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Thursday, April 15, 2010

HISTORY LESSON: Elinor Glyn gives "It" away

Hollywood owes a great debt to the many superb, female writers who contributed to the growth of cinema. Frances Marion and Anita Loos both had strong careers from the silent area through the golden age, and they penned some of the most popular and classic films of all time. Of course, authoresses like Ayn Rand and the always-in-fashion Jane Austin had their books adapted for the screen, providing compelling and intricate character pieces for many an ambitious actor. But there is one very interesting lady who took Hollywood, and thus all the world, by storm with her provocative and-- for the times-- sexually explicit literature.

Elinor Glyn was a well-bred but rebellious English girl who grew into an envelope-pushing misfit and cultural icon. As an author, Elinor was the Jackie Collins of her day, penning erotic novels that unapologetically explored female desire. In Three Weeks, for example, she describes a sexual tryst between a very entangled couple on a tiger-skin rug. It caused quite the uproar and became the topic of many a fiery church sermon, but Glyn most likely knew what she was doing. After releasing some sentimental romance novels, including the well-received Beyond the Rocks that, she spiced things up with a more scandalous brand of literature and coincidentally made a lot more money. By exploring her own secret passions, she tapped into a surging whirlpool of dormant desire that the majority of contemporary readers shared. She stuck to her new formula and never looked back.

 Women devoured her books like chocolate-- living out their sordid and impassioned fantasies-- largely due to the fact that the heroines in Glyn's novels were never shrinking violets, but the predators of assorted male prey. This early example of female empowerment came at just the right time, as the twenties really started to roar... and the women too! As a result, the public came to depend on Elinor as a source for all things romantic, sensual, and cultured. Her extensively publicized, and somewhat eccentric persona developed into an almost cartoonish fiction in the hands of the press, who turned her into the intellectualized Cher of the literary world. She was promoted as a person of great class and worldliness. As with many others whoa are touched by fame, Elinor couldn't help but take the bate, and for professional and perhaps egocentric reasons, she participated in maintaining her reputation. History records her notoriously lavish wardrobe and cosmetics, which included fake eyelashes and flame-red hair (which may or may not have been a wig). After willfully crafting herself into a social celebrity and a literary gold mine, it wasn't long before Hollywood came calling to get in on the deal.

Hollywood's poaching of this author made sense. If Glyn's saucy novels transferred to film, they were sure to reel in the big bucks. Elinor saw the possibilities as well, realizing the power that cinematic celebrities would have. She correctly predicted Gloria Swanson's fate, telling her that movie stars would be considered American royalty. She encouraged Gloria to play the part, on camera as well as off, which the actress did. Truthfully, Glyn wanted in on Hollywood as much as it wanted her. Anita Loos herself would say, "If Hollywood hadn't existed, Elinor Glyn would have had to invent it." Referred to as "Madame Glyn" by now, Elinor ingratiated herself with all the creme de la creme.  She spent time at San Simeon and Pickfair, and her declining popularity regained steam as her novels turned into films.

Her screen adaptations included the previously mentioned Three Weeks-- which was made in 1914 and again in 1924, the latter time with Eileen Pringle and Conrad Nagel-- and Beyond the Rocks, with Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, (they are pictured together in a still from the film to the right). Her stories had to be toned down a bit for the censors, of course-- it was much easier to be naughty in print-- but the melodramatic tales of forbidden, torrid romances remained. By the time pre-production started for His Hour in 1924, Elinor had enough power to refuse casting decisions on her pictures. This held great sway with the public, for if she gave a thumbs down, it meant the star was no "star" at all; if she gave a thumbs up, it meant the actor must really be something special. At first, she did not want to allow John Gilbert to take the role of "Prince Gritzko" in His Hour, for she had learned that he was soon to be a father (of daughter Leatrice) and found that most un-sexy. However, after meeting the charming actor, she agreed to the casting decision and was proud of his intense and sexually charged portrayal.

John Gilbert and Aileen Pringle in His Hour

The studio made John take private lessons with Glyn to prepare for the role, which they were forcing many of their stars to do. Most of her pupils were unable to handle her overwhelming personality at first, considering quite comic and thinking-- perhaps correctly-- that she was full of baloney. John had to bite his lip and sit through her tutorials on decorum and etiquette. How he kept a straight face, knowing his wicked sense of humor, is a true testament to his acting ability. However, he and many others were able to learn from her, believing that her knowledge was accurate even if her presentation was a bit pretentious. Since John was still struggling at this point in his career, he cleverly put his need to work over his compulsion to guffaw. Doubtless, he couldn't help but joke about his odd tutor later with his friends. In fact, one of his pals, Charlie Chaplin, (above) was not so inclined to play it straight. He too was forced to go in for a meeting with the Madame, but he simply started bellowing with laughter at the ludicrous situation. The miffed Glyn was beyond insulted and made no qualms about telling Charles what  she thought of him. The comedian replied with a smirk: "That's too bad. I think you're a scream." In the end, Charlie and the rest of Hollywood was able to accept Elinor for what she was-- save for William Haines, who found her utterly ridiculous-- and she was able to earn some allies. Charlie would continue to poke fun, of course, but that goes without saying.

