British author Elinor Glyn (1864-1943) wrote a number of novels, many featuring strong female characters in sexually charged situations. The most scandalous was Three Weeks, which nearly ended Glyn's career. Later in her career she was lured to Hollywood to write screenplays, one of which originated the idea of the "It Girl." She also directed two unsuccessful films.
Glyn was born Elinor Sutherland on October 17, 1864, in Jersey, England, the daughter of Douglas and Elinor (Saunders) Sutherland. Douglas Sutherland was a Canadian-Scottish civil engineer who died of typhoid fever when Glyn was three months old. After her father's death, Glyn, her mother, older sister Lucy—who as Lady Lucy Duff Gordon would become a successful fashion designer—and her French grandmother moved to Canada. Glyn's grandmother was a particularly strong influence on Glyn; from an aristocratic background and with strong beliefs, the elderly woman helped shape her granddaughter's outlook on life.
In 1871 Glyn's mother was remarried, and the family returned to Jersey, England. Glyn and her sister did not like their stepfather, an oppressive man, nor did Glyn want to live in Jersey. Glyn became very rebellious in all facets of her life and stuck to her own ideas. Although she did not receive much of an education because she did not like the governesses assigned to teach her through the age of 14, Glyn read a great deal of the books in her stepfather's library.
As was expected of a woman of her class, Glynn wanted to marry, but was selective in her choice of suitors. As Jane Abdy wrote in the Financial Times, "Elinor was beautiful, a flame-haired temptress, too exotic and too well-dressed to be easily accepted in the society of which she sometimes adorned the fringe. Her ambition was a happy and worldly marriage." Finally, Glyn married when she was in her late twenties. From outward appearances, the 1892 match was favorable: Clayton Glyn was a landowner and a member of the gentry. While the couple eventually had two daughters, Margot and Juliet, Clayton Glyn spent his fortune and had a drinking problem. The marriage was essentially over in the early 1900s, by which time his wife had sought solace in the arms of other men such as Lord Milner and Lord Curzon.
Published First Novel
Before her marriage ended, Glyn saw her first novel, The Visits of Elizabeth, serialized in The World in 1900. The story, which focuses life on country-house society, reflects Glyn's ability to observe the world around her. The book was popular and successful, and Glyn used the money she made from the book's publication to travel to Italy, France, and Egypt.
In 1902 Glyn followed The Visits of Elizabeth with a similar work, Reflections of Ambrosine. Basing the work on historical facts, she employed a diary format so the novel reads like the autobiography of its subject, Ambrosine Eustasie Marquise de Galincourt, who was guillotined in 1793. Her next novel was much different. The Damsel and the Sage: A Woman's Whimsies presents a dialogue between the Damsel, a free and loving woman, and the Sage, who lives alone in a cave and hates women. The pair debates love, life, and the universe. The Damsel ultimately prevails and the Sage falls in love with her.
Penned Scandalous Three Weeks
As Glyn's career as a novelist progressed, her plots became more unrealistic and featured socially prominent, beautiful, sexually charged heroines and heroes that were dominating. In 1907 she published the work that made her almost notorious. In Three Weeks, she depicts an affair between Lady Henrietta, an older woman who turns out to be a queen in the Balkans, and a younger man, a handsome but rather dim Englishman. The fact that the pair makes love on a tiger-skin rug was more than enough to shock reading audiences and provoke somewhat of a scandal. The liaison produces a son, though because Henrietta is married, she is able to pass the child off as her husband's. On a more conservative note, she devotes the remainder of her life to her son's success. Still, due to the provocative sex scenes, London critics almost universally condemned Three Weeks, with the result that by 1916 the novel had sold more than two million copies and been translated into a number of languages. Despite the scandal Glyn made money on the book, but ultimately lost it because she trusted her husband's investment advice.
Clayton Glyn's debts bankrupted the family by 1908, forcing Glyn to write for money to support herself and her family. Despite continuing money problems, she was determined to live in a comfortable fashion and pursued other avenues of attaining such comfort. She had an affair with Curzon, a former viceroy of India, probably with her husband's consent.
