Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Elsie de Wolfe ... The Lady-Socialite who invented Modern Interior Decoration ...

Elsie de Wolfe 1880

Elsie de Wolfe (also known as Lady Mendl (December 20, 1865? – July 12, 1950) was an American actress, interior decorator, nominal author of the influential 1913 book The House in Good Taste, and a prominent figure in New York, Paris, and London society. According to The New Yorker, "Interior Design as a profession was invented by Elsie de Wolfe." During her married life, the press usually referred to her as Lady Mendl.

In the 18th century, interior decoration was the purview of upholsterers (who sold fabrics and furniture) and architects (who employed a variety of craftsmen and artisans to complete interior design schemes for clients). In the 19th century, the skills of designers such as Candace Wheeler and design firms such as Herter Brothers were well known. De Wolfe reaped publicity and was one of the field's most famed practitioner in the early 1900s, a period that also saw an increase of interest in interior design in the popular press. Among her clients were Anne Vanderbilt, Anne Morgan, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Milbank Anderson (philanthropist) and Adelaide and Henry Clay Frick . She transformed the design of wealthy homes from the dark Victorian style into designs featuring light, fresh colors and a reliance on 18th-century French furniture and reproductions.

In her autobiography, de Wolfe—born Ella Anderson de Wolfe and the only daughter of a Canadian-born doctor—calls herself a "rebel in an ugly world." Speaking of herself in the third person, she says that her mother said often that she was ugly, but "just what ugly was she did not know... Now she was to know." Arriving home from school, she found that her parents had redecorated the drawing-room:

She ran [in]... and looked at the walls, which had been papered in a [William] Morris design of gray palm-leaves and splotches of bright red and green on a background of dull tan. Something terrible that cut like a knife came up inside her. She threw herself on the floor, kicking with stiffened legs, as she beat her hands on the carpet.... she cried out, over and over: "It's so ugly! It's so ugly."
Hutton Wilkinson, president of the Elsie de Wolfe Foundation, notes that of course many things that De Wolfe hated, such as "pickle and plum Morris furniture," are prized by museums and designers; he believes that “De Wolfe simply didn’t like Victorian—the high style of her sad childhood—and chose to banish it from her design vocabulary."

De Wolfe appeared with The Amateur Comedy Club in New York City as Lady Clara Seymour in "A Cup of Tea," (April 1886), and as Maude Ashley in "Sunshine," a one act comedy by Fred W. Broughton (December 1886). De Wolfe began her professional career in theatre, making her debut as an actress in Sardou's Thermidor in 1891, playing the rôle of Fabienne with Forbes-Robertson. In 1894 she joined the Empire Stock Company under Charles Frohman. In 1901 she brought out The Way of the World under her own management at the Victoria Theatre, and later she toured the United States with this play. On stage, she was neither a total failure nor a great success; one critic called her “the leading exponent of . . . the peculiar art of wearing good clothes well.” She became interested in interior decorating as a result of staging plays, and in 1903 she left the stage to launch a career as a decorator.

In 1905, Stanford White, the architect for The Colony Club and a longtime friend, helped de Wolfe secure the commission for its interior design. The building, located at 120 Madison Avenue (near 30th Street), became the premier women's social club. (It is now occupied by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts) The success of this endeavor was a turning point that launched her on a financially successful career.

Marriage and family
De Wolfe's 1926 marriage to diplomat Sir Charles Mendl was page-one news in the New York Times. Shortly after her marriage, she scandalized French diplomatic society when she attended a fancy-dress ball dressed as a Moulin Rouge dancer and made her entrance turning handsprings. A guest chided her: "Elsie, it is wonderful to be able to turn handsprings at your age. But, after all, you are, you are Charlie's wife, and do you think it is in perfect taste for the wife of a diplomat to perform acrobatics in a ballroom?"

