July 05, 1982 12:00 PM

by Jane S. Smith

In 1904 New York-born actress Elsie de Wolfe, 39, realized her costumes were getting better reviews than she was. So she decided to turn her reputation for good taste into a career and became, in effect, the inventor of interior decorating. She is best remembered for banishing Victorian plush, clutter and discomfort. Instead, she imposed her own passion for chintz, mirrors and 18th-century French furniture on her wealthy clients. Her circle of friends included European nobility, heirs to American fortunes and such luminaries as Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Cole Porter and Anita Loos. Her bizarre private life attracted attention too. She lived for 34 years with Bessie Marbury, a rotund theatrical agent from an old New York society family. Then, when she was 60, Elsie surprised everyone, especially Marbury, by marrying Sir Charles Mendl, an attaché at the British Embassy in Paris who had the reputation of being an informal spy. Smith, an English professor, has written both a gossipy biography and a meticulously researched social history of turn-of-the-century glitterati and the elegant rooms in which they glittered. (Atheneum, $19.95)

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