Hutton Wilkinson and Manfred Flynn Kuhnert on the Fabulous Lives of Elsie de Wolfe and Tony Duquette
The fall education lectures got off to a fabulous start with a very exciting conversation by Hutton Wilkinson and Manfred Flynn Kuhnert on Elsie de Wolfe and Tony Duquette. Sitting in the Pool Pavilion at Virginia Robinson Gardens, Flynn exclaimed, “It’s so wonderful being here today in this gorgeous house and this intimate room. I love house-museums!” The effervescent duo were such fascinating speakers that they held their audience spellbound.
Wilkinson and Kuhnert have just written a book of historical fiction based on the life of Elsie de Wolfe and Tony Duquette from 1941 to 1951, called The Walk to Elsie’s and The Walk from Elsie’s. This lavish 2-volume set features beautiful sepia drawings by Tony Duquette. Further exciting news is that a major Hollywood studio will dramatize the publication in a series of television episodes, and Hutton and Flynn assured us that there will be more sequels of the books to come. Ninety one episodes over a span of seven seasons is projected for the broadcast!
A woman of remarkable charm and a master of self-invention, Elsie proclaimed, “I wasn’t born rich, and I wasn’t born beautiful, but I made myself both.” She went on the stage to help support her family, and she was considered the best-dressed star on Broadway. A part of high society, Elsie knew everyone and backed many people and made them famous, among them Elizabeth Arden, Cole Porter, the fashion designer Mainbocher and interior designer Stephane Boudin. At age 50, her life really began. Dispensing with the heavy Victorian décor in vogue at that time, Elsie lived in a beautiful, light-filled home, and started to receive commissions as a decorator. “She was the first person to charge for taste,” Hutton said. She decorated the Colony Club in New York City, which was the first woman’s club in the world. It still exists today, and novel for its time, she used floral chintz fabric and designed a famous treillage room. She then sold many pieces of signed, royal French furniture to the collector Henry Clay Frick, and with the 10% commission, bought herself “a home in Versailles, a Rolls Royce, and three strands of pearls,” Hutton added.
Besides being glamorous, she was also very courageous. During World War I in France, in her 60’s, she drove an ambulance, worked on the front lines, and treated war victims. For her heroism, she was awarded the French Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre by the French government. Although she was not heterosexual, she married Lord Charles Mendl after the war in a classic swap of a title for money. A press attache in the British embassy in Paris, Charles was one of her closest friends. Lady Mendl gave very successful, fantastical balls, and was known for her “bon mots” or mottos such as: “A fool and his money are soon invited everywhere,” and “Never complain, never explain.”
With the advent of World War II, Elsie escaped to Los Angeles at the age of 85, where she proclaimed, “I want to be with the royalty of America — the movie stars,” according to Hutton. Elsie bought a charming, peach-colored, Spanish-style home that still exists today on Benedict Canyon Drive, near Summit Drive. In the meantime, hailing from Michigan, Duquette came to Los Angeles to help support his family who had fallen on hard times. Hired by Bullock’s department store, Tony designed figurines, bas reliefs and interiors that reflected the change of seasons. He met the decorators Billy Haines and James Pendleton, and for one of the latter’s parties, he designed a centerpiece of statues depicting the four continents of Asia, America, Europe and Africa. Everyone at the dinner table fell in love with the creation. Vincente Minnelli hired him, and Elsie said, “Whoever made this is a genius, and I want his name.” When she met Duquette – he was only 20 — she commissioned a large piece of furniture from him, and the two became inseparable. Elsie made him famous. Theirs is an Auntie Mame story – one of family love, like a mother for her son, and a mentor for a protégé. “They became everything to one another,” Flynn said, and they “built a larger family around themselves.” The novel focuses on the intersection of the last 10 years of Elsie’s life and the first 10 years of Duquette’s career.
After the lecture, Hutton and Flynn signed the books, with a portion of the proceeds of the sales generously donated to Robinson Gardens. The guests dined on a delicious menu catered by The Kitchen for Exploring Foods, which always does a fabulous job. The tables, created by co-chairs Patti Reinstein, Kerstin Royce and Ellen Lipson were exquisite! On crinkled rust-colored taffeta, lay a sheer overlay of fabric embroidered with velvet russet flowers. (These opulent tablecloths were sewn by Patti for a nephew’s wedding, and kindly donated to Robinson Gardens for future events.) The fall theme was echoed by stunning centerpieces of pumpkins, orange hydrangeas, apricot colored roses, and red gerbera daisies.
Thank you to our wonderful co-chairs for giving us such an informative and entertaining event to enjoy! We could have listened to Hutton and Flynn all day!
Post by Linda Meadows
Friends of Robinson Gardens member