4, rue de la Paix, Paris, France
Le Ciro's,Casino Barrière, Rue Edmond Blanc, 14800 Deauville, France
Maison Desti, 347 Fifth Avenue, New York
23 East Ninth Street, New York
6, 7 and 8 Old Bond Street, London
4 West Fifty Seventh Street, New York
603 5th Avenue, New York
Mary Estelle Dempsey (later known as Mary Desti or Mary D'Este) (October 10, 1871 - April 12, 1931) was the owner of Desti Beauty Products cosmetics firm and New York City studio which sold art objects, perfumes, and clothing. Isadora Duncan's longtime friend was the cosmetics and perfume entrepreneur Mary Desti. Duncan was staying at Desti's house in Italy when she had her fatal accident. Desti wrote The untold story: the life of Isadora Duncan, 1921-1927 (1929). Mary Desti was also a lover and collaborator of the occultist, Aleister Crowley. She was styled by him "The Scarlet Woman, Whore of Babylon", a compliment, in Crowley's view.
Mary Estelle Dempsey was born on October 10, 1871 in Quebec, Canada, the daughter of Catherine Campbell Smyth and Dominick d'Este Dempsey, immigrants from Ireland. She was the mother of Preston Sturges, playwright, screenwriter, and film director (in 1941, he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the film The Great McGinty, his first of three nominations in the category); the father was travelling salesman Edmund C. Biden (1871-1935), whom she married on July 14, 1897. Mary claimed to have been 15 when Preston was born–she was actually 27–and 16 when she entered medical school, which she wasn’t, and didn’t.
When her son was three years old, Desti left America to pursue a singing career in Paris, where she annulled her marriage to Biden. On her first day in town, Mary met a Mrs Duncan whose daughter, Isadora, was a dancer. Isadora Duncan and Mary Dempsey not only became instant best friends but maintained a lifelong bond that outlasted their many relationships with men.
Returning to America, in Chicago Desti met her third husband, the wealthy stockbroker Solomon Sturges (1865-1940), who adopted Preston in 1902. She managed to exact an agreement to live with her husband only half the year. The remainder of her time–which often stretched well beyond six months–would be spent in Europe, accompanying Isadora to Bayreuth and other venues. According to biographers, Solomon Sturges was "diametrically opposite to Mary and her bohemianism". This included her close friendship with Isadora Duncan, as Desti would sometimes travel from country to country with Duncan's dance company. Mary also carried on a romantic affair with Aleister Crowley and collaborated with him on his magnum opus Magick. After her divorce from Sturges in May 1911, she married Vely Bey Denizli (born 1877). She last married Howard Leonard Perch (1890-1957).
In Paris Desti opened a cosmetics company called Maison d'Este, in 1911. She had learned a secret Ottoman skin cream formula from her new Turkish father-in-law, Elias Pasha, physician to the sultan. She designed delicate perfume and lotion bottles and had them hand blown in Venice. Deciding she was descended from Italian nobility–on the grounds that Dempsey had to be a mispronunciation of the princely “d’Este”–Mary Dempsey named her European business Maison d’Este. After threats of litigation from the actual d’Estes, she modified the firm’s name to Desti and used it as her middle name. Sturges summed up the situation by writing: "My mother was in no sense a liar, nor even intentionally unacquainted with the truth…as she knew it. She was, however, endowed with such a rich and powerful imagination that anything she had said three times, she believed ferverently. Often, twice was enough." Mary found a mezzanine floor at 4, rue de la Paix between the Place Vendome and the Opera. She had it decorated by Isadora Duncan's designer friend Paul Poiret, who had just branched off from dressmaking into interior decorating using the name Atelier Martine, and Mary proclaimed the results "fantastic". Before the business opened, Mary and Vely realized that they were going to need something more to sell than just the skin lotion. One day, a very famous manicurist Mrs. Kantor was invited to the business, a product line for nails called "Kantorshine" was sold by Desti in honor of Mrs. Kantor. Then a hair dresser was added, as well as a couple of Chinese chiropodists, and finally a very fine old chemist. With all the staff in place, the Beauty Institute was ready to serve the public. At Baccarat and Lalique, some lovely crystal bottles were made for lotions based on the secret Harem formula, and some alabaster jars were turned out for creams and unguents from the same source.
A second branch of Maison Desti was opened up, this time in Deauville. In 1914, Mary formed a deal with the owner of Ciro's, a fashionable Parisian restaurant. The owner had rented a house for the season in the new resort town of Deauville in Normandy (the millionaire's playground). The deal was that Maison Desti would occupy the ground floor of Ciro's building, and the restaurant would continue operations on the first floor. Preston, fifteen and still at school in Switzerland, was manager of the cosmetics shop, got room and board as part of the deal. For the next few months, he would be able to sleep above the restaurant in a cozy flat and take his all meals at the restaurant. At the start of the first World War, Mary sent him on home to America, for fear that he might enlist in the military. Armed with a many perfume bottles and cosmetics as he could carry Preston went directly to 347 Fifth Avenue and along with Daisy Andrews, established the American branch of Maison Desti. Department stores such as B. Altman, Bonwit Teller, Jordan Marsh, Best & Co, Mandel Brothers, and Marshall Field's carried the Desti line.
When WWI broke out in August, Mary went to the front to volunteer as a medic, citing her non-existent Chicago medical credentials.
