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Wolfe, Elsie.

After All.


De Wolfe, Elsie (Lady Mendl). After All. London…:William Heinemann Ltd., (1935).
8vo.; upper hinge cracked; inscription faintly offset through to half-title; red cloth; spine stamped in gilt. In a specially made cloth slipcase.
First edition of this autobiography of the legendary interior designer and hostess, with fourteen black and white photographic illustrations. This is de Wolfe's third book, preceded by A House in Good Taste (1913), and Recipes for Successful Dining (1934). While this was first published in 1935, someone has written a "2" over the "3" in ink on the copyright year; possibly this was done as a joke by de Wolfe herself, as she mentions three different years to a friend in her inscription.  Also included in this book is a humorous seven page reprint of an invitation for a party thrown at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City, from 1911.
A presentation copy, inscribed: To Vera / a Lovely!! With my love / Elsie Mendl / 1926. Who was Elsie de Wolfe long ago / 1925 / Versailles / Dec 10th, 1939.
De Wolfe is celebrated as the first woman interior designer in America, as well as an internationally acclaimed hostess - she threw parties at her residences in New York City, Paris, Versailles and Hollywood - and style maven; it is not too much of a stretch to say she is also the first designer to market a lifestyle that was copied by her friends and the public. At the end of her memoir, she reveals her secrets to living the "fabulous life":
 But all of these things, pastiche, good clothes, vitality, love of adventure, lively interests,
 must fail unless one waves over them the magic wand of self-control and a cheerful
attitude towards life. Nothing ages a woman like worry or a bad  temper. I try always to be an optimist. I refrain from discussing my troubles. A  cushion which accompanies me everywhere on my travels expresses my  philosophy. On it is embroidered, "Never complain. Never explain." Complaints create discontent and they are ruinous to the equanimity which makes the wheels of life run smoothly. As for explanations, they require too much energy and they are often futile.
In the next paragraph, she continues:
Looking at my life as I have lived it I have no illusions that I have achieved greatness or
even approached it. But I do feel that my first timid plunge into the field of Interior
Decoration opened up a new and satisfying career for women, and that carrying on in it, I
have done my part in awakening my countrywomen as a  whole to the necessity and the
possibility of beauty in their lives and their surroundings…. I rejoice that I was born with
the courage to live. Only those are unwise who have never dared to be fools.
De Wolfe (1865-1950) was born at the mid-point of the Victorian era in New York City, the second of five children. She grew up with the conviction that she was ugly; both of her parents told her this repeatedly throughout her childhood. When she was 14, she visited her father's ancestral home in Wolfsville, Nova Scotia (where the name "De Wolfe" originated), and she was struck by the estate's French country architecture and interior decoration. This was a turning point in de Wolfe's life; she would seek out, thenceforward, and note the characteristics of beautiful interiors, later replicating what she liked in her own homes. She also learned the importance of fine clothes and make-up; a concept that was especially life-changing for an adolescent who was regularly reminded of her plainness.
After her visit to Wolfsville, de Wolfe was sent to Edinburgh to complete her education; she lived with her mother's cousin, Dr. Archibald Charteris - who acted as Queen Victoria's chaplain at Balmoral - and because of this royal association she was presented at the Queen's court in London when she was seventeen. Suddenly, this "ugly child" was transformed into the belle of the ball; she was frequently invited to London society parties, and, once de Wolfe returned to New York, she continued the party circuit in her hometown. Upon her return, de Wolfe began acting in charity plays - a typical fundraising tactic of the time - and soon made a name for herself as an amateur stage actress. It was at this time that she met the woman who was to become her lifelong love and companion, Elisabeth Marbury, a playwright agent. The pair soon bought Washington Irving's former home on 17th Street and Irving Place in Manhattan; de Wolfe was 22 years old.
By the time she was 30, de Wolfe's acting career had fizzled out and she turned her attention to interior design. She had always given care and attention to her surroundings, even helping friends decorate their houses. She recounts in After All: "Whether one is conscious of it or not, ugliness or inadequacy in one's surroundings must have a frustrating influence, while beauty and fitness lift one beyond the nagging details of life, giving a sense of security and peace." This philosophy  represents a lifelong pursuit of beauty in her life. She continues the story of her design revelation; while sitting with Marbury and Sara Cooper Hewitt, she recalls: "One day … Elisabeth, seconded by Sara, exclaimed, 'Elsie, that is just your métier! You have a natural gift for colour and arrangement. Why not go ahead and be America's first woman decorator?' … So what had become a dream blossomed into reality, I had found my niche in life."
De Wolfe was soon commissioned to decorate several private residences - like the second floor of the Frick mansion - and public spaces for New York's elite class; an early and prestigious commission - for which her appointment as decorator was the source of some criticism - was the Stanford White-designed Colony Club. Her method was to strip the houses she worked on of all Victorian trappings: dark curtains, beaded lamps and crowded groupings of dark-wooded furniture. She painted walls either white, cream or light grey; filled the rooms with mirrors to create the illusion of more space; retained natural light; used flowered chintz or Toile de Jouy fabrics as curtains or for upholstery; and mixed a variety of styles of furniture to create a visual unity in each room. These ideas were novel to the pervading stuffy Victorian sensibility of the time.
De Wolfe and Marbury began spending much of their time abroad after Marbury purchased the Villa Trianon, at Versailles, in 1903. For de Wolfe, it was a decorator's dream, and she delighted in restoring and redesigning the interior. In a surprising decision in 1926 - when de Wolfe was 60 years old - she married Sir Charles Mendl, an attaché of the British embassy in Paris, making her Lady Mendl. This seems to have been more of a publicity stunt than an act of love; she even remarks, "Our marriage created something of a sensation, both at home and abroad. For some reason or another, although all of my friends knew that Charles and I had been seeing a great deal of each other, they had never thought of either of us as the marrying kind," and goes on to say she still lived life as if she were single.
De Wolfe's success eventually-inevitably-took her to Hollywood, where she decorated, hosted parties and dispensed her advice on how to live well, and have fun while doing it. She was fearless and daring, not only in her design sense but also in her life: she flew in an airplane with Wilbur Wright in 1908 (making her one of the first women to fly); learned to fox-trot; did headstands and gymnastics well into her 70s; and dyed her hair blue. On a more serious note, de Wolfe had also been active in the Women's Auxiliary of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; supported suffragists; and dressed soldiers burn wounds from World War I, earning her the Croix de Guerre and the ribbon of the French Legion of Honor.  
Notable American Women: 1607-1950. A Biographical Dictionary. Volume I; A-F.
"Elsie De Wolfe."Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 4: 1946-1950. American Council of Learned Societies, 1974. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2006.

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