The Times said that "the intended marriage comes as a great surprise to her friends," perhaps because since 1892 de Wolfe had been living openly in what many observers accepted as a lesbian relationship. As the Times put it: "When in New York she makes her home with Miss Elizabeth Marbury at 13 Sutton Place."

The daughter of a prosperous New York lawyer, Elisabeth (Bessy) Marbury, like de Wolfe, was also a career pioneer. She was one of the first theatrical agents, and her clients included Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. During their nearly 40 years together, Marbury was initially the main support of the couple. Dave Von Drehle speaks of "the willowy De Wolfe and the masculine Marbury... cutting a wide path through Manhattan society. Gossips called them "the Bachelors."

In 1926 the New York Times described de Wolfe as "one of the most widely known women in New York social life," and in 1935 as "prominent in Paris society." Her morning exercises were famous. In her 1935 autobiography, de Wolfe wrote that her daily regimen at age 70 included yoga, standing on her head, and walking on her hands.

In 1935, Paris experts named her the best-dressed woman in the world, noting that she wore what suited her best, regardless of fashion.

De Wolfe had embroidered taffeta pillows bearing the motto "Never complain, never explain."[23] On first seeing the Parthenon, De Wolfe exclaimed "It's beige—my color!" At her house in France, the Villa Trianon, she had a dog cemetery in which each tombstone read, "The one I loved the best."

American Decades opines that "she was probably the first woman to dye her hair blue, to perform handstands to impress her friends, and to cover eighteenth-century footstools in leopard-skin chintzes."

Elsie de Wolfe, The House in Good Taste, The Century Company, 1913
Reviewed by Sarah E. Mitchell

In The House in Good Taste Elsie argued for plainer, brighter, simpler, yet more refined homes. She advocated the use of softer wall and woodwork colors than perhaps had been popular in the years proceeding; the use of bright chintzes for curtains and upholestry of furniture; the use of furniture in Colonial and European (particularly French) styles, as well as painted and stenciled furniture; plenty of electric, candle, and gas lights; and the use of porcelain bowls, flowers, and other knick-knacks to enhance the rooms. She liked the items in a room to complement one another, but did not think that everything to match; she even said that you did not have to have a matching set of dining-room chairs!

Many of her suggestions were practical and not hugely expensive to carry out (despite the fact that many of her clients were millionaires). She included a chapter on decorating small apartments, and discussed her experience of decorating her various homes in the United States and Europe. (In her chapter on her Villa Trianon in Versailles, France, she was careful to note that they had bargained to get the villa at a price she could afford.)

She liked to use paint on the walls unless the plaster was in bad shape and you needed to cover it with wallpaper (a view I tend to share). She sanctioned the use of reproduction furniture, rather than only antiques, believing that a good reproduction was better than a feeble original.

She also included a chapter on her gardening aesthetic, and information on her use of trelliswork inside and outside.

Elsie de Wolfe's influence continues into the present. Mention is still found upon occasion in contemporary magazines. Elsie may have also influenced my Grandmother's style of interior decorating.

Elsie de Wolfe
The American Pioneer who Vanquished Victorian Gloom
Text by Edgar Munhall
Published January 2000 in Architectural Digest

Though dead for half a century, Elsie de Wolfe remains an icon to this day, revered as America’s first decorator. The key elements of her style are as fresh as ever, and the aura of celebrity she brought to her profession has been passed on from one to another of her successors.

Born in New York City, (“Our home is now Macy’s front door”), ugly little Elsie spent some early years in Scotland and in 1885 was presented at court to Queen Victoria (“a little fat queen in a black dress and a load of jewels”). After having had some success in amateur theatrical circles in New York, she became a professional actress and performed various light comic and historical roles throughout the 1890s. Her appearances, however, were praised more for the clothes she wore than for what she did in them, as de Wolfe enjoyed the unusual arrangement with her producer of being allowed to choose her own wardrobes—usually couture ensembles she ordered in Paris from Paquin, Doucet or Worth.

