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...a sweatshop of moxie

Monday, August 07, 2006

My Favourite Lesbian

Modern-day lesbians are as dull as dishwater, and almost as blog-worthy.

Either they're in long-term commitments, juggling the same boring mortgage, 2.3 (adopted) kids, and testy menages which heterosexuals have had to deal with since the year dot...


They look like dishevelled, crop-haired lumberjacks who wouldn't know about lesbian chic if Karl Lagerfeld smacked them upside the head.

Whatever happened to dazzlingly fun, intriguing lesbians, half inside the closet, half bursting out of it with Souzaphones blaring, like Elsa Maxwell?

If you've never heard of Elsa Maxwell, shame on you.

She was only the most famous society hostess of the 20th century!

Ahh, what a world that must have been: where your livelihood could actually be described as "society hostess".

Try that today, and see how far your resumé takes you at Goldman-Sachs.

Here are some quick biographical hits, to better aquaint you with this one-of-a-kind lady, who just happened to fancy other ladies, but didn't make a big song-and-dance out of it (unless someone footed the bill).

They are the reasons why I love the memory of this rotund American, the hostess with very much the mostest.


"I make enemies deliberately. They are the sauce piquante to my dish of life."

Like that wonderful bugger, Oscar Wilde, she was never rude unintentionally.

As a hostess, she knew nothing makes a party take on a more electric charge, than the meeting of two people who loath each.

She would deliberately invite ex-husbands and wives to grace her parties, or men who would just as easily duel each other at 30 paces, as eat canapés across the ballroom.

This is brilliant.

Of course, to successfully pull this off, you have to throw a party for dozens, if not hundreds, else fisticuffs or Dynasty bitchslaps might break out. Restraint, after all, was never the forté of our post-nuclear generation.

But still...she hated smarmy niceness, as all sophisticates do.

And though she was an unrepentant American, I've no doubt the current "Have a Nice Day" attitude of her compatriots would have her climbing the walls.

Niceness is all very well, but save it for Sunday sermon.

I say this with a heavy heart, mind you. One of the greatest disappointments of my life, was that I was born depressingly nice.

Not that I'm not capable of being a total harridan, you understand. Just that my Aristotelian personality demands balance at all times -- and niceness is the best antidote to daily extremes.

I would never have cut it on Elsa's party circuit.


She invented a game called the International Daisy Chain.

Basically, it's like Six Degrees of Separation to Kevin Bacon, only with leather boots and Wesson oil.

It goes like this:

One person throws out two names.

The next person has to come up with another name, which slept with the first one, prompting the next person to shout out another name, who slept with the second.

At the end, you have to have connected the first person to the last, sexually, in as few hook-ups as possible.

Ooh! Me next!

Laura Bush and Madonna.

Your go!

...actually, Noel Coward paid Elsa Maxwell the best compliment of them all.

He said that, alongside the Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich and Cole Porter, Elsa Maxwell was the best international daisy chain "card" to hold.

She could connect Greta Garbo to Eleanor Roosevelt, in no time at all. Heh.


Elsa Maxwell was born Keokuk, Iowa, whilst her heavy-with-child mother was watching a performance of Mignon at the local opera house (good grief, there's opera in Iowa?).

From these humble but not unaccomplished beginnings, there burned inside Elsa Maxwell, an irrepressible sense of not being quite good enough.

All her life, she had the sensation that there was a better place out there, which was barred to her, but instead of sulking, she was determined to kick down the door.

Once, when the richest little girl in town gave a party down the street from her in San Francisco (where she grew up), Elsa was the only girl not to be invited, seering her soul with a deep resentment of how the rich and powerful can be so cruel with their power.

It was then that the germ of her later immortal parties, was formed.

One day, she would throw parties where the rich and titled came to humble themselves, gladly, in her presence.

Stories still abound of the time she made the Queen of Spain, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and Gloria Vanderbilt the Elder sit on the floor, around in a circle, trying to see who could blow a feather off a pillow, the farthest.

Why? Because!

It was an Elsa Maxwell do.

And what's more, they liked it, too.

But most of all, I like Elsa Maxwell because she was the quintessential American success story.

Without wanting to, she embodied that American genius for being born without a sous, and by dint of your own personality, you take nothing and make it into something.

She did all of this, times two, and on top of that, she did it in 3 continents.

Unlike American expatriate salon hostess, and railroad heiress, Nathalie Barney, she wasn't a TFB at birth, luxuriating her time between petit-fours and poetry readings with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

Unlike Colette, she wasn't particularly GOOD at anything.

Elsa Maxwell's best-known accomplishment in life, apart from having been born with perfect pitch (which ironically, made music almost unbearable to her, as one false note would send shivers down her spine), was that she did "impersonations".

In her autobiography, she is seen dressed up as William Jennings Bryan, giving one of his fiery "cross of gold" speeches.

Close your eyes and picture a 300 lb woman dressed as America's finest early 20th century (male) orator.

Musta been somethin'.

And finally, unlike her old pal/nemesis/knitting circle wannabe, the already mentioned Duchess of Windsor, she didn't even marry to improve her fortunes.

No, Elsa Maxwell did it on her own.

At the end of her life, she was seen tooling around St. Moritz wearing lederhosen, riding around on the back of a motorcycle, holding onto the waist of some butch gay guy.

All right. She did it on a dare.

But the lesson of Elsa Maxwell's life is, she DID it.

And what's more, she did it in style.

When presented to Queen Mary, she took the old queen's hand, started her curtsey, and promptly keeled over like the Titanic on all fours.

She got up, dusted herself off, and carried on as if nothing had happened.

See, she was a living testament that, if the spirit is sufficiently alive to life's possibilities, nothing can keep a good woman down.

Except maybe three Brandy Alexanders.


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