History Lesson: Elsie De Wolfe "America’s First Decorator"
“Known as “America’s first decorator,” De Wolfe boasted a lifestyle as glamorous as her decor. Born in New York City in 1865, her history reads not just as one wild romance and adventure novel, but several different ones. In her youth, she was educated in Scotland and was presented at court to Queen Victoria, but soon after returned to the U.S. and became a professional actress. By around 1887 she shared a “Boston marriage” (a term for two single women living together, attributed to Henry James’s The Bostonians) with successful literary agent Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury. And later in life, she even gained the title of Lady when she married British diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, at the age of 61.
But early on in De Wolfe’s life, it was her onstage style and wardrobe—couture ensembles from Paris—that caught people’s eyes more than her acting chops. She successfully restyled the house on Irving Place that she shared with Marbury, eschewing the stuffy Victorian decorating approach of her day by decluttering, simplifying, and warming up its gloomy and too-busy interiors. That led to a commission to decorate the Colony Club—the city’s first elite social club exclusively for women—which could list members with surnames like Whitney, Morgan, Harriman, and Astor. De Wolfe blazed a trail as she became the most popular decorator of her time, handing out business cards emblazoned with her signature wolf and nosegay motif.
De Wolfe went on to decorate a home she and Marbury bought in Versailles for social gatherings, and took on vast redecorating projects for clients including Condé Nast, the Fricks, and the Hewitts. Her pioneering anti-Victorian style of brighter, airier, and more streamlined and refined rooms than the era dictated is still celebrated today.” Source
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