Elsie de Wolfe referred to herself as a “rebel in an ugly world.” During Elsie’s heyday from 1926 to her death in 1950, the rest of the world just called her Lady Mendl.
In 1913, Elsie wrote what may have been the one of the first great books on interior design, The House in Good Taste. She became well known in New York, Paris, and London, and was believed by some to be the person who first invented the profession of interior design. Whether or not that’s the case, Elsie de Wolfe could include some very influential people among her clientele, such as Ann Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Windsor, and Adelaide Frick.
Elsie’s decorating style often featured light, fresh colors, and she was responsible for brightening the interiors of some of the most impressive Victorian homes of her era. She was NOT a fan of the dark nature of traditional Victorian décor, and worked diligently to change it as much as possible.
Interestingly, Elsie de Wolfe started out as an actress, making her debut on the stage in 1890 as a member of the Empire Stock Company. She later formed her own stock company, and became interested in interior design while working on the sets for plays. In 1903, she left the theatre for good to pursue her passion for decorating houses.
Her first commission came in 1905, in a building at 120 Madison Avenue in New York City, which became the city’s premiere women’s social club. (In an ironic twist of fate, that building is now home to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.) Elsie’s success on that project led to a very lucrative career, which saw her make a million dollars over a twenty-year period; a considerable sum at that time.
When she married diplomat Sir Charles Mendl in 1926, the New York Times described Lady Mendl as “one of the most widely known women in New York social life.” She was even mentioned in one of the popular songs of the day, Irving Berlin’s “Harlem on My Mind,” in which the legendary songwriter mentions a “high-falutin’ flat that Lady Mendl designed.”
In 1935, Paris experts named Lady Mendl the best-dressed woman in the world, which was high praise, coming from best-known the place in the world for high fashion at the time. In her clothes as well as her interior design, she lived by the motto she had embroidered on taffeta pillows in her parlor: “Never complain, never explain.”