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Holiday Guide: Elsie de Wolfe's Entertaining Advice

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Front page photo by Lemmy Caution.

The holiday season always seems like a good time to spend some time with sassy grande dame Elsie de Wolfe, who, sixty years after her death, remains one of America's most influential interior designers.

Her ingenuity went far beyond color-coordinating fabrics: de Wolfe pioneered the wall light switch, invented the bed rest with arms and an armchair that transforms into a chaise longue, introduced drawers to vanity tables, and laid down the first parquet floors. She popularized chintz and pillows embroidered with sayings.

She also hugely influenced how Americans entertained. Many credit de Wolfe with inventing the concept of the cocktail party; at her own such fêtes, she served "Pink Lady" cocktails (1/3 gin, 1/3 grapefruit juice, 1/3 Cointreau). Through columns in the Ladies' Home Journal and her own book, The House in Good Taste (1914), she advised women that "plates should be hot, hot, hot; glasses cold, cold, cold; and table decorations low, low, low" - excellent advice to remember as we set our holiday tables this season.

Even under extreme circumstances, ole' Elsie found inventive ways to entertain. For example, during World War II, de Wolfe--on a strict wartime budget--gave a celebrated dinner at the Automat, in which she covered the restaurant's tables with her own linens, china, and silver. Guests, of course, picked their own entrées.

De Wolfe also popularized the "Take one thing off" rule," meaning that she always used to make herself take one item off before she left the house: a bracelet, a necklace, whatever; it could have been a headband with a huge tulle bow in her case. Practice this sage approach as you dress for holiday parties this year -- unless, of course, you are only wearing one thing to begin with.

Learn more about Elsie de Wolfe in Ms. Blume's book Let's Bring Back and her upcoming book about vintage cocktails.