INVENTING THE IT GIRL
How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood
By Hilary A. Hallett
Illustrated. 448 pages. Live right. $32.50.
More than half a century before Stephen King’s “It” seized little children, Elinor Glyn’s “It” seized adult imaginations.
Shorthand for a mysterious magnetism or charisma, “It” was the title of a novella by Glyn that was serialized in Cosmopolitan magazine and became the vague basis for a silent movie in 1927 starring Clara Bow (and her bobbed haircut). This once very successful author’s name is largely forgotten, but the idea of the “it girl,” jiggling her leg in a celebrity’s waiting room, has endured, albeit often in the less exciting form of the influencer.
A new biography of Glyn, “Inventing the It Girl,” by Hilary A. Hallett, restores her to the pantheon of history with great thoughtfulness and taste. But like a too-tight flapper headband, the title doesn’t quite fit. For one thing, Glyn, a British aristo (who also advised Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino), and Bow, who was from Brooklyn, don’t meet until well into the book’s third section, when both are storming early Hollywood. For another, Glyn’s concept of “it,” developed during a long career writing transgressive romance novels and having affairs with various lords, featured a powerful 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 girl, but a bookish creature entranced by Sir Walter Scott and William Thackeray. She was forced to marry at 27 for financial reasons, and gave birth to two daughters (this was then, in the days of patrimony, considered a failure).
Glyn, who’d long kept diaries, wrote her first manuscript in epistolary form for amusement as an invalid and sold it to a society weekly, where it ran without a byline, provoking much titillated curiosity among her set. She amped up her efforts, and her profile, after her husband, Clayton, a feckless landowner, began to lose his fading fortune at the gambling tables. When the family was forced to downsize and move into her mother’s cottage, Glyn installed, instead of a room of her own, an annex with five of them — one was for her clothes and another for her maid and one was named the “Trianon” after Marie Antoinette’s accommodations. She produced a large quantity of popular books in rapid succession, including “The Vicissitudes of Evangeline” (1905), aka “Red Hair” (which both Glyn and Bow had, and was considered quite freaky in their day); the breakthrough, then-scandalous “Three Weeks” (1907); and, in the 1920s, guides on beauty and love. Hallett credits her with awakening female erotic consciousness, after the long sleep of Victorianism, while acknowledging her squeamishness towards Jewish studio executives and exoticizing of “darker” ethnicities in her work.
Glyn, widely traveled (“never write about places unseen” was one of her many maxims) and press-savvy, became an original boldface name — giving the sculptor Auguste Rodin a glimpse of stocking; fervently admired by Cecil Beaton — and dabbled in journalism herself: notably, she was one of the few women in the Hall of Mirrors when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919.
With her willingness to “boom,” as she described the promotional work which took her to America, and ability to stomach critical 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 around on tiger skins and, Hallett shows, helped to codify many modern symbols of feminine eroticism: strings of pearls, beds of roses and silken lingerie. Without her, for better and worse, there may not have been a Victoria’s Secret.
It helps air out this highly perfumed story that Nell, as she was known by her intimates, had a fascinating older sister and foil, Lucy, or Lucile: a fashion designer specializing in easy-to-breach tea gowns who outfitted the Ziegfeld Follies, helped originate the modern modeling system and made a fateful second marriage to the baronet Cosmo Duff-Gordon. The couple became notorious — one of Hallett’s more relied-upon adjectives — after they survived the sinking of the Titanic under arguably less than honorable circumstances. Lucy and Nell were the subjects of a dual biography by Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher, called, yup, “The ‘It’ Girls” (1987), which a critic for The New York Times also thought was a misnomer. These women were not winsome objects of fascination briefly capturing the popular imagination, but doyennes of resourcefulness and stamina. When Nell went West, she restyled herself as Madame Glyn.
Although some of Glyn’s personal letters got burned after liaisons ended badly, there remains an overwhelming abundance of material about her: piles of the film magazine Photoplay, reams of foolscap, her own memoir, “Romantic Adventure” (1936). An admiring grandson also wrote her life, and took her surname in homage. And all her famous or well-connected friends and family, of course, have long paper trails too.
Hallett spent a heroic decade-plus wandering and mapping these trails, and although there are moments in “Inventing the It Girl” that are florid and over-rounded, this tone suits the topic. Her copious endnotes made me want to put on a peignoir, strike my forehead dramatically and fall in a dead faint on a chaise longue — all gestures probably owed to Elinor Glyn.