Elin Vanderlip--gowned as writer Edith Wharton--was celebrating her 80th birthday at a costume party at her Villa Narcissa in Rancho Palos Verdes, beckoning guests to join her in dancing the flokke, "a Norwegian dance to keep warm."
The party, billed as a celebration of "the eight decades of Elin Regina"--with an honorary committee including John Dillinger, Mata Hari, Mao Tse Tung and Pablo Picasso--had begun with champagne at the villa's hilltop amphitheater, where her children and grandchildren had presented a sort of "This Is Your Life, Elin" skit.
And what a life it's been for this self-described "Norwegian in an Italian house who has a French passion."
That passion manifested itself in Friends of French Art, the philanthropy she founded in 1979 to help restore French works of art. She explains, "From the age of 3, my grandmother taught me to repair things" rather than discard them. "And I lived eight years in France. I know if a chateau owner has enough money to keep his roof from leaking, he doesn't have enough to restore his tapestries and paintings."
The organization, which has raised $6 million to restore French art and some architecture--money matched by the French government--was born of a visit in 1978 to the city of Pontoise. There she met the curator of the Camille Pissarro museum, who asked her help in saving the mill where the artist worked from demolition to make way for a soccer field. Vanderlip gave $21,000.
Daughter Katrina de Carbonnel, an art restorer who has worked at the Louvre, has helped her select projects. Vanderlip says, "The most charismatic is the balcony" painted by Renoir in "Luncheon of the Boating Party," the most expensive was the staircase at the Chateau de Blois ($128,000) and "my dullest project was giving a $28,000 machine to the museum at Lille" to protect paintings.
She explains that Friends of French Art, by using qualified students or restorers in the local region, gets work done at a fraction of what it would cost for government-hired restorers. Her group succeeds, she acknowledges, in part because she has the "chutzpah" to walk into a city hall in any French city and "ask the mayor if he'll give a dinner" for visiting Friends.
She Receives French Honor
Her efforts were recognized recently when she became one of the few women to receive the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, the French equivalent of the Order of the British Empire, from Guy Yelda, French consul general in Los Angeles. "We have a very special debt to her," Yelda says. "She is very strong-minded."
Aware of snipes that charity should begin at home, she has started giving $10,000 a year to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She is also active in restoration efforts at Edith Wharton's "grandiose" English-French chateau in Lenox, Mass.
Her life now is a far cry from where it all started in Oslo, where her father, Guttorm Brekke, had a lumber mill and sash and door company, and where she remembers being in the charge of a nanny "who left me at the Salvation Army every afternoon so she could meet her boyfriend. When my mother discovered I could sing 10 Salvation Army songs, she fired the nanny."
When she was 6, a fire destroyed her father's factory and the Brekke family was uprooted to Berlin, where her father found work as an engineer. In his spare time, "he taught the kaiser to ski and played the violin beautifully."
When Vanderlip was 9, the family moved to Tennessee, where her father helped in construction of rayon factories, and later to Minnesota and then to Iowa, where Elin graduated from high school. "My parents weren't extremely well-fixed," she says, and their priority was educating her two brothers. "There was no money for me to go to college."
In time, the Brekkes relocated to pre-World War II Washington, D.C., where Vanderlip's uncle was charge d'affaires at the Norwegian Embassy. "The moment Norway was invaded [in April 1940], he said, 'Elin has to come to work at the embassy.' "
She was 20, and it was a job that was to change her life.
She worked as an archivist and learned the Norwegians' secret code. "We were trying to keep the Norwegian freighters in Brazil from being bombed." Then word came from Trygve Lie, then prime minister of Norway, that there was a shortage of bilingual secretaries at the Norwegian Embassy in London. She was needed there.
"I was thrilled," she recalls, despite the fact that London was being firebombed. Of course, it did mean leaving behind her fiance, Sir Angus Malcolm, grandson of actress Lillie Langtry, but just as well. In London, she met a Norwegian economist for whom she threw over Sir Angus.
London was exciting, she felt she was doing important work, and then the Norwegian foreign minister ordered her home to take care of her ailing mother. It was not a matter of life and death, she recalls, and "I was furious. I thought the liberation of Norway was near and I wanted to be there."
Now, she is not a woman without inner resources. "I quickly joined the American Red Cross" and was soon on her way to Calcutta to serve as a "morale officer" for GIs, with such duties as taking them sightseeing.
The Norwegian accountant in London was soon forgotten. "I got engaged to a marvelous Australian colonel who led the Gurkhas." Again, it was not meant to be. When he shot himself, she "was flown home compassionately."
In time, she landed in California. Young and blond and beautiful, she soon caught the eye of actor Sterling Hayden, who took her sailing on his 70-foot yacht, Quest, with the likes of Errol Flynn and Ida Lupino--and proposed. But this engagement too was short-lived, and not long afterward she met Mr. Right.
It was love at first sight, and in 1946, less than three months after being introduced by his sister, Elin and Kelvin Cox Vanderlip, second son of banker Frank A. Vanderlip, who once owned all of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, were wed. They set up housekeeping in a small house on the grounds of Villa Narcissa.
For a decade, the couple, madly in love, lived the good life. There were parties at industrialist Atwater Kent's home--"He had an A list and a B list, and he gave two dances a week, under ceilings filled with balloons." There were parties at the Beverly Hills Club, where she danced with Howard Hughes and Ronald Reagan "pre-Nancy."
