INVENTING THE IT GIRL
How Elinor Glyn Created the Fashionable Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood
By Hilary A. Hallett
Illustrated. 448 pages. Liveright. $32.50.
Greater than half a century earlier than Stephen King’s “It” seized little kids, Elinor Glyn’s “It” seized grownup imaginations.
Shorthand for a mysterious magnetism or charisma, “It” was the title of a novella by Glyn that was serialized in Cosmopolitan journal and have become the obscure foundation for a silent film in 1927 starring Clara Bow (and her bobbed haircut). This as soon as very profitable writer’s identify is basically forgotten, however the concept of the “it lady,” jiggling her leg in movie star’s ready room, has endured, albeit usually within the much less thrilling type of the influencer.
A brand new biography of Glyn, “Inventing the It Lady,” by Hilary A. Hallett, restores her to the pantheon of historical past with nice thoughtfulness and style. However like a too-tight flapper headband, the title doesn’t fairly match. For one factor, Glyn, a British aristo (who additionally suggested Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino), and Bow, who was from Brooklyn, don’t meet till properly into the guide’s third part, when each are storming early Hollywood. For one more, Glyn’s idea of “it,” developed throughout an extended profession writing transgressive romance novels and having affairs with varied lords, featured a robust middle-aged man, not an on-the-verge ingénue.
Born in 1864 and raised in Canada and the Channel Islands, Glyn herself was hardly an it lady, however a bookish creature entranced by Sir Walter Scott and William Thackeray. She was compelled to marry at 27 for monetary causes, and gave delivery to 2 daughters (this was then, within the days of patrimony, thought-about a failure).
Glyn, who’d lengthy stored diaries, wrote her first manuscript in epistolary kind for amusement as an invalid and offered it to a society weekly, the place it ran and not using a byline, frightening a lot titillated curiosity amongst her set. She amped up her efforts, and her profile, after her husband, Clayton, a feckless landowner, started to lose his fading fortune on the playing tables. When the household was pressured to downsize and transfer into her mom’s cottage, Glyn put in, as a substitute of a room of her personal, an annex with 5 of them — one was for her garments and one other for her maid and one was named the “Trianon” after Marie Antoinette’s lodging. She produced a big amount of fashionable books in speedy succession, together with “The Vicissitudes of Evangeline” (1905), a.okay.a. “Crimson Hair” (which each Glyn and Bow had, and was thought-about fairly freaky of their day); the breakthrough, then-scandalous “Three Weeks” (1907); and, within the Twenties, guides on magnificence and love. Hallett credit her with awakening feminine erotic consciousness, after the lengthy sleep of Victorianism, whereas acknowledging her squeamishness towards Jewish studio executives and exoticizing of “darker” ethnicities in her work.
Glyn, broadly traveled (“by no means write about locations unseen” was certainly one of her many maxims) and press-savvy, turned an authentic boldface identify — giving the sculptor Auguste Rodin a glimpse of stocking; fervently admired by Cecil Beaton — and dabbled in journalism herself: notably, she was one of many few ladies within the Corridor of Mirrors when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919.
Along with her willingness to “growth,” as she described the promotional work which took her to America, and skill to abdomen crucial contempt and even public censure, she was a precursor to romance novelists like Barbara Cartland and that publicity-seeking missile of midcentury, Jacqueline Susann. Glyn had a curious fetish for writhing round on tiger skins and, Hallett exhibits, helped to codify many fashionable symbols of female eroticism: strings of pearls, beds of roses and silken lingerie. With out her, for higher and worse, there could not have been a Victoria’s Secret.
It helps air out this extremely perfumed story that Nell, as she was identified by her intimates, had an enchanting older sister and foil, Lucy, or Lucile: a designer specializing in easy-to-breach tea robes who outfitted the Ziegfeld Follies, helped originate the trendy modeling system and made a fateful second marriage to the baronet Cosmo Duff-Gordon. The couple turned infamous — certainly one of Hallett’s extra relied-upon adjectives — after they survived the sinking of the Titanic beneath arguably lower than honorable circumstances. Lucy and Nell have been the topics of a twin biography by Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher, known as, yup, “The ‘It’ Women” (1987), which a critic for The New York Instances additionally thought a misnomer. These ladies weren’t winsome objects of fascination briefly capturing the favored creativeness, however doyennes of resourcefulness and stamina. When Nell went West, she restyled herself as Madame Glyn.
Although a few of Glyn’s private letters acquired burned after liaisons ended badly, there stays an amazing abundance of fabric about her: piles of the movie journal Photoplay, reams of foolscap, her personal memoir, “Romantic Journey” (1936). An admiring grandson additionally wrote her life, and took her surname in homage. And all her well-known or well-connected family and friends, in fact, have lengthy paper trails too.
Hallett spent a heroic decade-plus wandering and mapping these trails, and although there are moments in “Inventing the It Lady” which can be florid and over-rounded, this tone fits the subject. Her copious endnotes made me wish to placed on a peignoir, strike my brow dramatically and fall in a lifeless faint on a chaise longue — all gestures most likely owed to Elinor Glyn.