Elinor Glyn: The Madam Who Had a Name for It

Well, it is Rita Hayworth’s birthday. And that of Arthur Miller, the reluctant radio playwright. Both have featured in this journal, which is reason enough to celebrate instead the birth of the “Madam” who brought “sex appeal” to page and screen by calling it “It.” Her name is Elinor Glyn, born on this day, 16 October, in 1864. “Fate and circumstances have combined to give Elinor Glyn a halo of sensationalism,” remarked Alice M. Williamson, the authoress of the aforementioned Alice in Movieland, from whose delightful tour of 1920s Hollywood the above portrait has been taken and freely adapted. No kidding, Glyn caused a scandal with her novel Three Weeks, published back in 1907, and came from her native England to Hollywood in the early 1920s.

Glyn, to be sure, was full of “It,” even if she felt compelled to cover it up. In the American edition of Three Weeks, for instance, Madam offered the following defense:

For me “the Lady” was a deep study, the analysis of a strange Slav nature, who, from circumstances and education and her general view of life, was beyond the ordinary laws of morality. If I were making the study of a Tiger, I would not give it the attributes of a spaniel, because the public, and I myself, might prefer a spaniel!

Yes, Glyn had learned how to package “It,” wrapping it up to be presentable while promising something you could not wait to unwrap. “I am only the conductor,” Glyn reportedly remarked, “of these glorious currents of health and hope and joy and success, but it is good to help pass magnetic vitality on to others.”

“How it would surprise readers of that long ago success Three Weeks, who think of Madam Glyn as a siren on a tiger skin, to hear this “line of talk” from her,” Williamson marveled. Her readers would get a chance to spot Glyn, who had the last word in Peter Bogdanovich’s Cat’s Meow (2001), in the hit comedy Show People, starring Marion Davies, whom Glyn visited at her Welsh retreat, the previously visited St. Donats Castle.

Glyn’s move to Hollywood, as Williamson recalls, had been a difficult and frustrating one. She had

almost everything against her. She was supposed, even then, to direct a picture which would be made from her books; but in truth she was allowed to have no authority at all. She was merely a picturesque figure-head, to whom those really in authority tried to be polite while being evasive—she was permitted to tell a pretty young star what style of hair-dressing became her best, or what the daughter of an English duke would wear when she “followed the guns” in the shooting season [. . . .] If Madam Glyn went east, fondly imagining that she had directed a film, she would see it on the screen and hardly be able to recognise it as her won. But all is changed now. She is trusted and respected as a director. The girl stars whom she moulds for their parts in her pictures feel her fascination, and believe that her influence upon them doesn’t end when their work together is finished.

Now, pardon me, while I am under the influence of The Price of Things, one of the novels Glyn adapted for the screen and directed as well. Its opening lines promise the tale of a married woman who did not mind the influence of a thrilling, if thrillingly ugly, stranger who encourages her “to banish all thought.”

“What do you mean by thought? How can one not think?” Amaryllis Ardayre’s large grey eyes opened in a puzzled way. She was on her honeymoon in Paris at a party at the Russian Embassy, and until now had accepted things and not speculated about them. She had lived in the country and was as good as gold. 

She was accepting her honeymoon with her accustomed calm, although it was not causing her any of the thrills which Elsie Goldmore, her school friend, had assured her she should discover therein. 

Honeymoons! Heavens! But perhaps it was because Sir John was dull. He looked dull, she thought, as he stood there talking to the Ambassador. A fine figure of an Englishman but—yes—dull. The Russian, on the contrary, was not dull. He was huge and ugly and rough-hewn—his eyes were yellowish-green and slanted upwards and his face was frankly Calmuck. But you knew that you were talking to a personality—to one who had probably a number of unknown possibilities about him tucked away somewhere. 

John had none of these. One could be certain of exactly what he would do on any given occasion—and it would always be his duty. The Russian was observing this charming English bride critically; she was such a perfect specimen of that estimable race—well-shaped, refined and healthy. Chock full of temperament too, he reflected—when she should discover herself. Temperament and romance and even passion, and there were shrewdness and commonsense as well. 

“An agreeable task for a man to undertake her education,” and he wished that he had time.

4 Replies to “Elinor Glyn: The Madam Who Had a Name for It”

  1. It\’s curious that she came to have such a Welsh sounding name, but was born in St Helier, partly to French aristocracy. Do you have any idea why she changed from Sutherland to Glyn?

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  2. Yes, that great name is misleading. Perhaps, Louise Harrington of Cardiff University, who wrote about her (in the online Literary Encyclopedia), was hoping for a Welsh connection as well. I figured, considering that Glyn wrote such racy romances, a name change was advisable. As it turns out, it her name by marriage, her husband being one Clayton Glyn, who was not Welsh, either, but (according to the New York Times, 5 Oct. 1907), of \”an ancient Essex family.\”Speaking of Wales-Hollywood connections: have you been to St Donats?

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  3. Yes! As it happens, I was at a wedding in Atlantic College in August. Some of my friends also did their A levels there. What a wonderful place. I didn\’t realise it\’s Hollywodd connection until somebody informed me on the lawn whilst taking the family photos. I wonder how much time Hearst actually spent there?

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  4. About the time you were there last, I took the tour and walked away with Enfys McMurry\’s Hearst\’s Other Castle. According to McMurry, Hearst bought St Donats in 1925, but did not inspect it until 1928—and only for one day. He returned four times, for longer periods, until his final visit in 1936.Among his guests there was Elinor Glyn.I filed my report from the castle here:http://broadcastellan.blogspot.com/2007/07/occidental-tourist-or-marion-davies.html)

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