As early as 1887 de Wolfe had settled into what was then called a “Boston marriage” with Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury, a formidable figure in New York society who also happened to be a wildly successful literary agent and business representative for, among others, Wilde, Shaw, Bernhardt, Sardou, Rostand and Feydeau; she even brought the play Charley’s Aunt to the United States.

After having restyled with some panache the house the two women shared on Irving Place—sweeping out her companion’s Victorian clutter, opening spaces and introducing soft, warm colors and a bit of eighteenth-century French elegance—de Wolfe decided in 1905 to become a professional decorator, issuing smart business cards embellished with her trademark wolf-with-nosegay crest. That same year a group of powerful New York women, named Astor, Harriman, Morgan, Whitney—and Mar- bury, organized the city’s first club exclusively for women, the Colony Club. Its handsome headquarters at Madison and Thirty-first Street were designed by Stanford White, who, along with Mar-bury and other friends on the board, got de Wolfe the commission to do the decoration.

When the Colony opened in 1907, the interiors established her reputation overnight. Instead of imitating the heavy atmosphere of men’s clubs, de Wolfe introduced a casual, feminine style with an abundance of glazed chintz (immediately making her “the Chintz Lady”), tiled floors, light draperies, pale walls, wicker chairs, clever vanity tables and the first of her many trellised rooms. The astonished reaction of the members to her illusionistic indoor garden pavilion put de Wolfe’s name on many lips and led to a number of lucrative commissions across the country.

During the following six years, until her meeting with Henry Clay Frick, de Wolfe did more clubs, a number of private houses, both on the East Coast and in California, a model house (with Ogden Codman, Jr.), opera boxes and a dormitory at Barnard College; she also lectured and published her most influential book, The House in Good Taste. By that time she had a suite of offices and a showroom on Fifth Avenue, with a staff of secretaries, bookkeepers and assistants. She even had imitators.

Sixteen years older than de Wolfe, Frick emerged in the late nineteenth century from the relative obscurity of rural western Pennsylvania to become one of the greatest industrialists of all time, and one of the richest. Early on he had established a monopoly on the supply of coke, or purified coal, to the growing steel industry in Pittsburgh. Andrew Carnegie recognized his managerial talents and made him a partner in 1881. Under Frick’s sharp-eyed supervision, the firm became over the next two decades the largest steel company in the world. But mutual distrust led to a bitter separation of Frick and Carnegie at the turn of the century. By then Frick, his wife and his two children were living more and more in Manhattan, eventually renting, in 1905, one of the two stately Vanderbilt houses designed by Richard Morris Hunt at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street.

Quite apart from his brilliant career as an industrialist, Henry Clay Frick had become recognized as one of the most eminent art collectors of his era. Driven by an innate passion, Frick went, as his fortunes developed, from collecting placid landscapes by Pittsburgh paint-ers, through a foray among fashionable contemporary French and Dutch artists, to assembling a remarkable group of paintings and drawings by artists of the Barbizon School—Corot, Millet, Daubigny—and finally buying his first old-master oil in 1899. From then on, until his death in 1919, Frick acquired some one hundred and fifty paintings that made his collection internationally famous: masterpieces by Bellini, Bronzino, Constable, Degas, Van Dyck, Fragonard, Gainsborough, Goya, El Greco, Hals, Holbein, Manet, Rembrandt, Renoir, Titian, Turner, Veláz-quez, Vermeer, Veronese and Whistler, which now constitute the core of the Frick Collection, one of the world’s finest small museums.

De Wolfe’s realm of the decorative arts did not much preoccupy Frick in his youth. Before retiring to New York, he had lived for twenty years in a Loire Valley-style château in Pittsburgh he named Clayton. During its extensive remodeling in 1892, he supervised his architect closely and had a lot to say about the house’s new furnishings and finishes. It has recently been restored to its full Victorian splendor by Thierry Despont and is open to the public (see Architectural Digest, December 1990). De Wolfe would have hated it.

