Monday, May 24, 2010

The Hostess with the Mostess

One of our all time favorite tomes is How to Do It, or The Lively Art of Entertaining, by the indefatigable Miss Elsa Maxwell. Miss Maxwell was, in her own words, "...a short, fat, homely piano player from Keokuk, Iowa, with no money or background, [who] decided to become a legend and did just that." Yet for all her unloveliness and lack of Social Register standing, through her ingenious flair for ingratiating herself with the "right" people, Maxwell became society's premiere party giver, hobnobbing with the eclectic likes of Maria Callas, Bernard Baruch, Prince Aly Khan, the Duke of Alba, and practically every other Hollywood and Broadway celebrity, blue blood, and bona fide royal of the last mid-century. Truly, by the 1950's, when How to Do It was first published, Maxwell was every bit as famous (if not more so) than the people she gave parties for and wrote about in her syndicated gossip column.

Unfortunately, Maxwell also had a self-destructive streak which may have found its perfect outlet in the rise and advent of television. As a "name," Maxwell was a frequent guest on the various talk, chat and news programs of the day. The medium gave Maxwell the largest possible audience to whom she could dispense her views and opinions; but it also put into sharp focus the real woman beneath the Patou and Jean Desses gowns. While Maxwell's columns and books had presented her as a basically benign, starstruck name-dropper extraordinaire, Maxwell's television appearances showed a loud, garrulous, inelegant woman with, conflictingly, an intense dislike and distrust for anything outside of her very small realm of "right" society. Armchair psychologists might suggest that Maxwell's loud protestations against those she considered "bores" and "vulgarians" was, in some way, self-flagellation for her own less-than-pristine roots. Widely considered among her friends and enemies as a lesbian, Maxwell also railed vehemently and viciously against homosexuality - which certainly must have been an interesting topic of conversation when she palled around with Noel, Cole and Cecil. (For more on this subject, we direct you to our friend Brooks' fascinating site, An Open Book.)

When Maxwell died in 1963, there were only a dozen mourners at her funeral; she had alienated many of her true friends, and those fair-weather acquaintances who had only wanted a coveted Maxwell party invitation had long outgrown their use for a woman who had become an anachronism by that point. Hindsight being 20/20, though, we can be kind to Elsa Maxwell. She was, after all, "a short, fat, homely piano player from Keokuk, Iowa, with no money or background," and most likely a lesbian, to boot. One can only imagine, given the times and the crowd she desperately wanted to be a part of, how that affected her psychologically, and the obvious conflict it caused within her. With another half-century's worth of perspective behind us, let's simply celebrate the fact that a short, fat, homely piano player could find herself, albeit temporarily, at the very pinnacle of fame and glamour. So throw a party today, for no reason at all, and raise your glass to Miss Maxwell on her birthday. We'll even give you a menu from some of her favorite recipes for the event.

May 24, 1881 - November 1, 1963


Mrs. T. Reed (Diana) Vreeland's Consommé Vert-Pré
Mrs. Edgar Leonard's Trout

Valerian Rybar's Artichokes a la Greque
Clare Boothe Luce's Cumberland House Orange Pancakes

Consommé Vert-Pré

Make a very good rich bouillon. Add enough spinach juice to color it green, and just before serving, add finely chopped fines herbes. Serve hot or iced.


Put juice of 1 lemon in ice cold water. Dip trout into this, then dry with a cloth rubbed in garlic. Salt and pepper the trout inside and dust lightly with flour outside. Saute trout in butter, shaking pan to prevent sticking. Cook about 3 minutes on each side. Remove trout from pan and keep warm. Add more butter to pan and saute 1 medium onion, thinly sliced, until onion is transparent but not brown. Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice, salt and pepper, 1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar, 4 or 5 tablespoons white wine, 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh herbs. Pour sauce over the trout.

Artichokes a la Greque

Clean 6 choice, large artichokes, and snip off the tip of each leaf. Mix 1/2 cup of bread crumbs with salt, pepper, 1/2 clove of finely chopped garlic, and 2 tablespoons of finely chopped parsley. Then stuff each leaf. Place the artichokes in a pan and 1/2 cup of water, taking care not to spill any on the artichokes. Pour 3 tablespoons of pure olive oil over each artichoke. Salt and pepper lightly, and let simmer for 2 hours, replenishing water when necessary. Serve lukewarm.

