Putting the Zing into Romance—Elinor Glyn

The name Elinor Glyn still sounds familiar to many media fans, but most people have forgotten what she did. Her name has become a cliché in quotes such as the anonymous “Would you like to sin with Elinor Glyn on a tiger skin? Or would you prefer to err with her on some other fur?”

But who was the real Elinor Glyn and why are so many of her books still available on Amazon—although not in most public libraries? Who was this woman who invented the “It” girl and started the new genre of romance books as well as helping to make some of the most popular movies of the jazz age?

Elinor Glyn

Glyn was born in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, in 1864 into an aristocratic family. Her father died while she was an infant, and Elinor’s mother moved back to her family home in Canada with the baby. After living for eight years in Canada, they returned to Jersey where Elinor spent most of her childhood. She had almost no formal schooling. Her education came mainly from her grandmother and governesses, although she spent one year at a boarding school in France. She spoke both English and French fluently and read avidly in both languages. Her family assumed that her role in life would be to marry an aristocrat and live a secure life flitting between England, France, and the rest of Europe. 

Luckily Elinor grew up into a strikingly beautiful young woman with pale skin and bright red hair. She also had a lively wit that made her popular with both men and women. Her early adult years were spent socializing, going to parties, and becoming familiar with many important people in European society. In 1892, when she was 27 years old, she married Clayton Louis Glyn and it seemed as though a prosperous future was assured.

Unfortunately, the marriage was not a happy one. Elinor longed for romance and intimacy, but Clayton’s interests were mainly in hunting, fishing, and traditional country life. She tried in vain to bring romance into their marriage, even buying a leopard skin rug, but he rejected her fantasies. Their relationship became worse when their money dwindled away. His wealth was constantly threatened by his spendthrift habits and his obsessive gambling. Instead of living a life of ease, Elinor found herself struggling to keep the household running and paying for nurses and servants to take care of the two daughters she and Clayton soon had. To raise money quickly, Elinor turned to writing. Unlike most aspiring writers, she found almost immediate success.

Glyn found an audience by putting into words the romantic dreams of girls and women in England and America. She wrote quickly and was soon turning out a new book every year. One of her first major successes was Three Weeks, a book that was published in 1907 and is still being read more than a hundred years later. Her writing supported the family while her husband’s drinking destroyed his health and led to his early death in 1915 soon after the beginning of World War I.

Elinor’s writing became an even more important to her and her family after the death of her husband. She became a war correspondent and wrote dispatches from France. Her social ties gave her entry into a wide circle of important men, including Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India, who was part of the Prime Minister’s War Cabinet. Glyn was one of only two women who attended the Paris Peace Treaty meeting after the war.

As her children grew up, and the war ended, Glyn turned all of her energy toward writing and socializing. She had a long and satisfying affair with Curzon, but that ended when he decided to find a young bride who could give him a son. He never had a son, but his relationship with Glyn ended.

After the war, England and the rest of Europe still suffered from economic depression and the loss of many of their fighting men. Cities needed to be rebuilt and farms cultivated. Meanwhile, America was thriving. In 1920, Glyn was invited to visit Hollywood with a view toward writing for the new movie industry then in its infancy.

Early films were considered to be entertainment for the masses and not a legitimate art form by most critics, but Elinor Glyn was the perfect link between upper class socialites and lower-class pleasure seekers. She found her place in Hollywood where she was able to teach young actors how to project an image of elegant romance, how to walk and dance like an aristocrat, and how to dress like a lady. Among her friends were Mary Pickford (the “It” girl), Gloria Swanson, and William Randolph Hearst. She entertained at her tea gatherings, which were welcomed by many people as a change from the usual highly alcoholic Hollywood parties.

In addition to her social skills, Glyn was a hard-working writer who was able to turn out scripts (called continuities) that shaped the actions of early silent movies. From 1920 until 1927, silent films reigned supreme in Hollywood and were popular across the country. Unfortunately for historians, copies of these early silent movies have disappeared, so it is impossible to evaluate their quality. With the advent of talkies at the end of the decade, Glyn’s popularity dwindled. With the help of her daughters and son-in-law, she tried to establish her own company to produce and distribute films  but was gradually pushed out of the business.   