In 1907-1908, Glyn went to the United States and lived in New York City, as well as Colorado, Nevada, and California. Despite the continuing turmoil over Three Weeks, she published Elizabeth Visits America (1909), which was written in a similar vein as her first novel and featured Glyn's own illustrations. Although it was not completely successful, her next work restored her reputation as an author.
At the end of the first decade of the 1900s, Glyn spent a winter at the Russian court at St. Petersburg and Moscow, and this experience provided the background for her 1910 novel, His Hour. A best seller that restored her reputation, His Hour focuses on an English widow who falls in love with with a Russian prince, whom she ultimately marries. Glyn also had another best seller with The Reason Why (1911), a book she wrote in 18 days as a means to make money.
In 1915 Clayton Glyn died, and Glyn moved to Paris, where her literary output increased. She had another big seller with The Man and the Master (1915), which was written in the popular romance style of the time in which the couple destined to be together does not get together until the very end. Glyn also expanded beyond novel-writing to publish stories and articles in popular magazines. She also was a war correspondent in France during World War I, visiting the trenches but writing from the Ritz hotel.
Glyn's finances improved in 1917 after she signed a contract with William Randolph Hearst for the U.S. rights to her novels. One of the first books to published under the agreement was The Career of Katherine Bush (1916). While the book sparked a disagreement with Hearst, who wanted the heroine to be more agreeable, Glyn refused to change her text.
Worked as Screenwriter
Because of her popularity as a novelist, like many high profile authors of the time, in 1920 Glyn was asked to come to Hollywood and write screenplays by Jesse Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky. She proved to be very successful at screenwriting, because her scripts, much like her novels, were daring and sexy. Her first script was written in 1920 for leading star Gloria Swanson. The Great Moment concerns an Englishwoman with social standing who falls in love with a macho American man. When she returns to her native country, she almost marries the British millionaire chosen by her father, but ends up with the American, who has created his own wealth. Glyn's second screenplay, Beyond the Rocks, paired Swanson with costar Rudolph Valentino to provide another hit film.
Glyn produced a number of screenplays in the 1920s. She wrote Six Hours and Three Weeks (The Romance of a Queen) in 1923; the King Vidor-directed His Hour in 1924; Man and Maid and Love's Blindness in 1925; and The Only Thing in 1926. Both Man and Maid and The Only Thing were of the same genre as The Great Moment, but failed at the box office. These failures forced Glyn to attempt a different kind of story. Based on her own short story, Ritzy (1927)—a farce about a woman hunting a duke who pretends he is poor though he loves her—did not do well at the box office either.
Defined "It Girl"
While working on screenplays for Hollywood Glyn continued to write novels, one of which was It (1926). The screenplay version of this story of liberated female sexuality restored Glyn's reputation as a screenwriter, although she was credited only as author, adapter, and co-producer; Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton actually adapted the screenplay from her novel. The 1928 film starred Clara Bow, whose sultry performance as a store clerk who has a crush on her boss and ultimately wins his affections earned her the name the "It Girl." Bow's new label inspired a catch phrase of the time describing the liberated, jazz-aged, new woman and It became a definitive jazz age film.
Glyn followed It with another film starring Bow, Red Hair (1928). A redhead herself, she used the hair color as a symbol for passionate women, though the movie did not have much of a plot. Up to this point, all of Glyn's scripts had been for silent films. She wrote her first non-silent script, Such Men Are Dangerous, in 1929. That same year the 65-year-old novelist and screenwriter decided to return to England, in part because of tax demands.
Describing Glyn's role in Hollywood, Victoria Glendinning wrote in the Washington Post: "Elinor had a triumphant last chapter as the social arbitrator of Hollywood. Aging now, her hair dyed, her make-up over-bright, she worked on scenarios and instructed ignorant American actors on how real ladies and gentleman walked and dressed and decorated their houses. She was immensely grand."
Worked as Film Director
When Glyn returned to England in 1929, she formed her own film production company and began a film-directing career that proved less than successful. Using her own money, she directed Knowing Men (1929), a comic-feminist take on men as sexual harassers. The woman at the center of the film is an heiress who assumes a false identity to learn what her suitor is really like. The final product came off as very amateur, and the screenwriter, Edward Knoblock, sued to prevent it from being released. Knowing Men created such a scandal that it ruined Glyn's fledgling film company.