By the early years of the twentieth century Frick’s taste in architecture and decoration had evolved much as his taste in pictures had, to a degree of understated perfection. Even the Vanderbilt mansion now seemed a little dated, and, in any case, he wanted to build his own Manhattan residence. One of the most desirable properties in the city—a block along a crest of Fifth Avenue between Seventieth and Seventy-first streets—became available in 1912 when the Lenox Library, then standing on the site, was incorporated into the new New York Public Library. Frick acquired the lot for $2.25 million, had the library demolished (though he offered to pay for moving Hunt’s architectural gem elsewhere) and hired Thomas Hastings to design him, in his own words, “a small house with plenty of light and air and land.” The result, completed in 1914—a suave, limestone-clad hôtel particulier in the French Neoclassical mode—has come to be considered one of the most impressive buildings in the United States.

Inside, Frick assigned the decoration of the grand rooms on the first floor, including the ninety-six-foot-long art gallery, to Sir Charles Allom, the leading British architect and interior decorator of the period who had recently redone Buckingham Palace for his yachting pal George V. To Sir Charles, Frick declared: “We desire a comfortable well arranged home, simple, in good taste, and not ostentatious.” The grandeur that Sir Charles achieved through a manipulation of imposing spaces, noble proportions and classical detail, often based on historical precedents, contrasts markedly with the simplicity Frick had requested, but correspondence shows that the client frequently reined in his decorator’s extravagant tendencies.

With the house midway under construction in 1913, Elsie de Wolfe entered the scene, commissioned to decorate the family’s quarters and guest rooms on the second and third floors. How she got the job, nobody knows. Mrs. Frick and her daughter, Helen, might have been familiar with her work at the Colony Club; Sir Charles might have recommended her; or Frick might simply have known of her as New York’s leading decorator. As with everyone else he engaged—architect, butler, chef, chauffeur—for his decorator he would have wanted “only the best.”

De Wolfe was assigned fourteen rooms to do, ranging from Mrs. Frick’s boudoir—complete with eight panels painted by François Boucher for Mme de Pompadour—and Frick’s own solemn, walnut-clad bedroom to the daughter’s library, a pair of rooms for their son, Childs Frick, various guest rooms and the housekeeper’s room. Though all the rooms but the boudoir were demolished in the remodeling of the residence after 1931, photographs indicate that for the Fricks de Wolfe adopted a luxurious, comfortable style, a modified Louis XVI classicism reflecting her long familiarity with majestic French houses and châteaus.

What made the job so appealing to de Wolfe, apart from the prestige of working for such a renowned collector, was the hefty commissions Frick was prepared to pay her on everything she acquired for him, from the mundane pieces supplied by W. & J. Sloane to major examples of eighteenth-century French furniture. This he spelled out in a letter: “I am willing to pay you five (5%) percent upon any item purchased below or up to twenty-five thousand ($25,000.00) dollars, and upon such sum by which it may exceed that sum,—but not to exceed fifty thousand ($50,000.00) dollars—the sum of three (3%) percent; and upon any sum by which it may exceed fifty thousand ($50,000.00) dollars, two and one-half (21/2%) percent.” He went on to point out cautiously: “Where the sum represents the purchase of a set of rugs, vases or suite of furniture, etc., the set to count as one item,” and “You undertake not to accept directly or indirectly any commission, trade discount, cash discount or any other remuneration of any kind, other than your fee from me, and will use all your knowledge and means to purchase to my advantage, both artistically and financially, any and all purchases to have my approval in writing.”