Desti became owner of Desti Beauty Products cosmetics firm and also owned a New York City studio, Desti Emporium (initially managed by Preston Sturges) which sold art objects, perfumes, and clothing. In 1914, reports from Daisy Andrews at the New York shop did not bode well and Mary traveled to New York to see for herself. After a heated argument with Mary, Andrews walked out and a lawyer advised Mary to declare bankruptcy. Taking his advice, and making a clean sweep of things, the posh Fifth Avenue shop was closed for good. Apparently, Mary regretted this decision for the rest of her life. Not to be deterred, the remnants of the Fifth Avenue store was moved to a smaller but pretty location at 23 East Ninth Street, across the street from the the Cafe Lafayette, an area known for its French flavor. Together, they revived the Desti cosmetic line, the Aurore Rouge, and their face powders with the unusual tints, the Secret of the Harem cream (which was called simply Youth Cream because of Turkey's alliances during the war).
The orders were still coming in but very slowly. Most of the New York shop's customers were the big department stores, their stock of Desti products were beginning to be depleted, and they were asking for replenishment. Importation was still out of the question, so Mary and Preston had to make due with American supplies, boxes and bottles, an assortment of essential oils, fixatives and other raw materials, eau de cologne spirits (alcohol) for perfume, which they felt were not up to French standards. They bought bottles from the Whitall-Tatum and Company, unfortunately a far cry from those Mary got in Venice or from Baccarat and Lalique. For the packaging they bought attractive boxes from a boxmaker named Mr. Rothchild. The alcohol was not aged and the raw materials were "not bad but they were not very good". They hired an elderly part time chemist to work on the perfumes and cosmetics. Some of Desti's better known customers were Evelyn Nesbitt, Ganna Walska (who had her own perfume business), Peggy Guggenheim, Mae Marsh, Lillian Russell and the daughter of cosmetics queen, Madame CJ Walker.
In 1914, the rue de la Paix store closed. A mob of patriotic Parisians learned of Mary’s marriage to Vely Bey and stormed her shop when Turkey allied with Germany. Because of the war, it was nearly impossible to get the Desti products shipped from France and imported into the USA, the business began to flounder.
One night in 1915 Preston and Mary were seeing Isadora off on a ship to Italy when she called from the deck, “Mary! If you don’t come with me, I don’t know what I’ll do!” Despite having no money and only the clothes on her back, Mary Dempsey walked up the gangplank, saying to Preston, “Do the best you can, darling. Keep things going. I’ll send you some money as soon as I can!”
In 1916, Mary opened a branch of Maison Desti in London at 6, 7 and 8 Old Bond Street, upstairs over Teofani the tobacconist. One day, Vely Bey showed up with an idea for paperless cigarettes held together with a leaf of tobacco and rose petal tips, which seemed a good idea and Mary, a nonsmoker, who didn't like the taste of tobacco, thought that cigarettes perfumed with amber might mask the unpleasant taste, devised a scented tobacco called Desti’s Ambre Cigarettes. She found the results delicious and the cigarettes were very popular with the ladies. The cigarettes were dedicated to the French revue artist Alice Delysia. Though she added many new items to the Maison Desti line, the business was struggling. She summoned Preston to London to help her pick up the pace.
It was 1916, and Preston turned 18 soon after and decided he no longer wanted anything to do with Maison Desti. He served as a cadet in the Aviation Section of the US Signal Corps. The war ended before his training was completed, and he was disappointed and felt "cheated and unmanly"because he never saw any combat. He did graduate his Air Service training with honors and won the wings and the title of officer. With no other options in his immediate future, he set off for New York and returned to Maison Desti.
While Preston was in the Air Service, Mary moved the store on Ninth Avenue to 4 West Fifty Seventh Street and turned into a beauty salon bringing in manicurists and makeup artists to serve the upscale clientele. The head Desti manicurist, happened to be Peggy Sage. Peggy Sage went on to form her own successful company selling cosmetics and making millions of dollars with nail polish and lipsticks. The "perfumed warm atmosphere" did not suit Preston, so instead of conducting business inside the shop, he decided to sell his products outside of the shop, going from hairdresser to beauty salon, promoting his goods. It was in 1920 that he invented his most successful commercial product, a lipstick which he called Preston's Red Red Rouge, a kissproof indelible lip color. With Preston back in New York and handling the business quite well, Mary returned to Paris. One day in 1924, two perfume distributors from the Lionel Trading Company turned up in Brooklyn, they offered to buy the enormous amount of $1,000 worth of Desti products a month in exchange for exclusive distribution rights. Out of jealousy, Mary wanted the business back in her name and rights only. He dismantled his shop while his mother looked about for a prettier shop for Maison Desti, her Maison Desti.
The deal with the Lionel Trading Company came to nothing, and Preston moved to Chicago near his father. He came back to New York and visited his mother at her 603 Fifth Avenue apartment and pretty shop where she sold batik scarves and perfumes and cosmetics. She was tired of New York and wanted to hand over Maison Desti back to Preston if he could come up with money for her to go on a trip to Paris.
Mary Desti passed away from leukemia in 1931 at her residence, 603 Fifth Avenue, of leukemia after being seriously ill for two months. By the time of Mary's death, Maison Desti came to a close.
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