Glyn managed to direct a second film, The Price of Things (1929), which also proved to be a commercial disaster. After two such failures Glyn retired from film work and continued to write novels until her death. In 1936 she published her autobiography, Romantic Adventures.
Glyn died on September 23, 1943, in London. Moira Petty described the late novelist in Stage magazine as "the chick-lit author of the early 1900s, with a dash of Dorothy Parker and a dollop of Barbara Cortland."
Etherington-Smith, Meredith, and Jeremy Pilcher, The It Girls: Eleanor Glyn and Lucy, Duff Gordon, Hamish Hamilton, 1986.
Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey, Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary, Greenwood Press, 1995.
Schlueter, Paul, and June Schlueter, editors, An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers, Rutgers University Press, 1998.
Uglow, Jennifer, compiler and editor, Dictionary of Women's Biography, 3rd edition, Macmillan, 1982.
Unterburger, Amy L., editor, Women Filmmakers and Their Films, St. James Press, 1998.
Financial Times, October 18, 1896.
New York Times, May 5, 1987.
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Washington Post Book World, May 17, 1987.
Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err with her
On some other fur?
Disciples of early Hollywood have all run across this ditty at one time or another. Penned by an anonymous joker, it poked fun at a famous scene from writer Elinor Glyn’s infamous novel Three Weeks, the steamy romance that swiftly became a sensation when it was published in 1907 and remained a big seller well into the 1920s. It was the Twilight of–no, scratch that–the Fifty Shades of Gray of its day. Predictably, the phenomenon wouldn’t go unnoticed by Hollywoodland…and Hollywoodland wouldn’t go unnoticed by Elinor Glyn.
Self-professed “philosophy of love” expert Glyn was a British native who began publishing novels in 1900. She had been married to a wealthy landowner since 1892, but after feeling dissatisfied with the union she began having affairs with British aristocrats. Three Weeks would be about a young British aristocrat’s passionate affair with an alluring woman ten years his senior–no one could say Glyn didn’t take the whole “write what you know” advice to heart!
The novel’s success pushed Glyn into the international spotlight, and she was proud to assume the responsibility. She became, in the words of one modern writer, “the Martha Stewart of all things sex.” She was passionate about educating the public on the rather popular topic, most crucially on the art of seduction, declaring that love must be transformed from “the mere animal instinct for species preservation with all the beauties of the imagination.” Glyn insisted that society needed poetry, needed exoticism, needed ROMANCE, of the couches-heaped-with-roses variety.
Basically the novel in a nutshell.
By 1920 Glyn’s popularity was so sky-high that Famous Players-Lasky asked her to come to Hollywood and write sexy, sexy screenplays. The public ate them up, although critics usually rolled their eyes. The proper British woman marketed not only romance but herself, adopting a campy celebrity persona that few interviewers could resist. Her hair was dyed “Titian red,” she defiantly wore makeup, and she decorated her hotel suite with rich draperies, heaps of purple cushions, and a tiger skin rug (that was said to travel with her). In interviews she was given to lofty philosophizing and grand statements, complete with theatrical pauses.
Gloria Swanson was a former Glyn acolyte who remembered the woman with some awe: “She took over Hollywood. She went everywhere and passed her fearsome verdicts on everything. ‘This is glamorous,’ she would say. ‘This is hideous,’ she would say, as she baby-stepped through this or that dining room or garden party. People moved aside for her as if she were a sorceress on fire or a giant sting ray.” Glyn would coach Valentino in the best love-making techniques and, most famously, declare Clara Bow to possess “It”. Her word was law.
Coaching Rudy and Gloria on the set of Beyond the Rocks.
I chanced upon a delightful interview from Motion Picture Magazine, wherein Glyn, clad in a gown “in a shade of soft orchid” with her “half-closed, enigmatic green eyes,” spoke eloquently and a shade defensively about Three Weeks. “I know it to be a great story that will live long after I’m gone,” she breathed. “People branded my story. They read into my beautiful, spiritual love-scenes the lesser thing in their own minds. More, they read the isolated love passages and skipped the other parts…[Author’s note: *snicker*]…Paul and the Lady had that blessed trinity of love of which I have spoken. They had an intellectual bond, a physical bond, and a spiritual bond…Without any one of these no love can reach its highest state of being.”
