Life

How One Middle-Aged Novelist Single-Handedly Invented the Look of the Classic Sex Scene

Elinor Glyn said: Velvet. Rose petals. Candles. Hollywood listened.

A book cover on the right, with Elinor Glyn on a tiger skin, and Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson on the left.
L: Cover of Three Weeks, edition produced after the MGM movie. R: Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino in Beyond the Rocks (1922).  Photos by Hilary Hallett (L) and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (R).

You’d likely recognize the image of a person in a sleek gown of silk velvet, languidly playing with a long strand of pearls around her neck (and possibly clutching a rose between her teeth), as an early icon of sexually-emancipated modern womanhood. Who among us can’t identify strewn rose petals, piles of silk pillows, a tiger skin by the fire, and slinky lingerie as the trappings of a classic seduction scene? Consider the many disaster scenarios—a snow storm, a rock slide—that trap lovers together to justify lots of long, heated kisses and caresses pressed against palms, necks, and breasts. How many times you have watched a whirling partnered dance end in a quiet clinch in a corner? Or embraces by heroes whose show of force in the moment explains why the heroine finally succumbs to the temptation?

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Every cliché has its origin story. Many of the over-familiar visual signposts of the modern romance began with an eccentric middle-aged British sex novelist with flaming red hair and a fondness for cats. During the 1920s, while Prohibition roared, Elinor Glyn (1864-1943) created the mold for how the modern love scene looked. Glyn invented, and then literally staged, these and many other familiar scenes. Her dozens of “trashy” bestsellers drove the romance novel in a more explicitly erotic direction, adding the special sauce that would make it the 20th century’s bestselling genre. Later, on movie sets, she taught the founders of the Hollywood movie colony that they could make the display of sex tasteful—just acceptable enough to the moralists—by making it glamorous. Madame Glyn (as she insisted on being called when she came to Los Angeles) personally styled Hollywood’s first sirens and Don Juans, teaching them how to walk, dress, talk, make love, and—most importantly—manage the attention that they courted and feared in equal measure.

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As the new international film center, Hollywood of the 1920s aimed to convey a sophistication it did not yet possess. Glyn’s upper-class accent, cosmopolitan savoir-faire, and impeccable style positioned her to be the glamorous grande dame capable of teaching her often uncouth, very young co-workers how to concoct sexy stories that made audiences swoon the world over, without getting the moral reformers too worked up. “Her British dignity was devastating, [and] as she baby-stepped through this or that dining room or garden party, people moved aside for her as if she was a sorceress on fire,” recalled Gloria Swanson, who often made the rounds with Glyn the year she arrived in California.

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Glyn’s earliest proteges included glamour queen Swanson, “It Girl” Clara Bow (Glyn’s tag), the great “Latin Lover” (as the press called him) Rudolph Valentino, and John Gilbert, who Glyn dubbed the “Black Stallion,” much to his chagrin. (All of these stars feature as characters in Damien Chazelle’s film Babylon, forthcoming in December, starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, and Jean Smart as Elinor Glyn.)

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The American movie industry was not even called “Hollywood” for short yet in 1920, when Paramount brought the fifty-six-year-old Glyn to Los Angeles as one of the “Eminent Authors”—Somerset Maugham was another—lured to improve its moral reputation and aesthetic clout when it became the world’s leading purveyor of films. Glyn, alone, stayed and flourished after scoring a massive hit with her first film, The Great Moment (1921), which launched Swanson’s star.

Within months, the woman who arrived in sunbaked California wearing one of her signature cream-colored chiffon day suits (with matching hat and gloves to protect her skin), strings of pearls, and sporting the first fake eyelashes (imported fresh from Paris) anyone had ever seen, had landed at the center of the colony’s raucous scene.

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A group of silent movie stars in black-and-white cartoon.
Cartoon by Ralph Barton, from Vanity Fair, September 1921. Wikimedia Commons

The first Vanity Fair cartoon to depict the personalities who made this new mass medium whir placed Glyn center stage, swathed in a mantilla, towering above a row of tiny stars, including Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Swanson. Only the mysterious Madame Glyn stares straight into the viewer’s eye, emphasizing the oracle-like persona she had already acquired. As Anita Loos—the wisecracking, bobbed brunette writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) fame—saw at once: “If Hollywood hadn’t existed, Elinor Glyn would have had to invent it.

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Co-workers director Cecil B. DeMille, producer Samuel Goldwyn, and costume designer and photographer Sir Cecil Beaton all credited Glyn’s “supervision” of her sets with establishing the romantic feel (or mis-en-scene, as film scholars call it) of the classic love scene by managing “the paradox of bringing both sex appeal and good taste” (as Beaton wrote in a 1974 homage to Glyn) to the movie colony. Glyn transferred to the screen the romantic brand she had crafted in her bestsellers, along with the authorial persona she had used to manage being a scandalous author.

The siren capable of transforming private sexual desires and frustrations into (mostly) acceptable public fantasies got her start as a British society beauty who married up the social ladder in 1892. Reversing the course of the typical 19th-century romance—which typically concluded with wedding bells—Glyn’s story gained steam after the publication of her first novel, The Visits of Elizabeth (1900). The satire about the manners and morals of the naughty aristocratic circle into which she had wed was a surprise hit, turning the society beauty into its chief chronicler.

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But it was the furor surrounding her sixth novel, Three Weeks (1907)—the trashy erotic ur text for so many romances to follow, from the 1920s bodice rippers to Fifty Shades of Grey—that launched her as the kind of celebrity author whom movie producers wanted.