In 1929, Glyn returned to England. As her dreams of producing movies failed, she gradually turned back to writing books and articles. She died in 1943, in the middle of World War II. The story of her eventful life has been told recently by Hilary A. Hallett in Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood (2022). Hallett not only tells the story of Elinor Glyn’s life and achievements, she also paints a fascinating picture of the growth of the modern film industry, one of the remarkable success stories of the twentieth century.

“Helpless” Woman Helps Pirate—Sarah Kidd

During Colonial days in America, women were considered so weak that they needed the support of a husband or father to accomplish anything. Girls were seldom taught to read or write because those were skills they would never need. But Sarah Kidd demonstrated that a determined woman could handle property, raise a family, and support her husband’s cause even though she didn’t learn to sign her name until she was a middle-aged woman.

Sarah was born in England in about 1645. Like most girls of her time, she married young and soon had a daughter to care for. She and her husband emigrated to America with their young daughter hoping to find more work and greater prosperity. America offered opportunity, but it was also filled with dangers, especially from illness. Sarah’s husband soon died, leaving her with a child to raise and no chance of employment.

Like most young widows, Sarah married again. Her life seemed to be following a familiar path, but there was little certainty in colonial life. Her second husband, Samuel Cox, was a merchant and Sarah soon learned a lot about taking care of property and managing shops. She became a wealthy woman. Unfortunately, Cox was considerably older than she was and he died, leaving her again a widow.

Her third marriage was short, but during it she found the man who would define her life—Captain William Kidd. He was clearly the love of her life and they were partners in business and in life. At the time they met, Kidd was a respected and successful ship’s captain and a privateer.

Captain Kidd

Today we think of privateers as criminals, but things were different back in Sarah’s time. The American colonies were struggling to remain free from what they viewed as unfair rules imposed by England. New York, for example, was pushed to become a part of New England instead of maintaining its status as a separate colony.

Sarah and Kidd were a prosperous and popular couple during the first years of their marriage. They owned property, gave parties, and were friends of many of the most important citizens of New York.

One of their friends was the Earl of Bellomont, who was governor of a large area from Massachusetts to New York. He commissioned Kidd to hunt down pirates and enemy French ships in the Indian Ocean. Kidd’s trip was a long one, but he hoped to return in a year and be with Sarah, who was pregnant with another child at the time he left.

Time dragged on and everything seemed to go wrong on the trip. Men who had signed on hoping to enrich themselves were bitterly disappointed as the months went by. Several of them rebelled and Kidd punished them harshly. At least one man died after his punishment. Kidd declared it was an accident, but some of the sailors began calling Kidd a murderer.

Sarah struggled to take care of her children in New York where Kidd had left her. Finally, she got a message telling her to go to Boston to meet her husband. She hurried to meet him, but he was no longer a free man. Political feelings had changed in England. Privateers were no longer needed and the government was attempting to get rid of pirates. Kidd found himself condemned by the people who had hired him. His friend Bellomont turned against him and refused to defend him. He spent two years imprisoned in Boston and was finally sent to London where he was kept in prison for another three years before finally being hanged in 1701.

 After Kidd died, Sarah was left a widow again. Not only had she lost her husband, but she had also lost her social position and credibility. Within a few months after his death, ballads about the “notorious Captain Kidd” were circulating in both London and New York. Sarah and her children lost a husband and father as well as their reputations. They also lost Kidd’s property, which was confiscated by the state. For two years they lived in seclusion in New York.

Fortunately, Sarah still had a father and a brother. When the brother died, she received his property and was able to move to a more suitable house than the one she had been living in. She married one last time, changed her name to Rouseby and lived respectably until her death in 1744.  Somehow, out of all the troubles of her life, she managed to demonstrate that she was far from helpless. She worked her way out of poverty and raised her children to become prosperous citizens of the new country. You can learn more about her life by reading a recent book written by Daphne Palmer Geanacopoulos, The Pirate’s Wife: The Remarkable True Story of Sarah Kidd (2022)

Sarah Kidd did not leave many written records of her life and questions remain, but she demonstrated that she was a strong, clever head of the family. Despite being a mere woman, she built a satisfying life for her children and descendants.

