Best known as the creator of the Madeline children’s books, the Austrian-born writer and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans was the author of another 40-odd volumes, most of which were for adult readers. Out of print for many years, two of the very best have recently been reissued. Hotel Splendide (1941) details Bemelmans’s escapades working in the hospitality industry in New York in the early 1920s. (He arrived in America when he was 16, and spent the next two decades in the business, eventually quitting his job at the Ritz-Carlton to become a full-time cartoonist and writer.) But To the One I Love the Best (1955) is my favourite: a hilarious but sincerely heartfelt memoir of his friendship with Lady Mendl, Elsie de Wolfe.
Born in 1865, this extraordinary woman initially made a name for herself in New York in the 1880s as the first professional interior decorator. Or, as she put it: “I rescued the American house and made it liveable.” (Though she made some mistakes along the way: “I thought for a while that yellow was a colour,” she confesses with characteristic deadpan solemnity.) A shrewd businesswoman and a legendary hostess – a lifelong yoga enthusiast, her party trick was standing on her head – she was also courageous. She was awarded France’s Croix de guerre and the Légion d’honneur for her hospital relief work during the First World War, and had a 35-year relationship with Bessie Marbury, one of the first female theatre agents and Broadway producers.
Although de Wolfe is in her eighties when Bemelmans meets her in Los Angeles in 1945 (he claims that she’s 90, but the maths doesn’t add up), this eccentric, jewel-encrusted “living objet d’art” has more spark than most. These unlikely kindred spirits form an immediate bond: both self-made success stories, they also share a love of France. De Wolfe is in LA because of the war, but she would rather be back at her Villa Trianon in Versailles – to which she does return, as documented in the second half of the book, “Elsie Abroad”.
First though, we see “Elsie at Home”. On his first visit to her unsurprisingly sumptuously decorated Beverley Hills house, de Wolfe shows Bemelmans a newly-arrived “souvenir” from the villa: a footstool that once belonged to Madame de Pompadour. De Wolfe insists that they position it in a patch of sunlight in the middle of the room, so as to “properly appreciate it”. A few minutes later, in strides her husband, Sir Charles Mendl, who promptly falls over it:
“My God, he’s dead,” said Lady Mendl.
“Nonsense,” answered Sir Charles. “I’m not dead. Having played polo all my life, I simply know how to fall. When one falls, one remains absolutely still for a minute. Now don’t anyone bother helping me up.”
He remained quiet for what seemed a long time.
“Are you resting, dear?” asked Lady Mendl.
“Yes, I’m resting,” said Sir Charles.
“Well, don’t overdo it.”
Sir Charles was watching the dial on his wristwatch. At the end of a minute he got up.
A former press attaché to the British Embassy in Paris, with a Colonel Blimp moustache and a face “like a ripe plum”, his and de Wolfe’s banter is the source of much of the comedy in the book. Theirs is a truly idiosyncratic union. She has her beloved “Stevie” (her pet name for Bemelmans, “probably,” he conjectures, “because a war was going on with Germany and she didn’t like the Teutonic ‘Ludwig’”), while Sir Charles had his “ravishing creatures” – a stream of Hollywood starlets whom he was always taking out for dinner.
Although de Wolfe has been the subject of a handful of biographies over the years, all of which have done a grand job of detailing her many achievements, none quite captures her as well as Bemelmans does here. Intimate, anecdotal, comic and wistful, To the One I Love the Best is every bit as much of a gem as de Wolfe herself.