Elisabeth de Waal was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna. She was the eldest child of Viktor von Ephrussi, of the international banking family, and Baroness Emmy Schey von Karomla. She studied philosophy, law, and economics at the University of Vienna, where she was one of the first women to earn a doctoral degree in law. She also wrote poetry. In 1928, she married Hendrik de Waal, a Dutch businessman with whom she had two sons. In 1938, after the German annexation of Austria (Anschluss), she returned to Vienna to try to rescue her parents. Living in exile in England afterwards, she wrote book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and for several years tried to obtain restitution for her family's property. She wrote five novels, which remained unpublished at her death. The Exiles Return finally appeared in print in 2013. Her grandson Edmund de Waal is a novelist; her cousin Charles Ephrussi was a famous art historian and a model for Proust's character Charles Swann.