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?
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.