De Wolfe put this policy to good use. Crossing to France with Frick in the summer of 1913, she soon arranged for him to visit the Paris residence on the rue Laffitte of the late Sir John Murray Scott, who had inherited part of the noted collection of French decorative arts assembled by the fourth marquess of Hertford and his son, Sir Richard Wallace. Because Scott’s will was being challenged, his residence was sequestered, but art dealer Jacques Seligmann managed to get de Wolfe and Frick in to make their choices pending the resolution of the lawsuit. Though Frick really wanted to play golf at Saint-Cloud Country Club that morning, de Wolfe captured him for half an hour. Striding through this Aladdin’s cave in his golf shoes, Frick approved one after another of her recommendations, the purchases mounting up into the millions of francs. As she recalled in her memoir, After All, “I realized that in one short half-hour I had become what was tantamount to a rich woman. I was also astounded at the revelation that a businessman, so astute and even cold as Mr. Frick was known to be, could spend a fortune with such nonchalance in order to keep a golf appointment.”

Among the items the two chose that day were a spectacular mahogany bed/worktable with trellis marquetry by Martin Carlin, an equally important mahogany writing table by Jean-Henri Riesener (both of these ended up in Mrs. Frick’s boudoir), a pair of tiny corner cabinets and cupboards attributed to Carlin, and a pair of small Turkish-style console tables supported by Nubian figures. The latter pieces exhibit the miniature scale, whimsy and hint of the exotic that were important elements of de Wolfe’s aesthetic.

Surviving correspondence shows that de Wolfe did not shy away from speaking up to Frick, nor did he spare her sage advice. For instance, when she learned that Sir Charles was to do Frick’s sitting room and the family breakfast room on the second floor,she wrote:

I have thought a great deal about what you said regarding the possibility of my not doing the two rooms on the second floor. . . .

I feel that all my scheme as planned should go together, and that it will be the greatest mistake if these rooms are not carried out by one person. To take two of the principal rooms right out breaks the harmony, and certainly, White-Allom & Co., with all the big downstairs rooms to their credit, should be willing to waive any imaginary claim they may feel they have on the upstairs portion of the house.

I feel very strongly about this, so I write frankly, though it is not in my scheme of creation to fight for work, and I am, believe me, not writing now, impelled by any monetary consideration, but my sincere desire to make for you a complete and harmonious floor, so please, dear Mr. Frick, tell White-Allom that you wish me to do those two rooms on “my” floor and to confine their energies to the downstairs portion.

She then added cryptically: “Did you ever hear the Arab story about the nose of the camel? If you didn’t, I’ll tell it to you some time.” Frick responded blandly: “I regret exceedingly that we cannot give you the two rooms on the second floor . . . owing to my promise to the other party.” By a curious quirk of fate, de Wolfe was later invited by the future Edward VIII to redo Sir Charles’s work at Buckingham Palace, but his abdication nixed that possibility of revenge.

Frick’s reactions to some of de Wolfe’s choices for his house were expressed unhesitatingly: “I looked at your chairs, but, frankly, I do not think I would like them to live with, but am unable to say just why; would have preferred if they had make a different impression,” or: “The Jonas table did not please me,” or: “I could not approve of the purchase of the writing set. If the suggestion had not been made by you, I would think it rather too flashy.” Repeatedly advising her to “secure better prices,” Frick concluded in a letter of December 24, 1914: “I thoroughly appreciate your wonderfully good taste, but you are all wrong on values, and the shrewd art dealer is always around to take advantage of that,—a little weakness of yours. To my mind, the most of them are robbers.”

To suggest the scope of Elsie’s work for Frick, just one bill, dated January 25, 1915, came to $91,351.83. She went on making additional purchases for the house up until Frick’s death in 1919, and correspondence between her and Mrs. Frick continued into 1924. Fortunately, visitors to the Frick Collection today can still view her boudoir (now the Boucher Room) much as it was originally, with its remarkable furniture by Carlin and Riesener; other pieces de Wolfe purchased for her client can be seen elsewhere in the museum. But the harmony of her “scheme” for the private quarters is gone—one more demonstration of the evanescence of the decorator’s art.

