Among the unforeseen joys awaiting you this July is the collection amassed by one of our volunteers, now, alas, moved on to the Great Golden Ultimately. She meant this shelf of books for the Newberry’s own shelves, but some of it duplicates what the library already has. So you will find a previously unparalleled number of battered hardcovers in our Romance section which testify to her (never explained to me) passion for Elinor Glyn.
Who is Elinor Glyn? Can it be that you have passed your years unaware of one of the greatest running jokes of the early twentieth century? Is it possible that you have never learned the poem which begins EVERY article about this author? “Would you like to sin with Elinor Glyn on a tiger skin? Or would you prefer to err with her on some other fur?”
Elinor was one of those people who goes around with the right circle. Her older sister became an important fashion designer. Elinor, marrying late and badly, moved on to a series of relationships with a number of titled men, many of whom wound up in the novels she wrote to provide a steady income. Starting in 1908, her books were steamy tales aimed at female readers who were not accustomed to royalty romping on tiger pelts while on vacation. Producing these at a rate of about one a year, she was able to live the high life, and travel extensively. (Mark Twain met her on one of her trips to America, but was not specific about what they discussed.) In the 1920s, she became a phenomenon in Hollywood, both as a regal advisor on proper etiquette and as an expert on “It”, a mystic sort of physical and/or intellectual magnetism some people had and some people did not. The movie based on her book “It”, helped make a star of Clara Bow and provided the inspiration for the song “I’ve got ‘It” but It Don’t Do Me No Good.”
She kept writing well into the 1940s, producing, besides her novels, several books on love, one on how to write, and another on how to prevent wrinkles. At 72, she wrote her autobiography, which suggested that she was not quite ready to give up romantic adventure. She served stints as a movie producer, directing some of her own films (she is said to have changed the direction of Gloria Swanson’s career), experimenting with product branding across several media, making a great deal of money and gossip, and just in general serving as a bad role model for young ladies who were supposed to behave themselves and do what the men told them to do. She’d be a bigger star in our cultural firmament today if only her whole career hadn’t been based on writing such trash.
What can you learn from a study of Elinor Glyn today? Well, it’s hard to say. You can see what sort of books your ancestors, male and female, hid in the closet in their day. (The great comedy writer S.J. Perelman admitted she was among the forbidden treasures he read as a teen.) You can study the role of women in pop fiction prior to World War I. (Her first big hit—Three Weeks, the one with the tiger skin—shows an assertive woman seducing a much younger English nobleman. It’s said to be autobiographical.) Or you can get caught up in the stories and reflect that some things never change. (Although perhaps a tiger-striped Snuggie would be more the thing nowadays.)