Clara Bow, oozing "it" in... It

Of course, the star Elinor is most tied to in history is Clara Bow, whom she would label the "It girl" in a big Paramount publicity campaign. A person who possessed "it," according to Glyn, was effortlessly charismatic and sexually enthralling. If you had "it" you had that special "X" factor that placed you much higher on the totem pole of desire and admiration than your social contemporaries. You were grand, refined, exciting... magical! After Glyn created this new definition, Paramount jumped at the chance to use it to promote Bow. After agreeing to meet Clara, who thought Glyn was absolutely cuckoo but was too sweet to say so to her face, Glyn agreed to let her star in her next adaptation, also entitled It, and forever gave those two letters their phenomenal power and Clara her nickname. With Glyn's magic wand of approval, Bow, who was already popular, became a sensation. With her electric, lovable energy, the title seemed rightfully bestowed. The film was a huge success, and as a result the writer-actress duo were coupled up on future projects, including Red Hair and Three Weekends, (though many critics agreed that in terms of story-- as far as the screenplays went-- Glyn and her co-writers were phoning it in, and Bow's performances were the only saving graces in these later vehicles).

Portrait of Glyn by Philip Alexius de Laszlo

As times changed, Elinor's themes and re-hashed storylines became old hat, as she did herself. Just as the talkies came swooping in, Glyn made her exit. She wrote a few more pieces before her death in 1943, but would never be as socially relevant as she had been during the 1920s. Her "moment" in time was interesting and perplexing, and did much to broaden the nature of fame. "Celebrity" became a title supposedly bestowed on the worthy few, as if by God himself, when in truth, celebrity was manufactured and built by the studio men. Glyn was not an exception, but the rule. She had broadcast her majesty and natural superiority to the world, yet she too was a carefully calculated contrivance. She was always very aware of the hypocrisy of the community in which she lived. She embraced it and simultaneously let it make use of her before making her curtsy and returning to the real world. That's Hollywood for ya'. Glyn couldn't have written it any better. Or could she?


  1. Fascinating post - as always! I love the bit about Charlie Chaplin. I think that's hilarious! Thank you so much for sharing all of your wonderful knowledge!

  2. Haha, thanks girl! I thought the Charlie bit was hilarious too. I wish I could have been there to see that exchange! ;)

  3. Some of this post captures the basic spirit of the Elinor-Glyn-in-Hollywood story, but I have to point out some errors:

    Glyn's first books included some that were actually pretty comic, and already a little spicy. ("Red Hair," aka "The Vicissitudes of Evangeline," is one that can still be fun to read today.) Most sold well, and "Beyond the Rocks," the book immediately before "Three Weeks," did fine financially, according to Glyn's biography. Glyn said that "Three Weeks" came out of her desire to invent a relationship that was more romantic than her marriage.

    It's not true that Glyn knew nothing of decorum and etiquette: she was born into a family of impoverished gentry, and her grandmother was rigid about behavior. Glyn spent most of her young adulthood at society house parties in England and France, and was presented at the English court.

    Glyn and Chaplin were actually friends for a time, and she records (in her autobiography) playing games with him at parties, and being stuck in a room with him and his then-wife, Lita Grey, in Mexico overnight. He probably did make fun of her at times, but that wasn't the whole of their acquaintance.

    She really did have bright red hair, although it was most likely faded by the time she arrived in Hollywood, and there are some reports that she wore a wig.

    In her autobiography, Glyn looks back from a distance of over ten years, and was able to make fun of her own pretensions and fussiness during her time in Hollywood. But she was also serious in her attempt to raise her pictures to a higher level of "screen art." However, ideas about what constitutes art have really changed since her day.

    1. Wow! Thanks for all that information. I must say, I have never encountered information painting her in such a fashion. The sources I used for this article must have been under-informed. Where did you obtain your research?

    2. Hello:
      Hello--I just came back and saw your question. Yes, it is interesting how different Glyn appears from the popular image, once you really start delving into her writings and life. Many of Glyn's novels are available for free online. Clara Bow's biographer ("Runnin' Wild") disparaged "Red Hair," but from his description of it, I don't think he actually read it. (Although possibly he just hates books of that sort--it is definitely a romance, though an amusing one.) She can be pretentious and tiresome in her work, but she can also be insightful and fun. I found "Three Weeks" tough to get through, but it's interesting from a social-history perspective, because it was a major international bestseller.