Kelvin Vanderlip had studied architecture at Princeton and, says Elin, who is not one to mince words over the direction that development of the Palos Verdes Peninsula has taken, "had the vision and the courage and the taste. If he had lived, this peninsula would be totally different."
He brought Marineland and Marymount College and School to the peninsula, built the Wayfarer's Chapel in honor of his mother, and encouraged "think-tank" industries to relocate to the area and create local employment.
"He loved the peninsula so and had such hopes and dreams for its future," says Elin, who still hopes that the its 64,000 residents--now split among four municipalities--will come together as one architecturally beautiful city with cluster developments and broad greenbelts.
The young Vanderlips had been married only 10 years when Kelvin died of cancer at age 44. Elin, devastated and seeking a change of scene, took her four young children to Gstaad, Switzerland. "Her in-laws kept telling her what to do," recalls daughter Narcissa Fuller, "something that never went over very well with Elin."
After putting the children in boarding school in Switzerland, she moved to Paris, where during the school term she lived in a hotel, continuing her long love affair with France.
Everyone she'd ever known in Gstaad would call her when they came to Paris, and she'd show them around, so she decided to make a virtue of it and earn a little money. She left business cards reading, "Have more fun in Paris" at the city's tres grandes hotels. "I was what you call a cultural gigolo," she says, taking well-heeled Americans and their wives sightseeing and couture shopping.
A Companion for More Than 30 Years
She had also met former United Artists Vice President Lee Katz, whose children went to school with hers. They kept in touch, and after he lost his wife in 1963, he says, "we just kind of gravitated toward one another." He calls her "the most remarkable lady I ever met." Some of their friends refer to him affectionately as her "perpetual fiance," her companion for more than 30 years.
She has traveled with him to far-flung outposts, passing the time knitting or penning a memoir to come. They spent a year in Rome while he worked on "Man of La Mancha." Each year he helps her guide wealthy Francophiles on VIP tours to raise money for Friends of French Art.
Dukes and duchesses and ambassadors fete them. "Of all the ambassadors, Pamela Harriman put out the most," Vanderlip says. "She knew how to do it. She was very charming." And, Vanderlip had known her in London.
The home Vanderlip and Katz share, Villa Narcissa, stands on land bought by Frank Vanderlip in 1912. She says, "He was to build a great Roman villa copied from the villa of Pope Julius II, but the 1929 crash came" and the plan was abandoned. Today's magnificent home, once the guest house, has been expanded over the years.
Named for Vanderlip's mother-in-law ("She changed it from Mabel"), it was in the early '40s occupied by Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss; Myrna Loy and her husband, producer Arthur Hornblow Jr.; and honeymooners Burgess Meredith and Paulette Goddard.
When Vanderlip and her husband moved into the villa in 1949, one of the cottages on the property was leased to Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. "He came and read to me every night--the Bible, Shakespeare, Shaw, Dickens. He was charming."
The villa, ochre with mustard trim, is a Tuscan hideaway overlooking the Pacific. Peacocks prance along the garden walls. Vanderlip, who studied the great gardens of Italy, has created a visual feast with cypress, olive trees and agave, punctuated with hydrangea and bougainvillea. Her garden tours benefit--what else?--Friends of French Art.
Her parties are legendary. Among those helping her celebrate her 80th was novelist-screenwriter Mark Richard, who with wife Jennifer once lived in former stables on the villa's 12 acres. At that time, other cottages were occupied by a woman who held the land speed record for rocket-engine cars, a South African tennis pro, an activist for laborers' rights and a bestselling self-help writer.
"A typical dinner could have a living legend director, an ambassador from some foreign country, an artisan from Mexico and a dancer," Richard recalls. "She doesn't suffer fools. She likes people who do, people who make, people who create."
"The most amazing woman I've ever known," says a friend of 25 years, art consultant Robert Scott. "A dramatically intelligent woman."
"She's one of the few strong people I've known," says longtime friend Jean Wells, a New York-based magazine editor. "She can irritate you to death and you love her because she's wise, and she's so generous. She's not one for 'less is more.' "
Others, including those with whom she has tangled over civic affairs on the Palos Verdes Peninsula and the legality of her 11 cottages, whose rent, she says, provides money to maintain the villa and grounds, have described her as feisty. Is she? Vanderlip smiles. "I think so, don't you?"
As daughter Katrina puts it, "She never cared much what the city leaders thought. Still doesn't."
At 80, She Doesn't Want to Slow Down
On this day at the villa, she is bothered by bursitis from a broken femur that's been pinned. "I was skiing Christmas day two years ago in Aspen," she explains. "I was forklifted onto the airplane and hauled home."
Vanderlip is annoyed. Life is too full to be slowed by such things. There are her children--Narcissa, who lives in Cheviot Hills and is involved in children's theater; Katrina, who lives in Connecticut; Kelvin in London; and Henrik in Connecticut. (Their 80th birthday gift to her: a blue iMac computer). And there are her five grandchildren.
There are plans to be made for the millennium year Friends of French Art trip. There is the good fight to be fought for development of the peninsula as her late husband envisioned it, a community "for rich and poor alike that will be an example to Los Angeles and the world.
"I don't want to be nice anymore," Vanderlip says. "I don't have that much time. And what most people have to tell me, I'm afraid I know already.
"If only my leg would stop hurting, life couldn't be better."
Today is Bastille Day. In honor of the holiday recalling the French Revolution, a page devoted to all things French, such as L.A.'s expat population, "ye-ye" music, French dining and the language. E2