Elsie de Wolfe’s career after her adventures with Frick was long and rich. Somewhat surprisingly, she played a heroic role as a volunteer nurse in France during World War I and, even more surprisingly, married British diplomat Sir Charles Mendl in 1926 (she was sixty-one). As the most famous decorator in the world, she counted among her private and most celebrated clients Condé Nast, Paul-Louis Weiller, Cole Porter and the duchess of Windsor. Her influence, however, extended to the public as well. She passed along advice to millions through her articles, interviews, lecture tours and pamphlets.

Villa Trianon at Versailles

The Colony Club

In 1903 Mrs. J. Borden Harriman (president), along with other wealthy women, including treasurer Anne Morgan, daughter of J. P. Morgan, raised the astounding sum of $500,000 and commissioned Stanford White, of the leading architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, to build a home for their newly formed women’s social club, known as the Colony Club. This structure, located on the west side of Madison Avenue just north of 30th Street and built between 1904-1907, was modeled on 18th-century houses in Annapolis, Maryland. The landmarked interiors, which still exist, were created by Stanford White's long-time friend Elsie de Wolfe, a former actress who had recently opened an interior-design business; her companion, theatrical agent Elisabeth Marbury, was one of the club's founders. Wolfe’s adept completion of this commission established her financially successful career as a society decorator. De Wolfe, who became known as America's first decorator, lived in the club during construction, designing interiors ranging from French reproduction to American neo-Colonial styles.

Miss de Wolfe’s later marriage to diplomat Sir Charles Mendl in 1926 (she was sixty-one and became "Lady Mendl") was front page news in the New York Times, which revealed that “the intended marriage comes as a great surprise to her friends.” Since 1892 she had been living openly in a lesbian relationship. As the Times stated, “When in New York, she makes her home with Miss Elisabeth Marbury at 13 Sutton Place.”

When the Colony Club opened in 1907, the interiors established her reputation overnight. Instead of imitating the dark, heavy interiors of most men’s clubs, de Wolfe introduced a casual, feminine style making liberal use of glazed chintz (immediately making her “the Chintz Lady”), tiled floors, light draperies, pale walls, wicker chairs, clever vanity tables and the first of her many trellised rooms. Among her innovations was the installation of ceramic stoves in lieu of fireplaces. The astonished reaction of the members to her iconic indoor garden pavilion (photo below) put de Wolfe’s name on many lips and led to lucrative commissions across the country. Her contract with Henry Clay Frick, which paid commissions on every item she selected, made her a rich woman. Later clients included Cole Porter, Condé Nast and the Duchess of Windsor.

The Federal Revival style building has unusual header-bond brickwork applied in what is known as a diaper pattern (click top photo to enlarge). Sold after the club moved to larger quarters on Park Avenue, the structure serves today as the east coast headquarters of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, housed at this location since 1963. The building was awarded Landmark Status by the City of New York in 1966.

Though the original purpose of the club was to provide athletic facilities, its elite status cemented the social standing of the original 500 subscribers when it opened in 1907. The New York Times published a complete membership roster on the first anniversary of the club. Included were four Vanderbilts, four Whitneys, Mrs. John Jacob Astor and Mrs. Walter Damrosch (her father, Republican politician James Blaine, ran for president of the United States against Grover Cleveland). The ground floor had receiving rooms, and the second floor contained a double-height gymnasium with a running track on the balcony, and an elegant French-style ballroom at the front, with a musicians’ balcony above. In the basement was a swimming pool, which still exists, surrounded by white marble walls and floors, with an illuminated trellised ceiling.

However, there arose a significant problem within a month of the club’s opening. A law prohibiting liquor licenses within 200 feet of a church, without the church's consent, had not been taken into account. Across the street was Madison Avenue Baptist Church, which refused to grant such permission, reflecting its denomination’s strong stance on temperance. While club officers denied that the club even served alcohol, stating that members brought in their own, the presence of a wine room in the basement ran counter to that claim. Further, a disgruntled employee leaked receipts and other documents to the press, including a menu reading, “All wines will be charged by the bottle.” In fact, the club was not able to get a liquor license until it moved north to larger quarters on Park Avenue (photo below).

