Thursday, October 11, 2012

Gay Iowa History: Elsa Maxwell

Gay and lesbian voices from Iowa, or related to our state, almost always (until recently) been edited out or obscured. This is an attempt during National LGBT History Month to identify some of those men and women with Iowa links who have spoken through literature, media, the arts and other ways --- and made a difference.

Elsa Maxwell with Cole Porter, 1937.

MAXWELL, ELSA, the "hostess with the mostest." The irrepressible Elsa Maxwell once described herself as "a short, fat, homely piano player from Keokuk, Iowa, with no money, no background (who) decided to become a legend and did just that!"

Maxwell was born into an old Keokuk family in Keokuk on May 24, 1883. According a popular legend, her mother, Laura (Wyman) Maxwell, miscalculated Elsa's projected date of birth and as a result, she was born in a theater box during a performance of the opera, "Mignon." She also, however, may simply have been born at home. Her father, James D. Maxwell, was a music teacher at the time. When Elisa was a child, the family moved to San Franciso, where her father sold insurance and wrote on a freelance basis and Elsa was raised.

Elsa launched her career by staging (for a fee) treasure-hunt, come-as-your-opposite and various other types of parties for the idle rich. She became a wildly popular hostess and parlayed that after World War II into a career as a wildly popular gossip columnist, continuing to entertain on a grand scale. She took credit, among other things, for introducing Rita Hayworth to Prince Aly Khan and Aristotle Onassis to Maria Callas, whom she also, reportedly, unsuccessfully pursued herself.

After a long and lively career, Maxwell died of heart failure on Nov. 1, 1963, age 80, in Manhattan, survived by her longtime friend, Dorothy "Dickie" Fellowes-Gordon. Fewer than 100 gathered soon thereafter to say goodbye to the woman who had entertained millions in one way or another. She was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, Westchester County, New York.

1 comment:

Bill Edwards said...

The correct year of birth for Elsa is 1881, as per her 1882 Christening, various passport records and passenger lists, and her Social Security data. 1883 was one of many myths perpetuated by Elsa throughout her life. For further confirmation, check out Inventing Elsa Maxwell by Sam Staggs.