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A Theatrical Pair Gets Their Own Big Star TV Mini Series

It’s the Elsie De Wolfe and Tony Duquette Show

BY // 01.08.17


During his lifetime, L.A. set designer Tony Duquette was sought for his fantastical artwork, sculpture, jewelry, gardens, film and stage sets, costumes, and interiors. He may have had no bigger fan than L.A. schoolboy Hutton Wilkinson, who obsessed about meeting Duquette after reading a magazine story about him and the defunct silent-film studio he turned into a house. It was 1968.

“There was a picture of Tony sitting on the stage wearing the robes of a cardinal surrounded by abalone and mother-of-pearl and crystal chandeliers,” says Wilkinson. “I said to my father, who was a very square architect, ‘This is what I am interested in. This is what I want to do.’ And he said, ‘You’re 100 percent crazy.’ ”

Crazy like a fox, maybe. Wilkinson saved the article and spent the next four years looking for anyone who might make an introduction. One day, his art teacher put a note in his locker that Duquette was looking for volunteers at his studio. “I quit my job and school that same day and went to work for Tony for two years for free,” says Wilkinson, who was then 17. Duquette was in his late 50s.

The two eventually became business partners, working together for the next three decades in a remarkable collaboration and friendship that gave Wilkinson entrée to a lavish world of glamorous travel with royalty and celebrity-studded parties held at Duquette’s magical Beverly Hills estate, Dawnridge. Duquette, who was getting up in years, turned over much of the work from the firm to Wilkinson, who by then had the “Duquette look” down pat.

“It’s all about layering,” Wilkinson says. “You don’t just put paint on the walls; you put fabric over the paint, then put a tapestry over that, and then you hang a perfect painting right in the middle. It’s all over-decorated to the hilt.”

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When Duquette died in 1999, Wilkinson took over as creative director and CEO of the firm, and he and his wife, Ruth, acquired Dawnridge, where they now live.

Tony Duquette and Hutton Wilkinson, late 1980s

Duquette and his protégé were almost inseparable. “We traveled everywhere together,” says Wilkinson, “and we had so much fun, always laughing and laughing.” It was during these many trips — in the car on the way to Tijuana, on a plane to Europe, in a train crossing the Alps — that Duquette revealed the extraordinary particulars of his longtime friendship with legendary decorator and tastemaker Elsie de Wolfe, who took him under her wing in the 1940s.

Their association lasted until she died in 1950 at age 80, and it was de Wolfe — also known as Lady Mendl — whose devoted patronage opened doors to a glittering cafe society that included Cole Porter, Louis B. Mayer, Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland, Billy Haines, Doris Duke, and the Windsors.

Duquette’s exploits with de Wolfe came tumbling out in a two-volume historic novel last year, The Walk to Elsie’s — written and self published by Wilkinson and his co-author and good friend, Manfred Flynn Kuhnert. “It’s a 1950s romp in an Auntie Mame kind of way in Paris, Venice, and L.A.,” says Kuhnert, a former Harvard professor who has directed and designed more than 35 theater and opera productions in America and the Netherlands.

Duquette’s own charming sketches, many done with de Wolfe at Villa Trianon in Versailles where she lived, illustrate the book and its cover (Amazon, $195). The authors are currently negotiating with St. Martin’s Press for worldwide distribution of a five-volume book series. Volume 3, Disaster in the Golden Dragon Room, which focuses on Duquette and director Vincente Minnelli, comes out in June.

And, in a late-breaking development that would have delighted Duquette’s sense of drama, Lionsgate Entertainment Corporation (which produced Mad Men and Orange is the New Black) purchased the rights to The Walk to Elsie’s and is producing a miniseries which will air September 2018, on as-yet-to-be determined network.

Michael Angler of Downton Abbey fame has signed on as director and executive producer, Wilkinson says, with some of Hollywood’s most sought-after actresses in discussions to play de Wolfe. I’m sworn to secrecy until an official announcement, but rest assured, it’s a jaw-dropping list.

Elsie de Wolfe has gone down in history as the most prominent interior decorator of the 20th century, but like Duquette, her first love was the theater. During the 1880s, she was a well-known actress in New York, later pursuing interior design as a result of staging plays. By the early 1900s, de Wolfe had launched a full-blown decorating career. She was a breath of fresh air in the brooding post-Victorian era, eschewing heavy furniture and dense William Morris wallpaper for lighter 18th-century chairs and white-painted furniture, mirrors, Chinoiserie, chintz, stripes, wicker, trompe l’oeil wallpaper, and garden-trellis motifs.

An interior designed by Elsie de Wolfe

Her social connections provided her with such distinguished clients as Amy Vanderbilt, Ann Morgan, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. She became an aristocrat herself when she married diplomat Sir Charles Mendl in 1926.

The Walk to Elsie’s opens in May 1940, when de Wolfe (wearing Mainbocher couture) is entertaining luncheon guests at her French country home, the lavish Villa Trianon in Versailles. The party abruptly ends when they learn the Nazis are advancing to Paris and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor have evacuated the country. With only hours to spare, a parade of Rolls-Royces bearing de Wolfe and her guests exit at top speed from the villa to the safety of the Ritz in Madrid. De Wolfe eventually makes her way to New York, then Hollywood, where she meets a young Tony Duquette, who arrived in Beverly Hills from Three Rivers Michigan a few years earlier after a blowup with his parents.

A mutual friend, interior designer Billy Haines, arranged their introduction at a party one evening. “Come scoot close to me and call me Mother … You interest me,” de Wolfe exhorted Duquette, patting the seat next to her. By night’s end, she arranged for Duquette to decorate her house in Beverly Hills — for free.

Duquette, who had a degree from the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and was already freelancing for Haines and other prominent designers, would become de Wolfe’s last — and most famous — protégé. With de Wolfe’s connections, Duquette began creating costumes and settings for MGM productions under director Vincente Minnelli and interiors for Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers, along with jewelry and special furnishings for de Wolfe herself.

One of his most memorable commissions was from the Duke of Windsor for the Duchess: a platinum necklace of wreaths and flowers studded with large citrines, peridots, and pearls.

The relationship between de Wolfe and Duquette was often volatile — the first volume ends with a ferocious yet humorous argument after she learns he took a paid job decorating a palazzo for the seductive former Queen of Greece. It’s obvious how complicated and entwined their emotions became.

“At the end of the day,” Kuhnert tells me, “it’s a story about self-actualization. We are peeling back the onion, continually. Is this the real Elsie? No, no, this is. When they have a fight, they hurt each other because essentially they have become each other.”

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