      I've read three books about her: her own autobiography, "Romantic Adventure," and two biographies, one by her nephew Anthony Glyn, and one that's a dual bio of Glyn and her sister, the fashion designer Lucile, called "The 'It' Girls." Both the biographies draw extensively on Glyn's own writings for descriptions of her early life, but much of that is supported by documentation, and by those in her circle, such as Lady Warwick, and her publisher. (The red hair is attested to by everyone who knew her, including Lily Langtry, who met her as a child.) Both of the latter books include some mistakes about Hollywood, but they work pretty hard to flesh out the many facets of Glyn. The information about her book sales comes mainly from Anthony Glyn, who quotes sales records. He also quotes contemporary reviews, many of which took her books quite seriously. There are also numerous articles about her available in the digital world (I'm researching her for a project, so that's how I know).

      My reply is too long to post, so I will break it up into parts...since you asked! : )

    3. Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin wrote about Glyn in their autobiographies. (In fact, once you start looking, you find her in loads of books about early Hollywood.) Swanson described her as eccentric, but seemed to respect her. In his book, Chaplin wrote of Glyn, "Though she was a little overwhelming at first, I became quite fond of her." They attended many parties together, and Chaplin reports that Glyn introduced him to Marion Davies. He confirms that they did spend the night in the same room on a trip to Mexico, though he tells the story a little differently than Glyn did. He does make some gentle fun of her, but his opinion doesn't seem to match the story quoted in your blog--I'm wondering where that one came from.

      Pola Negri, in her autobiography, tells a story about John Gilbert playing a practical joke on Glyn, clearly believing she needed some taking down, but he may have regretted that later when he was campaigning for the lead in "His Hour." One source--which I now can't find, annoyingly--says Glyn at first rejected him for the role, although she later claimed, in her autobiography, that she helped "discover" him. It is true that "His Hour" helped launch his career. The character he played was based on a real-life Russian aristocrat that Glyn met in her European wanderings. She spent some months at the royal court in St. Petersburg, gathering material for the book.

      Glyn wrote quite a few articles for Hearst publications, including reports from the WW1 trenches. I am trying to find those, but some parts are quoted in her autobiography. She not only visited the trenches, and was one of only two women in attendance at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, but she worked as a dishwasher and cleaner at a soldiers' canteen in London, which I find remarkable, given her society background, and ideas about social class. (These ideas softened a bit over time--though she retained some racist and homophobic prejudices well into the twentieth century, which is not surprising when you consider that she was born in 1864, but is surprising when you consider her career.)

      If you read her autobiography, you might find her a bit kooky and a bit pretentious, and but she also comes across as quite intelligent. She was a complicated personality. She certainly had her faults, but she knew more than some Hollywood historians give her credit for.

    4. (Dang, I see a typo in my last paragraph! It should be "but she also," not "and but she also." )

      Well, that may be more info about Glyn than you really wanted to know, but there you are!

    5. No, that's terrific! Thanks for the information. I always try to be as accurate as possible, so I like when I'm given advice to improve my articles. You know your stuff, lady! I remember watching Boganovich's The Cat's Meow and thinking that his interpretation of Elinor was more complimentary than I would have imagined, so it looks like he was as well informed as you. Thanks again. I appreciate it! :)

  4. Hi! Well, thanks; I try to research thoroughly, as well, but I'm embarrassed to say that I made a mistake in what I wrote above: Anthony Glyn was actually Elinor's grandson, not her nephew (he adopted her last name later in life). Incidentally, this obituary I just came across paints him rather charmingly:

    As for the annoyingly-unfindable source of the idea that EG didn't want John Gilbert for the lead in "His Hour"? Why it's on this very page, in your post! Can you say duh? I'd love to know where you found the story.

    I just discovered recently that Eve Golden also believes that EG wrote "Three Weeks" as a potboiler (it's in her recent book on John Gilbert--maybe that's where you got the info?); Perhaps she knows something I don't know. So I guess that question is still a little bit open.

    re: Cat's Meow
    PB did leave out all EG's kookiness, as I remember, so I think you're right that the interpretation was maybe going too far to the other side. Chaplin and Swanson both have funny accounts in their books of what she said to them when they first met, and it seemed like the Lumley character would never have uttered such things. Chaplin said she fixed him with an intense stare and raved about his blue eyes, taking him aback. Swanson's account (abridged): "'Egyptian!' [EG] pronounced, pointing at me with a hand covered with rings and bangles, at our first meeting. 'Extraordinary, quite extraordinary... anyone can see that when you turn your head. You have lived there in another time.'"

    But I thought it was one of the better ideas of that film to have EG be the viewer's guide (as I recall; it's been a while since I've seen it), since she was an observant writer. Chaplin put in his book that she was the one who told him what happened on the boat (as he claimed not to be there himself).

    I think Joanna Lumley would be awesome in the role if she were really able to develop the character!

    1. Sorry so belated! Thanks again for all the info! I am 90% sure that my source for the John Gilbert information was in Leatrice Fountain's "Dark Star," but it has been awhile. In any case, you've helped me form a more well rounded view and I appreciate it. Have a great labor day!