Wednesday 15 November 2017

Queen of the Party

Is it too early to think about a New Year party? I suppose it doesn’t matter what the occasion is.

Have you ever wanted to be at one of those star-studded Hollywood parties of the 1930s, 40s or 50s with celebrities left, right and centre? There doesn’t seem to be that many around these years, star-studded parties that is, not celebrities. Celebrities are everywhere. Just reading about all those interminably dull “celebrity/real life” television programmes proves that you call claim to be a celebrity just by being the brother of a film star’s dog-walker. Even the Kardashians are nobodies with their own tv series, nothing more.

But who am I to complain? Perhaps I’m just jealous. I’ve been on my fair share on television and radio programmes over the decades. No-one has ever referred to me as a celebrity. I’ve never had an invitation to a celebrity party and, as the lesbian who invented the celebrity party single-handed might have said, if you don’t get invited to a celebrity party you’re a nobody.

That lesbian’s name is Elsa Maxwell (1883-1963). For someone who spent her adult social life in the company of kings and princes Elsa’s origins are very humble. She was born in Keokuk, Iowa. The family moved to San Francisco when she was little.
Elsa Maxwell
The origin of Elsa’s enthusiasm for parties is said to come from an incident in her childhood when her parents were left off the quest list of an event hosted by one of the famously rich Vanderbilt family. Details of the story vary but, ironically, later in life when her parties were the talk of high society Elsa could claim that her parties had more Vanderbilts than anyone else. There’s nothing to indicate otherwise.

Elsa tried her hand at many things, with only modest success. She was songwriter and singer and would sometimes play the piano and sing at her parties. She acted in several films and was a theatre impresario. But it was her parties that made her as famous as the celebrities she invited to them.

It wasn’t just the food and entertainment that Elsa spent so much time over. The guests themselves were specifically chosen to bring sparks to the party. For instance, it was Elsa who introduced the film star Rita Hayworth to Prince Aly Khan, father of the present Aga Khan, at one of her parties. They married soon afterwards. In the 1920s Elsa encouraged the talents of songwriter Cole Porter, with whom she became great friends after initially finding him irritating.

Perhaps the biggest contribution Elsa made to partying was the development of the scavenger hunt and treasure hunt. Her imagination knew no bounds when planning them. In 1927 her star-studded Paris party caused an uproar around the city as guests dashed around the streets hunting for such items as a shoe belonging to the music hall star Mistinguett (she has to perform barefoot that night), a live black swan (which bit several people who had to be sent to hospital) and a pom-pom from a French sailor’s hat (the lgbt designer Elsie de Wolfe was arrested by the French Navy for theft). How could anyone top a party like that?

Well, Elsa Maxwell continued to do so for another 32 years. If later scavenger hunts never lived up to the Paris 1927 standard there were also the party themes which equalled them. Every invitation gave the party’s theme and dress code. One theme was “Come as you were dressed when you received this invitation”. Guests arrived in a wide variety of formal and informal wear and in various stages of undress. At other parties guests were asked to dress as their opposite gender.

The success of Elsa’s parties meant that she became the go-to person for the media on matters of entertaining and celebrity gossip. She wrote a syndicated gossip column and hosted her own radio show. She made regular appearances on NBC’s “The Jack Paar’s Tonight Show”.

Elsa Maxwell partied right up until the last few weeks of her death at the age of 82 in 1963. By this time she was in a wheelchair, but she was determined to attend the annual “April in Paris” ball. She died the following week.

Elsa’s heir was her partner since 1912, a Scottish singer called Dorothy Fellowes Gordon. They kept their relationship discreet but they were acknowledged as “companions”.

Modern parties don’t seem to have the same level of excitement as Elsa’s, judging by the dull parties we see in the gossip media or “celebrity” reality shows. It’s all alcohol and individual high jinks. Even the fabled parties of Sir Elton John are dull compared to Elsa Maxwell’s.

So, if you want to host a really good party take inspiration from Elsa Maxwell. Choose your guests carefully. Invite new people who will add to the atmosphere. Create your own scavenger hunt or treasure hunt. Scavenger hunts in particular offer the best opportunity for limitless imagination. Not everyone can have real celebrities at their party but at least you can have fun trying to find one in the scavenger hunt.

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