Elaine de Kooning was born Elaine Fried on March 12, 1918 in Brooklyn although she would later say she was born in 1920. She was the first of four children - Elaine, then Conrad, Marjorie and Peter. Her father was the plant manager of the Bond bread company in Brooklyn. Outside of work he had a keen interest in gardening. Elaine's mother, Marie, was interested in the arts. Elaine's sister, Majorie Luyckx recalled their mother taking them as children to Broadway plays that "were way beyond us." An old friend of Elaine's, Ernestine Lassaw (wife of the sculptor Ibram Lassaw) said of Elaine's mother, "She studied all her life. She studied French, everything. But she didn't study her children very much." (DK157)
Joop Sanders, who befriended Willem and Elaine in 1940 described Elaine's mother as "very eccentric, with all kinds of idiosyncrasies. Her makeup was like she had literally stuck her head in a barrel of flour. She had a snood net which was used then, and it all looked as if she slept in her clothes. You couldn't take her for more than ten minutes. but there was this very, very bright intelligence, self-educated, with these snatches of brilliance. (DK156)
Marie had actually been committed to a mental hospital - Creedmore - when the children were growing up. Someone had complained to the authorities that she was neglecting her children. When the police came to the house, Marie went crazy, refused to leave and had to be dragged out screaming in front of her kids. She was hospitalised for a year while a housekeeper took care of Elaine and her siblings. As Elaine was the oldest, she became a sort of surrogate mother for her brothers and sister. Marie "adored" Elaine according to Ernestine Lassaw, "The others were kind of... not as important." Marie's nickname for Elaine was "Samson." (DK158)
Elaine started high school in 1932 - at the Erasmus Hall High School - where she excelled at sports and, according to her sister, Marjorie, always got high grades in school - "all A's, always." (DK159). She graduated in January 1936 and enrolled in Hunter College in Manhattan in the spring, but left soon after and enrolled in the Leonardo da Vinci Art School on Third Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street where artists, employed by the WPA, served as teachers. One of her still-life course teachers was Conrad Marca-Relli who would later become a friend of de Kooning's. It was at the college that Elaine met Robert Jonas and they became a couple, often visiting galleries and museums together. She was also politically involved - representing the da Vinci School at meetings of the John Reed Club where was trying to organize students into an auxiliary Artists' Union. (DK160) At the John Reed Club meetings she met Milton Resnick who was representing the American Artists School. According to de Kooning's biographers, Milton was her "first serious boyfriend." (DK161)
After becoming involved with Resnick, Elaine left the da Vinci school and enrolled in the American Artists School. According to Resnick, "Everybody who was of interest in the art world came [to the American Artists School either for lectures or talks. It was the center of the art world in a way, much more so than the Art Students' League." According to him, the school was "the center of the American Communist Party," Elaine's sister Marjorie, recalled "It wasn't so much communists as YCL'ers, the Young Communist League." While a student, Elaine also attended a Workers Camp sponsored by the Communist party. (DK161-2) Teachers at the school included Stuart Davis and Moses and Rafael Soyer. She supported herself during her studies by working as an artist's model, joining the Models' Union. (At one point she was voted the "Most Beautiful Model" by the Artists' Union.)
Resnick and Elaine eventually moved in together into a loft on Fourth Avenue and Twenty-ninth Street. As Elaine was still officially living at home at the time she asked her friend Ernestine Lassaw to move in with her and Resnick to provide her with a cover story - a reason for her overnight stays in Manhattan. Lassaw later recalled, "She persuaded me to share a loft with Milton so she could have a place to come to in the city. It was a very dark, dismal place. Everybody who walked in got scared. It was in a business building, and it had been God knows what. It wasn't big; in fact, it wasn't big enough for all of us." (DK161) In 1938 the three of them moved into a larger apartment on East Twenty-second Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue.
When Elaine and Willem de Kooning finally met, he offered to give her drawing lessons and she accepted. According to Rudy Burckhardt, "Bill was incredibly in love with her, but she didn't treat him very well at the beginning. She was a great beauty. She would lean back on the couch and say, 'Bill. Cigarette.' And he would leap to get it." (DK162) Elaine became an active participant in de Kooning's social life - she was able to hold her own amongst artists at Stewart's Cafeteria and would often accompany Willem on his afternoon visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Arshile Gorky and Raoul Hague. When de Kooning first saw Picasso's Guernica at the Valentine Dudensing Gallery in May 1939, she accompanied him. (DK165)