spacer Elsa Maxwell Elsa Maxwell (1883-1963)
Society hostess

Elsa Maxwell began her career in the entertainment world in her early twenties as a member of a touring Shakespeare company. But she discovered her true calling in 1919, when she hosted an exquisite dinner at the Ritz Hotel in Paris for Arthur Balfour, England's secretary of foreign affairs. She soon gained an international reputation as an imaginative hostess given easily to self-mockery. Multi-talented, Maxwell was the antics-prone star of a string of 1930s films loosely based on her adventures in high society, the captivating host of her own radio program, and a lively guest on Jack Paar's "Tonight" show. Her four books, including Elsa Maxwell's Own Story and How to Do It, are filled with amusing anecdotes. Of her celebrity-studded life, she declared that it was "not bad, for a short, fat, homely piano player from Keokuk, Iowa, with no money or background, [who] decided to become a legend and did just that."

Born in Prague, Ren‚ Bouch‚ immigrated to the United States to escape persecution during World War II. A successful illustrator for Vogue in Paris, Bouch‚ continued to work for the magazine in New York, drawing and painting innumerable celebrities of the era. "A court jester" is how the artist described Maxwell, "but also a desperately serious woman who considers herself a serious critic of society."

Ren‚ Bouch‚ (1905-1963)
Oil on canvas, 1959
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Enlarged image

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