As a child haunting her stepfather’s library, Elinor “Nell” Glyn, the queen of 20th century romance, devoured stories about fast-and-loose royals like Charles II’s mistress, her near namesake Nell Gwynne, who pursued her own desires without punishment. As Hilary A. Hallett writes in her new biography, “Inventing the It Girl,” the modern Nell would forge a long, lucrative career out of this raw material: the glamour and scandal of the upper classes, and pulsing below, the inadmissible longing — her own and her readers’ — to be swept away by passion without dying on the rocks.
Nell and her older sister Lucy, who became a successful couturier, knew from rocky shores. Raised in Canada and on the shipwreck-strewn island of Jersey, they were rigidly schooled in Victorian strictures of class and gender — especially the hard truth that dowry-less social climbers could not break the rules like true aristocrats. Still, they played the game, and looked the part, Nell especially distinctive with her “red hair, milk-white skin, green eyes, and a waist that looked small enough to snap in two.” At 27, she married a dissolute English landowner named Clayton Glyn. And that, Hallett tells us, in defiance of the conventions of the genre she would later invent, is when Nell’s story really begins.
After Nell had done her duty and borne two disappointingly female children, she and Clayton, who had little in common besides a love of spending money, began to travel. Through Paris, Italy, Cairo, the Swiss Alps, they chased distraction and treatment for Nell’s various chronic ailments, which doctors generally ascribed to her femaleness. During one convalescent period, she revisited her diaries from her husband-hunting “seasons” and dashed off a roman à clef about the sexual hypocrisy of high society. It launched her career as an author of novels that were “equal parts autobiography and fantasy.” But it was her 1907 novel, “Three Weeks,” that would forever define her and her image. Weaving in extensive quotations, Hallett gives the flavor of this overheated story in which a married Slavic queen deliberately seduces a young Englishman. “Sex in the key of glamour,” as Hallett puts it, the novel launched tropes that would dominate romance writing for generations, including a tiger-skin rug, an open fire, slinky black lingerie, and rose petals strewn on the bed. But it also, most scandalously of all, centered a woman’s desire, and focused on her pleasure.
The scandal of “Three Weeks” resulted in equal parts fame and social ostracism. The critics were brutal, but their views hardly counted against the sales — and increasingly, as her husband’s gambling and dissipation worsened, those sales were the point. Writing on the one remaining house on her husband’s estate after the others had been sold (economic disaster is always relative), Glyn mined her well-traveled past and her ever-buoyant fantasies for more novels. She finally began her own tortured and drawn-out affair, with the powerful imperialist and anti-suffragist Lord Curzon. She was in the middle of redecorating one of his houses when she read the news of his engagement to another, much younger, though similarly red-haired mistress. Her belated discovery that “true passion could be as transitory as the English sun” spurred Glyn’s next metamorphosis into a columnist, social commentator and even, briefly, war reporter.
Another equally unlikely twist arrived after World War I, when the producer Jesse Lasky invited her to Los Angeles. Glyn, in her mid-50s, was out of place even among the tumbleweeds who gathered there, but she saw the power that women, like her friend Mary Pickford, wielded in the emergent movie colony. “Madame” Glyn, as she was known, unrolled her signature tiger skins and crystal ball in a suite at the Hollywood Hotel, and carved out a unique role as the glamorous grandmother, “hell-bent on bringing refinement to the film colony,” according to the writer Anita Loos. Utterly self-serious, Glyn was an adherent of New Thought, believing in the power of her own perceptions to shape reality. The flip side is that lived reality seems rarely to have changed her mind. Despite years working among LA’s social upstarts, many of them Jewish, she clung to antisemitism and class snobbery, writing to a friend “How in one’s soul one loathes common people, however worthy.”
She capped her Hollywood career by crowning Clara Bow, a scrappy, charismatic redhead from Brooklyn, as the “It Girl.” “It” had long been Glyn’s mystical touchstone — according to Bow, she defined it as a kind of “animal magnetism” possessed by, among others, Rudolph Valentino and Rex, a stallion who’d appeared in several westerns. “I was awful confused about the horse,” Bow said, but was game for the role, and the resulting picture made her an icon.
Hallett’s sense of history makes this a biography rich in detail — sometimes to excess — and broad in scope. Yet the frequent zooming out to sketch larger trends — the decline of the aristocracy, shifting attitudes to marriage and divorce, urbanization, feminism, and the rise of the movie business — stalls the story’s momentum, and muddies our sense of Glyn’s place in all this change. Was she a harbinger of a new sexual equality, or a skilled reworker of Victorian patterns? Did she reflect the changing times, or drive them forward? Either way, the “It Girl” and her creator had a profound impact on modern attitudes to love and sex — one that echoes today, long after Glyn’s name has faded, in a romance novel’s eternal promise to sweep the reader away.
Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood
By Hilary A. Hallett
Liveright, 464 pages, $32.50
Joanna Scutts is a critic and historian, and the author, most recently, of “Hotbed: Bohemian New York and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism” (Seal Press, 2022)