From Marilyn Monroe to Lady Gaga it seems one actress every generation is said to have “It” but few know that a female screenwriter of the silent era coined that still current phrase. Meet Elinor Glyn. Her life as a high society wife in England fed the novel-writing success that brought Glyn an invitation to Hollywood at the age of 56.
Through marriage, she had gained the glamour of being a member of the titled nobility. Yet she soon learned he had less funds than could support their lifestyle, so Glyn became a writer, publishing a book a year to keep her family’s finances afloat. Her ‘naughty’ novels – because they involved women involved in torrid affairs -- became best sellers. That success caused the Hearst publishing company to sign Glyn to write articles and - recognizing the power of the film industry - Glyn included a clause for the motion picture rights.
In 1920 Glyn came to Hollywood to write The Great Moment, starring Gloria Swanson, for the Famous Players-Lasky Company. In 1924 she adapted her latest and raciest bestseller, Three Weeks, into a film of the same name. On the set Glyn herself demonstrated how the lead actress should seduce a man while writhing on a tiger skin rug which made the newspapers and inspired a popular poem:
Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err with her
On some other fur?
Clearly, she was already demonstrating in her films the quality she would ascribe to the first “It” girl – silent star Clara Bow. Glyn adapted her novel of the same name about a clever shop girl who finally catches the eye of a would-be suitor after several failed attempts and Bow starred in the film. Due to her own fame as the writer of the original story, Glyn had a cameo as well. After that huge success the two teamed up again with Bow starring in Red Hair (1928), which Glyn adapted from her 1905 novel.
After that Glyn wrote only four more films, three silent and one talkie, Such Men Are Dangerous (1930) before retiring from the screen, but not from the party scene. Glyn exists in modern popular culture via The Cat’s Meow (2001), a film based on Thomas Ince’s 1924 death under mysterious circumstances while on a celebrity birthday cruise on W.R. Hearst’s yacht. It is the character of Elinor Glyn (portrayed by Joanna Lumley of Absolutely Fabulous fame) who narrates the mystery surrounded by other celebrities of the era including Charlie Chaplin. Likewise, characters in television series such as Downton Abbey are seen reading and discussing her novels.
For the remainder of her real life, Glyn traveled between L.A. and Brighton, U.K. and was a major member of the Hollywood in-crowd. Her immense popularity sparked Anita Loos (subject of Column #2) to joke, “If Hollywood hadn’t existed, Elinor Glyn would have had to invent it.”
Even though Glyn reigned in Hollywood for only about a decade, 27 films were produced from her stories, novels, and screenplays and the concept of having “It” survives.
So what is It? Simply put women with It need not be physically perfect, but they must possess a strange magnetism which attracts both sexes. Clara had It. Marilyn had It. Gaga has It. And Elinor had It.
If you’d like to learn more about the women highlighted in this column, and about the art of screenwriting while earning your MFA, our low residency Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting is currently accepting applications.