The club eventually replaced most of its women employees with men, because, as the New York Times reported, “A club officer said that the female employees put themselves on an equal plane with the members and talked too much.”

When vacated by the Colony Club, the original building soon became a WWI hospital, then a club for Catholic girls and later an arts center. When the American Academy of Dramatic Arts moved in, it converted the gym and ballroom to theaters, but made few other major changes. They have recently repaired and cleaned the exterior, and original custom lighting fixtures remain intact. Original mirrored walls also remain unaltered. Fortunately, the limited financial resources of the owners have prevented disposing of original decor and architectural elements. For instance, when the academy considered installing modern windows, its contractor priced new windows at $9,000 each, whereas repairing the original ones cost only $3,000 per window. Also, students do not live in the building, which decreases wear and tear associated with most college structures.

The Academy in New York was founded in 1884 to train actors for the stage, becoming the first school in the United States to offer a professional education in the acting field. Numerous students of the Academy have gone on to distinguished careers throughout the entertainment industry, receiving awards and nominations for Tonys, Oscars and Emmys. Graduates include Lauren Bacall, Anne Bancroft, John Cassavetes, Hume Cronyn, Cecil. B. DeMille, Brad Davis, Danny DeVito, Kirk Douglas, Christine Ebersole, Ruth Gordon, Anne Hathaway, Florence Henderson, Grace Kelly, Agnes Moorehead, William Powell, Robert Redford, Edward G. Robinson, Rosalind Russell, Gene Tierney and Spencer Tracy.
in New York City Travel with Terry

The Colony Club New York by Jeremiah Goodman

Published: June 20, 1982 in The New York Times
. .THE MAN WHO WAS VOGUE The Life and Times of Conde Nast. By Caroline Seebohm. Illustrated. 390 pp. New York: The Viking Press. ELSIE DE WOLFE A Life in the High Style. By Jane S. Smith. Illustrated. 366 pp. New York: Atheneum.

Charlotte Curtis is an associate editor of The New York Times.
SHORTLY before World War I, Elsie de Wolfe was the most celebrated interior decorator in America, a fact not lost on the aspiring Conde Nast, who bought Vogue magazine in 1909, intent upon making it the fashion magazine of the rich and elegant. Mr. Nast's social climb began somewhat after Miss de Wolfe was arriving, if not at the upper aeries of social power, at least at what was to become the most talked about second tier -Cafe Society.

Soon, Mr. Nast's Vogue was publishing pictures and stories about Miss de Wolfe, and she was reciprocating with invitations and introductions to the right people. Eventually, and perhaps more important (and certainly expensive) for Mr. Nast, he hired her to decorate his enormous upper Park Avenue penthouse. He seems to have paid for the project with cash as well as more photographs (including ones of his own penthouse) and stories about her. These appeared not just in Vogue but also in Vanity Fair, his urbane magazine of city life, and in House & Garden, his domestic magazine of interiors and landscape.

By 1925, the year he moved into the penthouse, Mr. Nast had pretty much made it financially and socially, even though he might well have succeeded if Elsie de Wolfe had never been born. But what comes through from a reading of both Caroline Seebohm's detailed new biography of Mr. Nast, ''The Man Who Was Vogue,'' and Jane S. Smith's carefully researched ''Elsie de Wolfe'' is the wonderful way in which New York's social system worked even then: You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.

Miss Smith puts it far more delicately. ''Some people,'' she writes, ''raise the pursuit of superficial pleasures to an art and some turn it to a profit. Elsie ... managed to do both.'' The same could be said for Mr. Nast and any number of designers, columnists, editors, artists, photographers and critics, both then and now. Beyond whatever satisfaction they derived from their work, and in Miss de Wolfe's and Mr. Nast's cases it seems considerable, the profits for the truly successful have almost inevitably included fame and social acceptability as well as fortunes in hard currency.

