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.

Becoming a Pro—Berthe Morisot

In 1874, a group of French artists opened an exhibit of paintings that shocked Paris, attracted crowds, and created a sensation. The paintings they showed were different from the traditional, careful pictures that had been exhibited year after year at the official Salon show in Paris.

Most of the people who crowded the new exhibition were shocked by what they saw. Critics wrote that the new painters, who called themselves Impressionists, had “declared war on beauty” and very few of their works were sold. It took courage to turn against the critics and persist in painting in a new and different style. The men who exhibited paintings at that exhibit included several who are now considered major artists, including Monet, Pissarro, Degas and Renoir. And there was one woman who earned a place among them in that first show—Berthe Morisot. She may not have realized it, but she too was forging a new role for women in art.

Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in Bourges, France. Like many daughters in prosperous middle-class families, she was given a good education and excellent artistic training. Even though women were not allowed to enroll in the professional art training available to men, there were artists willing to offer private tutoring for young women at home.

By the time of the first Impressionist show, Morisot was thirty years old. Some of her paintings had been accepted and shown at the official Paris Salon, but she was interested in exploring new ways of developing her art. Most women at that time gave up art when they got married, but Berthe Morisot was more interested in painting than in marriage. “Work is the sole purpose of my existence,” she declared. “Indefinitely prolonged idleness would be fatal to me from every point of view.”

Developing a career as a painter was difficult for a woman. Men were free to participate in the lively social gatherings in cafes and to attend private parties. It was there that painters met art dealers, arranged exhibits, and sold paintings. A respectable woman , like Berthe Morisot, could scarcely leave her home without a chaperon. She  had to rely on the men in the group to set up exhibitions and publicize the work of the Impressionists. Morisot was lucky because the Impressionist painters, especially her friend Edouard Manet, respected her work and opened opportunities for her to exhibit with the men. Eventually Morisot married Eugene Manet, brother of Edouard.

Morisot received her share of ridicule from critics who scoffed at Impressionist paintings because they considered them not as carefully finished as traditional paintings. One critic wrote: “If Mademoiselle Morisot wishes to paint a hand, ‘she gives as many brushstrokes, lengthwise as there are fingers, and the thing is done.”

Berthe Morisot stood firm in her decision to paint freely and offer a fresh, new view of the world. It took years of struggle by the Impressionists, but gradually an audience for their work grew. Despite finding it difficult to sell their paintings, many of them stayed together and continued offering group shows. It was not until 1879  that the group had a successful exhibit and started to make money.

Berthe Morisot was the first woman to become part of the Impressionist movement, but she was followed by others. Mary Cassatt, an American artist, joined the group in later exhibits as did another French painter, Marie Bracquemond. In 1894, the art critic Gustave Geffroy described the three women as “les trois grandes dames” (the three great ladies) of Impressionism.

As the twentieth century started, more and more women became professional artists, but it is enlightening to look back and learn about how they joined the art world as colleagues and equals.

Impressionist paintings, of course, can now be seen in major museums, there are also films and prints widely available. Several books have been written about the history of the Impressionists. One that I recommend highly is The Private Lives of the Impressionists (Harper Collins 2008) by Sue Roe, which is available in many libraries and bookstores.

Dancing through the Pain—Tanaquil LeClercq

Spring has arrived, bringing a feeling of hope and rebirth as flowers bloom and trees put out new leaves. It is a good time to think about people who have also managed to find a rebirth and hope after serious illness or loss. One of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard recently is about a dancer who overcame the assault of an illness that would have destroyed the lives of many others—Tanaquil LeClercq.

Born in Paris in 1929, the daughter of an American mother and a French father who was a poet and writer, Tanaquil was named after an Etruscan queen. When she was three years old, the family moved to New York. As a child, Tanaquil attended the French Lycée and began to study ballet. She won a scholarship competition at the School of American Ballet where she attracted the attention of its founder, George Balanchine.

Tanaquil LeClercq

By the time she was fifteen years old, Tanaquil began to appear in early Balanchine pieces at the Ballet Society, which later became the City Ballet. It was the beginning of a spectacular career during a time when ballet was becoming an important part of the American cultural world.  Balanchine, who had been born in Russia, and had experience in both classical ballet and in theatrical revues in London, developed a new style of ballet combining elements of traditional and modern dancing. He created a number of ballets for Tanaquil whose skills exemplified those needed in his new ballets. In 1952, he and Tanaquil were married. Both of their careers flourished.

Tanaquil LeClercq

Besides dancing in many of Balanchine’s most famous works, including “Symphony in C”, “Western Symphony” and “La Valse”, LeClercq also danced in many of the ballets choreographed by Jerome Robbins who also became a close friend. One of his most spectacular pieces was “Afternoon of a Faun” in which LeClercq dominated the stage with her long, graceful body and startling dancing.

During the 1950s, LeClercq toured with the City Ballet in America and Europe. It was on a tour in 1956, that polio found her. Although the Salk polio vaccine had become available in 1955 and most of the ballet troupe received the vaccine before leaving the U.S. on their tour, LeClercq delayed her shot saying she would get it after the flight. It was in Denmark that polio struck and LeClercq suddenly found herself placed in an Iron Lung.

The first two years after catching polio are the crucial time for regaining strength and mobility. Balanchine and LeClercq worked tirelessly together to revive the muscles that had been affected by polio. Balanchine devised special movements and exercise to restore Tanequil’s legs. He encouraged her to place her feet on his as he walked or danced, hoping that would allow her muscles to regain their strength. Being a spiritual man, he also prayed. Nothing helped. LeClercq gradually regained strength in her arms and upper body, but she was never again able to use her legs.

Both Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, LeClercq’s closest colleagues, worked hard to keep up her spirits. Robbins wrote her a letter every day during the first year of her illness. But recovery from polio is painfully slow and incomplete and as time went on, LeClercq had to struggle on by herself. She and Balanchine divorced in 1969. And gradually she and Robbins drifted further apart.

The two men continued their careers and LeClercq worked hard to develop a new one for herself. She learned how to use her arms and upper body to demonstrate dance steps and she began to coach the dancers at the City Ballet. Her biggest opportunity came when Arthur Mitchell invited her to work with his newly established Dance Theater of Harlem. There she taught classes for more than a decade and during that time she also wrote and published two books.

Although her magnificent career as a dancer was cut cruelly short, Tanaquil LeClercq built a satisfying new life defying the tragedy of polio. In 1998, City Ballet opened its 50th anniversary season with a tribute to her. LeClercq attended in her wheelchair. She died two years later at the age of 71.

LeClerc’s life has been celebrated in a documentary film “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq” (2013) which includes archival footage of her dancing as well as interviews with several people who knew her. The film can be streamed on Kanopy and other streaming services. Watching this film will allow you to spend an evening with a woman who was an amazing dancer and a gallant spirit.