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High Society

By JEN HUNHOLZ
Photos by Sophie Arancio and Roger Schall

April 2015

Scheips at the Shangri-La Hotel in Paris, where de Wolfe lived in the 1930s.

For Manhattan-based writer, curator and cultural historian Charlie Scheips, recalling his younger years means reminiscing about his time spent growing up in Shorewood — a childhood that included watercolor classes at the Milwaukee Art Museum, day trips to the Milwaukee Public Museum and symphony performances at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. So it’s no surprise that his professional career, one filled with art, culture and history, mirrors his liberal arts-infused upbringing.

Scheips was born in New York City, but his father, a businessman with Milwaukee-based clients, relocated his wife and son to Shorewood when Scheips was 5 years old. "He (my dad) told my mother how Milwaukee was a lovely city," notes Scheips. He attended Atwater Elementary School and Shorewood Intermediate School, and although he and his family moved back to the East Coast just before Scheips entered high school, he later returned to Wisconsin and enrolled at Ripon College, graduating with a degree in art history in 1981.

Top: Sir George Clerk, the British ambassador to France; Elsie, in her Mainbocher dress of organza with pastel-tinted plaid stripes; and Sir Charles Mendl on the half-round banquette in the center of the dance pavilion. ©Jean-Frédéric Schall

Since graduating college more than 30 years ago, Scheips has developed a resume that is nothing short of impressive — a career that includes titles like assistant director of PR at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, assistant and curator to famed artist David Hockney, and worldwide director of the Phillips De Pury Auction House. It was Scheips’ decade-long post as founding director of the Conde Nast Archives, however, that can be credited with spurring the idea behind his most recent achievement — his new book, "Elsie de Wolfe’s Paris: Frivolity Before the Storm."

Scheips’ job involved digitizing all of the historical magazines under the Conde Nast umbrella, from Vogue and The New Yorker to Vanity Fair and Gourmet. The task led him to discover an intriguing series of snapshots taken by Vogue social columnist John McMullen throughout 1920s and ‘30s-era France. Each photo captured the glamour and extravagance characteristic of high society during that time, visually documenting the rich and fabulous at play in Paris and the French Riviera.

McMullen was close friends with the subject of Scheips’ book, Elsie de Wolfe. She was an American-born decorator once credited with establishing interior design as a profession, and despite her U.S. roots, her prominence in Parisian society was undeniable. De Wolfe married diplomat Sir Charles Mendl in 1926, and she often hosted lavish parties at their home in Versailles, the Villa Trianon.

One such party, which Scheips describes as "the last great ball that happened in France before the war," was her second annual Circus Ball, held on July 1, 1939. A friend connected Scheips to the son of French photographer Roger Schall, who had snapped nearly 250 photos at the ball. The photos had yet to be published, so Scheips began planning for their future, soon inking a book deal with Abrams Books. His new book uses these photos to tell the story of a societal era gone by, a precarious yet wildly opulent few years just before the declaration of World War II.

Scheips will return to Milwaukee later this month to promote the book. He is scheduled to appear at the Villa Terrace Art Museum on April 30. To purchase the novel, visit the museum’s bookstore or go to abramsbooks.com/Books/Elsie_de_Wolfe_s_Paris-9781419713897.html.

 


This story ran in the March 2015 issue of: