Dallas-based author Sam Staggs has made a career out of turning the celebrity autobiography away from simpering rehashes of Internet info and toward intelligent, entertaining, and opinionated reading. In his latest, Inventing Elsa Maxwell: How an Irrepressible Nobody Conquered High Society, Hollywood, the Press, and the World (St. Martin's Press), he creates a true-life portrait of a driven woman – the unlikely nobody of the book's subtitle.
Staggs knows his pricey Hollywood real estate well; his previous books include Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard and All About 'All About Eve.' In Inventing Elsa Maxwell, he examines the Iowa-born, small-town girl who transformed herself into the most sought-after hostess at a time when such an art counted. Maxwell took on a childhood pledge to pursue "the lively art of entertaining" (as one of her books was titled), and she parlayed that success into a jack-of-all-celebrity-trades career that included acting, radio shows, column writing, composing songs, and performing.
"I don't want to give away my age," jokes Staggs on the telephone as he relates how watching The Jack Paar Show introduced him to Maxwell, who was a regular on the show.
"All the fantastic people, Genevieve, the Gabors, Jayne Mansfield, and – God help us – Billy Graham and Richard Nixon. A conga line of incongruous celebrities, it was rather like one of Elsa's parties: unpredictable and always unexpected. Debbie Reynolds taking off Jack's pants under the desk – I'm sorry I didn't drop out of school and stay up every night to watch The Jack Paar Show.
"She invented herself, and I had to invent her myself, not fictionalized but putting her together like a jigsaw puzzle or a mosaic. In the end, I hope I've invented Elsa Maxwell, as much as anyone can do in an autobiography. I didn't quite believe Elsa, from her own books and columns. I thought she was inflating a lot. As it turns out, she wasn't giving the straight details quite often, but she did just about every damn thing she said she did."
Writing a book about Elsa Maxwell wasn't necessarily in the cards for Staggs, who first read up on her while researching a book on Maria Callas. That book was not written, and Staggs pitched a story on Elsa Maxwell to Vanity Fair, who bit. He immersed himself in Maxwell's life, but that story never made print either. Nonetheless, Staggs found himself with the solid backbone of a book.
"I have to fall in love with any subject I write about, because I'm going to have to live with it for at least two years. I can't imagine writing about someone I didn't like and respect. Someone once suggested I write a book about the making of Mildred Pierce. I could only spend two weeks with Joan Crawford, if that, but not two years."
Elsa Maxwell died in 1963, without seeing the changes over the next year that would alter the United States and her world so radically – the Kennedy assassination, the Beatles, and the Vietnam War. Staggs doesn't think Maxwell would have found those changes to her liking.
"She disapproved of Elvis, and I think she would have disapproved of the Beatles and rock music. I think she would have been snubbed by Jacqueline Kennedy at the White House and that would have hurt her feelings. And I wonder if she would have been invited to Truman's [Capote] party. She died at just the right time."
Staggs also dapples the book with sidebars that have the charming distraction of illustrations, though the two photo sections are quite revealing of Maxwell's broad scope of influence and connection: Cole Porter, Sophia Loren, Prince Aly Khan, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, the Duchess of Windsor, and Maria Callas, with whom Maxwell fell in love. And it is with grace that Staggs addresses Maxwell's presumed lesbian relationship with a companion, a word he takes the time to elucidate in the context of the times.
That's the sort of touch that makes Inventing Elsa Maxwell a pleasure to read. Maxwell wasn't universally loved, but Staggs loves Maxwell, whose bulldog appearance matched her persona and inspired endless caricatures by notable midcentury artists.
"She always referred to herself as ugly, and so did other people, but when I look at her face, I see character and intelligence, a lively person. And energetic!
"How did one woman do it? I thought all that energy died with Queen Victoria!"
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