New York, N.Y.
Elsie de Wolfe / Elisabeth Marbury home
122 East 17th Street
Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950) had two careers, first as an actress and then as the first professional interior decorator. In 1892, she and her lover, Elisabeth (Bessie) Marbury, a theatrical agent and producer, made a home together at this address, a residence that had been built in 1830 for writer Washington Irving – hence called “Irving House.” (Today, a plaque on the building mentions Irving but not de Wolfe.) Though East 17th Street was not fashionable at that time, their block was situated firmly in the elegant Gramercy Park district, which held a certain cachet for the two women.
De Wolfe tired of touring in theatrical productions in the late 1890s and began spending more time at home. Marbury suggested that she focus her attention on the remodeling of Irving House, her first interior decoration project. De Wolfe removed the dark woodwork and wallpaper, velvet curtains, and heavy furniture that had marked the tastes of the mid-Victorian era. She had the walls painted ivory and light gray and the house completely refurnished in 18th-century French style.
When the remodeling was finished, “the Bachelors” – as de Wolfe and Marbury called themselves – established a Parisian-type salon at their residence. Each Sunday afternoon from 1897 to 1907, an eclectic assortment of guest met at Irving House for literary talk, gossip, tea and snacks, and an exchange of wit. Guests included such personalities as Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, Oscar Wilde, Nellie Melba, Henry Adams, and Isabella Stewart Gardner. “You never know who you are going to meet at Bessie’s and Elsie’s,” one salon-goer remarked, “but you can always be sure that whoever they are they will be interesting and you will have a good time.”
De Wolfe’s first public commission came through Marbury’s contacts. Marbury was the first successful theatrical agent, who represented many of the big playwrights of her era, including Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Marbury pulled some strings to land her partner a job redecorating the Colony Club in Manhattan, the first private club for women. (It’s now the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.) After that, more and more work came de Wolfe’s way, and a commission to decorate the mansion of Henry Clay Frick made her a millionaire.