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Glyn’s “bad book” described a passionate affair between an older, supremely glamorous, and miserably married Slavic queen, called only Lady, and the young British aristocrat she schools in erotic arts (for the titular three weeks).  The critics of two continents branded Three Weeks a “free love” novel for the heroine’s rejection of her marriage vow. British society turned its back on the author for describing erotic practices—like married women discreetly enjoying lovers—that many in her circle took part in, or condoned beyond closed doors, in real life.

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But its commercial popularity made Three Weeks impossible to suppress. Though censors like Anthony Comstock banned the book, it reportedly sold more than two million copies in English by 1917, when republication in a cheaper “million-seller” edition produced an estimated five million copies. Translated into every major European language, it spawned a host of imitators, generating at least twelve adaptations in print and on stage, film, and television.

A British judge who later called her sex novel “a mischievous glittering record of adulterous sensuality masquerading as superior virtue” calculated to teach a woman “that she may choose without danger the easy life of sin” was not entirely wrong.. Certainly, it set the mold for the modern siren and the love scene she inhabited.

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Its “beautiful, perfidious, dashing” heroine was “exactly what I wanted to know about,” recalled Nancy Cunard, the ocean-liner heiress and future poet and avant-garde muse. She “blazed awhile across the repression of my childhood.” No less an authority on sexual radicalism than the Russian free-love anarchist Emma Goldman called Three Weeks  “magnificent—a masterpiece…a declaration of independence.” Two Grand Duchesses admired the novel so much that they invited Glyn to visit the Romanov Court, where Glyn set His Hour (1910).

Her sex novel helped crack the genteel code in Anglo-American fiction years before D.H. Lawrence’s more celebrated problems with the censors. By the 1920s, “if a director wanted to show that one of the characters in his film was leading a racy life, all he had to do was show her holding a copy of Three Weeks in her lap…just holding the book was enough to tag her as independent and modern,” a silent-era film archivist observed, explaining why Ohio censored a Disney cartoon in 1930 for showing Clara Bell, the cow, in a field reading Glyn’s “bad book.”

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Glyn used the notoriety to become a celebrity author like no other female author before her.  To manage the spotlight, she devised a public persona that merged her status as a British lady with her “exotically” racy Tiger Queen heroine (so-called for the novel’s most infamous seduction, featuring the heroine masturbating on the back of a taxidermied great cat.) This explained the doggerel that appeared, reputedly written by George Bernard Shaw:

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Would you like to sin

With Elinor Glyn

On a Tiger Skin?

Or would you prefer

To err

With Her

On some other fur?

The tiger skin traveled to Los Angeles in 1920, where Hollywood’s emergence, and explosive growth, after World War I was cause and consequence of a generational battle over the place of sexual expression in public culture and the erosion of the sexual double standard.  Nothing got the moral reformers going in the Jazz Age like the “Sex Pictures” that the antisemitic Pennsylvania state censor, Ellis Oberholtzer, accused “Hebrew producers” of using to debauch the nation’s young women.

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Yet fans everywhere fell in love with lavish, feature-length silent movies often centered on the romantic exploits of young heroines. To their elders, “movie struck girls’” idolization of these new roles and the independent actresses who played them signaled a rejection of the prewar past where the “good girls” had remained chaste, dressed with restraint, and certainly never pursued the boys.  Glamour finessed all the “sinning” in the adaptations Glyn supervised of her novels. Beyond the Rocks (1922) featured a pearl-dripping Swanson and Valentino playing 18th-century aristocrats; His Hour (1924) found the Cossack hero (John Gilbert) strong-arming a Glyn look-alike (actress Aileen Pringle) into erotic bliss; and in Three Weeks (1925) the elegant lovers finally consummate their passion on a literal bed of roses in front of a tiger skin and fire.

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After Glyn’s first film became a hit, Madame Glyn “seemed to take over Hollywood. She went everywhere and passed her fearsome verdicts on everything. ‘This is glamorous,’ she would say, ‘This is hideous,’” reported Swanson, who often made the social rounds with her. To Samuel Goldwyn, she appeared like the beautiful witch Circe on their first meeting.

Though a distinctly modern property, glamour traded on a number of traditions and attributes—power, wealth, leisure for self-cultivation, mobility, beauty, style, theatricality, hedonism—once confined mostly to the aristocratic circles that Elinor Glyn had known so well at the apogee of their influence. Part of glamour’s power lay in its ability to make the theater of courtly life into something fit for a wider, more contemporary audience. Glamour brought these characteristics to the market, where they were transformed to suit the purposes of the newly mobile and independent women of the modern age.

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What made audiences eat it up? Sex and roses and lots of gorgeous clothes for starters. But more generally, glamorous sex as, Glyn practiced and promoted it, offered an open yet licit form of eroticism that was deployed but contained, carefully channeled rather than fully discharged but still far more explicit than the “respectable” representations of the past. Distance—whether because of the formality imposed by aristocratic codes of restraint, the slow touch of a kiss that starts on the back of a palm or the dance floor, or the cool look of an elegantly coiffed lady—was central to glamour. Distance enhanced the promise of erotic possibility for women without ceding control. A glamorous woman was capable of enjoying her sensuality without sacrificing self-respect.

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Madame Glyn exerted a policing effect on the style and publicity of Hollywood. She pointed producers toward the importance of finessing the publicity surrounding their workers, in this case by emphasizing a context of European, bohemian artistry and youthful rebellion rather than Babylonian ruin. This allowed early Hollywood—a site for so much moral panic—to thread the needle that let them create the more explicit romances that audiences yearned for ,while not inflaming the moralists too much.

Elinor Glyn knew the modern heroine could, with rose petals, velvet gowns, lingerie and pearls, at once direct attention to sex—and away from it. This was a fine trick, and one the romance genre has made good use of, right up until today.

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