Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err with her
On some other fur?
Disciples of early Hollywood have all run across this ditty at one time or another. Penned by an anonymous joker, it poked fun at a famous scene from writer Elinor Glyn’s infamous novel Three Weeks, the steamy romance that swiftly became a sensation when it was published in 1907 and remained a big seller well into the 1920s. It was the Twilight of–no, scratch that–the Fifty Shades of Gray of its day. Predictably, the phenomenon wouldn’t go unnoticed by Hollywoodland…and Hollywoodland wouldn’t go unnoticed by Elinor Glyn.
Self-professed “philosophy of love” expert Glyn was a British native who began publishing novels in 1900. She had been married to a wealthy landowner since 1892, but after feeling dissatisfied with the union she began having affairs with British aristocrats. Three Weeks would be about a young British aristocrat’s passionate affair with an alluring woman ten years his senior–no one could say Glyn didn’t take the whole “write what you know” advice to heart!
The novel’s success pushed Glyn into the international spotlight, and she was proud to assume the responsibility. She became, in the words of one modern writer, “the Martha Stewart of all things sex.” She was passionate about educating the public on the rather popular topic, most crucially on the art of seduction, declaring that love must be transformed from “the mere animal instinct for species preservation with all the beauties of the imagination.” Glyn insisted that society needed poetry, needed exoticism, needed ROMANCE, of the couches-heaped-with-roses variety.
By 1920 Glyn’s popularity was so sky-high that Famous Players-Lasky asked her to come to Hollywood and write sexy, sexy screenplays. The public ate them up, although critics usually rolled their eyes. The proper British woman marketed not only romance but herself, adopting a campy celebrity persona that few interviewers could resist. Her hair was dyed “Titian red,” she defiantly wore makeup, and she decorated her hotel suite with rich draperies, heaps of purple cushions, and a tiger skin rug (that was said to travel with her). In interviews she was given to lofty philosophizing and grand statements, complete with theatrical pauses.
Gloria Swanson was a former Glyn acolyte who remembered the woman with some awe: “She took over Hollywood. She went everywhere and passed her fearsome verdicts on everything. ‘This is glamorous,’ she would say. ‘This is hideous,’ she would say, as she baby-stepped through this or that dining room or garden party. People moved aside for her as if she were a sorceress on fire or a giant sting ray.” Glyn would coach Valentino in the best love-making techniques and, most famously, declare Clara Bow to possess “It”. Her word was law.
I chanced upon a delightful interview from Motion Picture Magazine, wherein Glyn, clad in a gown “in a shade of soft orchid” with her “half-closed, enigmatic green eyes,” spoke eloquently and a shade defensively about Three Weeks. “I know it to be a great story that will live long after I’m gone,” she breathed. “People branded my story. They read into my beautiful, spiritual love-scenes the lesser thing in their own minds. More, they read the isolated love passages and skipped the other parts…[Author’s note: *snicker*]…Paul and the Lady had that blessed trinity of love of which I have spoken. They had an intellectual bond, a physical bond, and a spiritual bond…Without any one of these no love can reach its highest state of being.”
Three Weeks is similar to romance novels of today, while still being drenched in Edwardian-ism. Young Paul Verdayne–“Smith” would never do–falls in love with the alluring, sensual, poetic, spiritual, philosophical, elegant, tempting, slinky tease known only as the Lady. There are expensive hotels in the most gorgeous of locations, priceless jewels in magnificent tresses, heaps of strong-smelling flowers, mooning in the moonlight, lollygagging on tiger skins. We are treated to a veritable feast of priceless dialogue, like: “My Paul, this is our wedding night, and this is our wedding wine. Taste from this our glass and say if it is good.” And oh, the emotions–the coursing, flowing, nervewracking, nail-biting emotions of love!
I can see why it was so popular back then. And you know what? I can’t not recommend it. It’s surprisingly readable, the language florid but not too impenetrable (well, if you’re used to old novels, anyways). One big difference from today’s torrid romances is that Glyn always discreetly draws the curtain on the most intimate scenes, leaving details up to the readers’ imaginations–hence the novel’s PG nature today. (I’ll assume this wasn’t unusual for romance novels at the time, although I’m no expert.) And of course the “window into history” makes it mighty interesting. Glyn conveniently sidesteps the question of the affair’s morality by insisting that the Lady had noble intentions in mind–by producing, through her Most Perfect And Spiritual Union with Paul, an heir to her throne (oh yeah, she’s secretly royalty, by the way) with a eugenically perfect dose of Paul’s English blood. Historical attitudes, folks!!
Glyn and her blockbuster Three Weeks became a part of silent era pop culture. Parodies showed up on stages as early as 1908. A satisfactory feature film came out in 1914 and a more exciting version was released in 1924 (which sadly didn’t star Theda Bara–seriously, Theda was robbed, she was born for that role!). Buster Keaton would make humorous references to it more than once–One Week (1920) was meant to be taken as joke title, and a receptionist is shown idly reading Three Weeks in his feature Seven Chances (1925). Constance Talmadge starred in the knowingly-titled Two Weeks (1920) and Glyn would write Three Weekends (1928) especially for Clara Bow. Glyn herself had cameos in It (1927) and Show People (1928). In The Ten Commandments (1923) one of the main characters, scoffing at his mother’s love for the Bible, declares: “Nobody believes in these Commandment things nowadays—and I think Elinor Glyn’s a lot more interesting.”
Glyn’s writing style and persona were, shall we say, quite of their time. By the time the Great Depression hit, her influence was on the wane. She would return to England, where, after a short stint producing her own films, she would continue to write novels.
Still, while scenes involving ladies lying on lush tiger skins with roses betwixt their teeth make us snicker today, Glyn’s influence on cinematic love scenes has known no bounds. Every passionate kiss, bed strewn with roses, and lingering look of longing retain just a little bit of legacy of this grande dame of romance. And I’m sure that if she knew, she’d be most terribly pleased.
This article was written with love for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s spring blogathon, Words! Words! Words!, honoring the many great writers who masterminded our favorite films. A shout out to my friend popegrutch over at the Century Film Project for coming up with this fine topic!
Glyn, Elinor. Three Weeks. New York: The Macaulay Company, 1909.
Stenn, David. Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.
Horak, Laura. “‘Would You Like To Sin With Elinor Glyn?’ Film as a Vehicle of Sensual Education.” http://www.academia.edu/358844/_Would_You_Like_to_Sin_With_Elinor_Glyn_Film_As_a_Vehicle_of_Sensual_Education