Saving Ancient Temples and Facing Modern War

The civilization of ancient Egypt has fascinated Europeans for centuries. When Napoleon’s army invaded Egypt during the early 1800s, they brought many Egyptian artifacts  to France and placed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.  It is no wonder that a young girl being raised in Paris a hundred years later became fascinated with Egypt and decided to devote her life to the study of Egyptology. But no one would have predicted that Christiane Desroches would become a world-famous Egyptologist and the savior of some of the most important tombs ever built in Egypt.

Christiane Desroches was born in Paris on November 17, 1913, the daughter of a prosperous lawyer who encouraged his children to read and to study. She was lucky to have teachers who recognized her abilities and helped her to find her path. The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 caused a great stir in France and like many other young people, Christiane decided to become an Egyptologist. Unlike most other students of her time, Christiane never lost her enthusiasm. Encouraged by her teachers, Christiane was able to get a job working in the Egyptian department of the Louvre classifying and cataloging Egyptian artifacts.

During the 1930s, she became the first woman to lead an expedition to Egypt to study antiquities. Her trip there was not easy. Men had dominated Egyptology ever since the study began. Many of the scholars who were part of the expedition belittled Christiane’s contributions because they did not believe a woman could handle the hard physical labor of digging up artifacts, but Christiane proved her worth. She worked well with the Egyptian field workers and became friendly with many of the Egyptian families in the camp. And her patient field work led her to discover important items that were taken to the Louvre and added to their collection.

Then came Hitler’s rise to power, which led to World War II. As the German army moved closer and closer to Paris and threatened to capture the city. Christiane realized that the precious Egyptian artifacts she had studied might be captured and taken to German museums or even destroyed. She and other museum employees mounted a campaign to move the treasures to unoccupied areas in France where they would be safe. They carefully packed up the artifacts they treasured and secretly moved them through the German lines to safety in the unoccupied areas of southern France. Despite being caught and questioned by Gestapo agents, Christiane managed to maintain her secrets and save many of the most important artworks owned by the Louvre.

Among the people she met during the war was Andre Noblecourt, who she married in 1942. Their marriage was never a traditional one, although it was long and happy. Christiana did not give up her maiden name but linked her married name to that of her husband, an unusual choice in France at that time. After the war her husband worked for the Louvre and eventually became a security adviser for the national museums of France. When the war ended, Christiane went back to her position as curator of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre. She wrote several popular books about Egyptology and taught at the Louvre school.

During the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt, many European countries worried that his efforts to make the lives of Egyptian people better would result in the loss of many of the monuments of ancient Egyptian civilization. Christiane Desroches- Noblecourt played an important role in persuading UNESCO to contribute money to preserve the monuments. The work became especially urgent after Nasser’s decision to build a second Aswan dam in 1954.

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt was tireless in visiting government leaders throughout Europe and persuading them to support the efforts of the Egyptologists. She even spoke personally to De Gaulle, who was reluctant to contribute French money to the effort at a time when France was still rebuilding from the devastation of World War II. Christiane also found an ally in Jacqueline Kennedy, who was keenly interested in French culture. Jacqueline in turn encouraged her husband President John Kennedy to find American support for the efforts.

The work of saving Egypt’s monuments continued for many years. Huge monuments were lifted out of the desert sands and moved to higher ground. Some of the artifacts found in Egypt were sent to countries that had contributed to the restoration efforts. (You can read the full story at International Campaign )   

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt did not rest on her laurels after these achievements. She lived a long and active life even after she had to give up her active field work. She continued teaching and writing until almost the end of her life. She died at the age of 97 in 2011. A vivid account of the work of Desroches-Noblecourt can be found in a recent book, Olson, Lynne (2023). Empress of the Nile: The Daredevil Archaeologist Who Saved Egypt’s Ancient Temples from Destruction.