True to her philosophy, Three Weeks has enough high states of being for ten novels. Want the alluring female reclining on a tiger skin with a rose between her teeth? You got it. Want the lovers to spend their last evening together in a room stuffed with flowers from floor to ceiling? Consider it done! Desire to revel in dialogue like: “Let us waste no more precious moments. I want you–I want you–my sweet”? Check and check! It was all très risqué back in the day, but today you might find yourself reading it from cover to cover and then wondering where all the risqué parts were.
I can confirm all this because I am, in fact, the proud owner of a splendid 1909 copy and totally read the whole thing just for you, gentle readers!
Three Weeks is similar to romance novels of today, while still being drenched in Edwardian-ism. Young Paul Verdayne–“Smith” would never do–falls in love with the alluring, sensual, poetic, spiritual, philosophical, elegant, tempting, slinky tease known only as the Lady. There are expensive hotels in the most gorgeous of locations, priceless jewels in magnificent tresses, heaps of strong-smelling flowers, mooning in the moonlight, lollygagging on tiger skins. We are treated to a veritable feast of priceless dialogue, like: “My Paul, this is our wedding night, and this is our wedding wine. Taste from this our glass and say if it is good.” And oh, the emotions–the coursing, flowing, nervewracking, nail-biting emotions of love!
I can see why it was so popular back then. And you know what? I can’t not recommend it. It’s surprisingly readable, the language florid but not too impenetrable (well, if you’re used to old novels, anyways). One big difference from today’s torrid romances is that Glyn always discreetly draws the curtain on the most intimate scenes, leaving details up to the readers’ imaginations–hence the novel’s PG nature today. (I’ll assume this wasn’t unusual for romance novels at the time, although I’m no expert.) And of course the “window into history” makes it mighty interesting. Glyn conveniently sidesteps the question of the affair’s morality by insisting that the Lady had noble intentions in mind–by producing, through her Most Perfect And Spiritual Union with Paul, an heir to her throne (oh yeah, she’s secretly royalty, by the way) with a eugenically perfect dose of Paul’s English blood. Historical attitudes, folks!!
Thrilling romance and pro-eugenics in one affordable package!
Glyn and her blockbuster Three Weeks became a part of silent era pop culture. Parodies showed up on stages as early as 1908. A satisfactory feature film came out in 1914 and a more exciting version was released in 1924 (which sadly didn’t star Theda Bara–seriously, Theda was robbed, she was born for that role!). Buster Keaton would make humorous references to it more than once–One Week (1920) was meant to be taken as joke title, and a receptionist is shown idly reading Three Weeks in his featureSeven Chances (1925). Constance Talmadge starred in the knowingly-titled Two Weeks (1920) and Glyn would write Three Weekends (1928) especially for Clara Bow. Glyn herself had cameos in It (1927) and Show People (1928). In The Ten Commandments (1923) one of the main characters, scoffing at his mother’s love for the Bible, declares: “Nobody believes in these Commandment things nowadays—and I think Elinor Glyn’s a lot more interesting.”
Glyn’s writing style and persona were, shall we say, quite of their time. By the time the Great Depression hit, her influence was on the wane. She would return to England, where, after a short stint producing her own films, she would continue to write novels.
Still, while scenes involving ladies lying on lush tiger skins with roses betwixt their teeth make us snicker today, Glyn’s influence on cinematic love scenes has known no bounds. Every passionate kiss, bed strewn with roses, and lingering look of longing retain just a little bit of legacy of this grande dame of romance. And I’m sure that if she knew, she’d be most terribly pleased.
This article was written with love for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s spring blogathon, Words! Words! Words!, honoring the many great writers who masterminded our favorite films. A shout out to my friend popegrutch over at the Century Film Project for coming up with this fine topic!
Glyn, Elinor. Three Weeks. New York: The Macaulay Company, 1909.
Stenn, David. Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.
Horak, Laura. “‘Would You Like To Sin With Elinor Glyn?’ Film as a Vehicle of Sensual Education.” http://www.academia.edu/358844/_Would_You_Like_to_Sin_With_Elinor_Glyn_Film_As_a_Vehicle_of_Sensual_Education
Behold its glory. (Also my thumb.)