Paris.

War broke out just months after these images were taken of the guests at the reception of Lady Mendl’s party. She was 81 when she hosted the luxury party

At the party  a team of white Lipizzaner horses in jeweled harnesses and a mini-parade of trained ponies and dogs were led around a ring by de Wolfe herself before guests could meet the circus acts

American socialite and interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe wore a diamond tiara and necklace along with an encrusted dress. She also clutched white gloves as she greeted her guests 

Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe) wearing a black cire evening gown by Mainbocher (left) and a spiral aquamarine-and-diamond headdress by Cartier, with her dog. She was a high society figure with high profile friends. Pictured right: Lady Mendl and Mrs William Vanderbilt

Chairs were taken out to the lawn so guests could enjoy the lavish bash thrown by Lady Mendl at her mansion in July, 1939

Guests were pictured on cushions perched on the steps of Lady Mendl’s French home. The party surrounded the mansion with circus acts outside and dancing indoors

Lady Mendal had a formidable fitness regime and learned to swim at 60. Her advice was ‘Never mix your food and always suit your breakfast to the kind of work you are to do during the day’. Pictured: In her gymnasium costume after a strenuous workout

Lady Mendl became a frequent figure at charity events Left to right: Edna Woolman Chase, Editor of Vogue Magazine, Lady Mendi (Elsie De Wolfe) and Dr. William Howard Hay who were among the speakers at a lecture at Sherry’s to hear a number of prominent authorities give their views on ‘What is Charm’

Cocktails were served at the outside bar while women in fur coats queued up with men in tailcoats. Two months later, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland and the second ever annual ball was the last

Champagne on ice before the party. Crates upon crates of alcohol were delivered to the mansion for a bubbly reception and gin cocktails in the garden

Elsie De Wolfe became famous for her pearl necklaces. She was a fashion icon and was labelled the ‘best dressed woman in society’ by her peers 

Images from the mansion show the sheer size of the home of the Mendls. The carefully landscaped garden was enjoyed by guests at the lavish bash

American actress and society star Elsie de Wolfe (right in 1905) was acrobatic late in life and was known for performing cartwheels and headstands (left) 

Lady Mendl’s dress was covered in sparking butterflies and a cape was pinned with shining broaches. She partied with much younger guests as she remained a well-known socialite 

Elsie de Wolfe, (Lady Mendl) wearing a sleeveless, ankle-length black dress with lace collar and pearl necklace, while reclining on a banquette at Villa Trianon, her home in Versailles, France

Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe) impersonating Mistinguett at a birthday party for Elsa Maxwell, in Paris. The actress was adored by her audience 

Years after her death the contents of Elsie’s home were auctioned off. Pictured: The dining room in September 1983 at the ‘Villa Trianon’ at Versailles

The interior design pioneer authored the influential 1913 book ‘The House In Good Taste’. Pictured: Actress Lady Mendl At The Chateau De L’horizon

Lady Mendl’s Living Room: The cover of House and Gardens in May 1941 was the sitting room at the St. Regis, which were the socialite’s WWII New York quarters

Miss Elsie de Wolfe (left), former actress and celebrated interior designer, with Miss Anne Morgan (center) and theatrical and literary agent Miss Elizabeth Marbury

Despite marrying a diplomat Lady Mendl remained an extroverted woman who was known for headstands and handsprings. Pictured in 1940

The villa was left untouched for decades but eventually the treasures of Lady Mendl, who had no children, were auctioned off in Paris

Lady Mendl became known for wearing a three-row string of pearls. According To The New Yorker ‘interior design as a profession was invented by Elsie de Wolfe’


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