Cumberland House Orange Pancakes

Cream 1/4 pound sweet butter with 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar. Gradually beat in the juice and grated rind of 2 oranges. Turn this orange hard sauce into a jar and let it harden in refrigerator. Beat 3 egg yolks lightly, and add a pinch of salt and 1 cup milk. Stir in gradually 3/4 cup sifted flour, and continue to stir until batter is smooth. Finally fold in 3 egg whites, stiffly beaten. In heavy iron skillet heat a generous amount of sweet butter over a low fire. When butter foams, pour in 1/2 cup of pancake batter. When the pancake sets, loosen it carefully with a turner and keep it afloat in the butter until the underside is golden. Turn the pancake, add more butter, and keep pancake loose by shaking the skillet constantly until the pancake is crisp and brown on both sides. (Keep fire low or the butter will burn.) Repeat until all batter is used. Drain the pancakes on absorbent paper, then fold each quickly around 1 tablespoonful of the cold orange hard sauce., and serve them on a piping hot fireproof dish - so hot the butter sizzles. A dash of Cointreau added at the table enhances the flavor.


  1. i just love that shot of her with callas. she looks as if she just walked in the door after plowing the back forty, without a horse.

    and i must remark on the book cover....pinky extended whenever you swill down another doughnut!

  2. True story: I once told Marcia Cross who Elsa Maxwell was, at a photo exhibit.

  3. normadesmond - "i just love that shot of her with callas. she looks as if she just walked in the door after plowing the back forty, without a horse." Who, Callas?

    Donna - Of course, if Elsa were still around today, you'd have to explain who Marcia Cross is! (I actually had to think for a moment when I read the name.)

  4. oh my're feeling chipper today! just come from the salon with a fresh set? jungle reddest?

    donna, here's the real you think she took your unselfish act to heart? does marcia remember what she was taught?

  5. Is that artichoke recipe correct? You stuff each leaf?

    I guess Elsa had a chef and didn't cook her own meals.

  6. Callas's husband wrote a book MY WIFE, MARIA CALLAS in which he says many unkind things about Maxwell. Beginning with "Elsa Maxwell was the ugliest woman I have ever seen," and ending (several pages later) with the lament that it was Maxwell "who introduced my wife to a certain circle of people who were rich but deceitful, without purpose in life, and involved in questionable business pursuits....The change in Maria that caused her to leave me in 1959 probably started after her introduction to that witch..."

    He says Maxwell was in love with Callas and deluged her with passionate letters and obsessive phone calls until Callas called a halt to things, after which Maxwell claimed, "You destroyed my love for you...I do not reproach you for anything, except for the fact you could have crushed these feelings before it was too late," and declared she would remain "your most eloquent defense lawyer. I took on your enemies, Maria, of whom you have many!"

    Even allowing for Meneghini's bias, it would seem Maxwell's behavior was pretty close to that of a 12 year old girl in the grip of raging hormones with no checks on her behavior or any awareness of a reality outside of her fantasy world.

    Are we sure Maxwell wasn't really a gay man?

  7. Norma, you just made me scream. In that shot, she looks like Peter Lorre in drag after playing a 3 hour badminton game in the middle of the Mojave Desert! LOL

    Schweigsame, I still know people like that! My best friend (female) is stalked by a bulky, wannabee, single white female type who has all these 5th grade petty issues. Very tiresome...

    TJB, I know you must cherish that book. I LOVE old, odd books like that. My favorite part of the cover was that she's daintily handling that doughnut, but there's a partially unfinished one on the saucer and a plate with three more on the table. Jesus Christ!

  8. What a wonderful blog! I'm sorry to see it appears to have gone fallow. Well done while it lasted!

  9. Yes, I was enjoying this as I was watching something on Youtube about Maria Callas, which came about while watching something about Lee Radziwill and now Elsa! She was pretty fascinating and I'd like to read more about her, but I must say she gives me the creeps.