Mr. Nast regularly used his penthouse as a setting for pictures for his magazines as well as for the huge eclectic parties to which everyone wanted to be invited. Miss de Wolfe's residences, whether in New York, Paris or Versailles, where she owned the exquisite Villa Trianon, were more than homes. They served both as the ultimate showrooms for her revival of 18th-century French furniture and as the salesrooms from which she artfully sold her possessions, quickly replacing what her satisfied customers carried off with some other treasures to tempt future guests at her weekly parties.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the world of Miss de Wolfe and Mr. Nast was populated solely by taste-maker con artists and rich, impres- sionable marks hopeful of acquiring the right look for themselves and their houses. But to some extent that certainly was the case. Yet the best of the taste makers, including Miss de Wolfe and Mr. Nast, were impressive. They had the cultivated eye for discovering, creating or promoting what is intrinsically beautiful or interesting, whether for the moment or the ages, and the canny ability to know when it is time for a change.

Technically, Mr. Nast was an arbiter only by implication, since he owned the magazines and hired the talent. He figured out that businesses advertising in magazines that were pitched almost exclusively to the rich could make money, thereby assuring the success of the magazines, which was no small trick in the 20's and 30's. His forte, if that characterizes it correctly, was on the business side. Or, as Miss Seebohm so effectively demonstrates, had been until he lost virtu- ally everything in the 1929 stock-market crash, a state of affairs he managed to conceal from the less-than-discerning world in which he functioned - thanks in large part to his remarkably closemouthed creditors who continued to attend (and pay for) his lavish parties.

Miss de Wolfe, by far the more riveting biographical subject, was more careful with money, even penny-pinching. She struck fast deals in her favor, stinted on the food she served and was less than generous. But she had the advantage of devoted, rich, solidly aristocratic women friends, not the least of whom was the magnanimous Elizabeth Marbury, who parlayed a knowledge of money and the theater into theatrical agentry of the first order.

Miss Marbury was born to a fortune she herself enhanced. Her attachment to Miss de Wolfe lasted more than 40 years, during which time Miss Marbury paid more than half of their shared household expenses. Closely interwoven into these women's lives were such special individuals as John McMullin, the de Wolfe live-in lackey and Vogue writer; J.P. Morgan's powerful and well-meaning but naive daughter Anne; the assured Anne Vanderbilt, whose blessing signified social arrival; and a raft of decadent if artistic French aristocrats.

Miss Smith has turned the de Wolfe story, including the founding and furnishing of the Colony Club in Manhattan and the earning of the l0 percent commission on the estimated $2-to-3-million adornment of Henry Clay Frick's house on upper Fifth Avenue, into serious and sometimes even brilliant social history, marred only slightly by her reiterations. The author reminds us too frequently of the understandable indifference of drama critics to de Wolfe's early days as a clotheshorse actress, of her ''genuine desire to beautify the world'' and of her delight in radiator covers, handsome chairs with lift-up seats to conceal toilets, and the glazed-cotton slipcovers for which she became famous.

Miss Seebohm's work is strengthened by her access to hithertounpublished Nast company archives, including financial records and memoranda. She is the more lively writer, but her prose is damaged by the pseudosophistication of dribbling foreign words and phrases throughout. She is forever referring to ''the on dit,'' presumably meaning the word that's going around, the gossip or what ''they'' are saying, and when she describes a person as ''the most bouleverse of all'' and a decision as turning out ''to be a point,'' it is time to ask where the editor was.

But never mind. Whether separately or together, the Smith and Seebohm books are absorbing, informative, rich in esthetic detail. They are especially revealing now, in an era when writing about interior design, fashion and the pursuit of transient beauty consists mostly of selling, cataloguing or advising without benefit of apparent reflection, let alone wit or understatement.

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