The 'It' girls
I have for years been keen to learn more about my family, whether close or distant relations, whether of good or ill repute. I find research of the Irish/Canadian side of the family the most productive area. I discovered two of my most interesting and probably scandalous women relatives in the nineteenth and twentieth century are described in The 'It' Girls, Elinor Glyn, Novelist, and Lucile, Couturière, written by Meredith Everington Smith and Jeremy Pilcher.
These two sisters were my second cousins twice removed. Our shared direct ancestors are Sir Richard and Lady Willcocks, their Irish great grandparents who were my great, great, great grandparents.
The maternal side of their family, the Saunders, had originally owned substantial estates in Buckinghamshire but by 1833 the family had emigrated to Guelph, Ontario. 'What supported the Saunders through their early, almost unendurable years in Canada,' writes Smith and Pilcher, 'was the conviction that they were aristocratic and that this placed them in a position above their neighbours, at the same time demanding of them certain standards of behaviour, however difficult these might be for them to maintain.’
Grandmother Lucy Saunders, daughter of Sir Richard and Lady Willcocks, was 'the stuff of which pioneering women were made. She had lived through troubles in Ireland when very young and – even though she slept on a straw bed, made her own candles and soap, and wore cast-off clothes – she never forgot her gentility. Her greatest grief was when her last pair of silk stockings went into holes. Appearances were everything.’
Grandmother Lucy possessed strength of mind and character, but her concepts of aristocratic behaviour were, even then, out of date. 'She was isolated from European society. In her rigid behaviour and her worship of the aristocratic ideal, Lucy Saunders set a pattern of reactions in her granddaughters. Elinor would always look at life through the distorting mirror of idealised eighteenth-century attitudes, and Lucy would spend a great deal of time rebelling against them.'
It was at Summer Hill, near Guelph, 'ruled by their strong-willed grandmother' that Lucy's and Elinor's first impressions were formed. Lucy remembered her as a 'very terrifying old lady in her stiff, black silk dresses and snowy lace caps with their pink velvet ribbons and her severe rules of etiquette which must never be infringed' . The biographers write, 'Lucy soon developed tomboyish high spirits and flashes of rebellion. She earned disapproval by climbing trees; she got into trouble by shifting restlessly during Bible readings and prayers, always an important part of life at Summer Hill. Her charm, high spirits and energy were interpreted by her grandmother, not as a natural outpouring of energy and intelligence, but as wilful rebellion to be discouraged at all costs.'
Elinor responded very differently. 'Her character liked discipline and order; she would always subscribe to the correct way of doing things and to historical precedent.' Elinor wote in her autobiography Romantic Adventure, 'My sister, who was a natural rebel, hated Grandmamma and her rules and teachings. I loved her and must have been in tune with her ideas for they never irked me. My dramatic instinct responded to her demand for elaborate manners, aloofness, strict discipline and righteous pride.'
The biography's dust jacket describes the book: 'Before the invention of Marilyn, even before the invention of Mae West, there were the “It” Girls. The “It” Girls: two Edwardian sisters with classical sex appeal and a very twentieth-century genius for self-promotion. These two extraordinary women propelled them selves to the centre of the fashionable world, with no resources beyond brains and style. Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, better known as “Lucile” became the foremost couturière of her day, arbiter of fashion to everyone who was anyone on two continents.' She died in 1935 but she is still in the news.
Lucile originated the idea of a mannequin parade and staged the first catwalk style shows. She was the first English designer to achieve international renown. Her Lucile House led on to Lucile Houses in Paris, New York and Chicago. Her varied supporters included Ellen Terry, Lily Langtry and Margot Asquith and among her clients were the Queens of Spain and Romania. Lucile dressed the London premiere of 'The Merry Widow' and for five years the Ziegfield Follies. She also did a weekly column for the Hearst syndicate and monthly columns for Harper's Bazaar and Good Housekeeping. She went on to design the costumes for more than 13 films.
On Lucile's first trip to the United States in 1907 she was given an enthusiastic welcome and 'found herself in a country which did not present her as an immoral woman, but as someone with her own particular achievement to her credit'. Even such sticklers as Mrs Frederick Vanderbilt were ‘keen to welcome this “noble” Englishwoman to their homes' and social arbiter Emily Post gave a lunch in her honour. On a later trip to New York Lucile travelled in the Titanic on its infamous maiden voyage. She and her husband were saved, but in circumstances, which, true or not, did them no credit. All the film versions of the Titanic story seem to include something about her and her husband, not always flattering or accurate.
More recently her clothes featured in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1999 and at the V&A in 2000 and 2009. An invitation to celebrate Lucile's creations at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London inspired her great, great, great granddaughter, Camilla Blois, in 2006 to bring the Lucile legacy back to life. Five books were published in 2011-12 exploring her career. Most recently, in the third season of Downton Abbey, airing in 2012-2013, Lucile was in the storyline as the designer of choice for fashionable trousseau lingerie. The dialogue between Dame Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern in which the couturière was name-dropped intrigued female viewers of the hit series, reportedly inspiring a nearly 50% sales hike at the reborn label. The Lucile house even comes into an episode in the recent series Mr Selfridge.
Lucile's younger sister, Elinor Glyn, a popular romance novelist, was a legend in her own time, 'known to her public as a titian-haired temptress undulating upon a tiger skin'. Elinor wrote 38 books and the screenplays for 12 films, some of which she also directed. ‘In 1907 she wrote one of the most famous “naughty novels” in the language.’ It was called Three Weeks and was published by Duckworths who went on to bring out her books for 33 years. Jeremy Parrott wrote in Book Collector (January 2002) that ‘in the popular imagination, the author and her sinful heroine were as one, an impression seemingly borne out by the writer’s stunning good looks and her remarkable power over men’ but what few realised in 1909 was that she ‘was a strict teetotaller and remained faithful to her worthless drunken husband through fifteen years of joyless marriage.’
Wikipedia writes, 'Elinor was schooled by her grandmother in the ways of upper class society. This training not only gave her an entrée into aristocratic circles on her return to Europe, but it led to her being considered an authority on style and breeding when she worked in Hollywood in the 1920s....She pioneered risqué and sometimes erotic romantic fiction aimed at a female readership which was radical for its time, though her writing would not be considered scandalous by modern standards.' Her books sold more than five million copies.
A popular ditty, referring to a scene in Elinor's book Three Weeks was quoted for years and even now shows up on Google:
Would you like to sin
with Eleanor Glyn
on a tiger skin
Or would you prefer
to err with her
on some other fur
In Evelyn Waugh's 1952 novel Men at Arms an RAF Air Marshal, noting a polar bear fur by the fire in a London club, recites the verse. Another member says, 'Who the hell is Elinor Glyn?' to which the Air Marshal responds, 'Oh, just a name, you know, put in to make it rhyme.' This was both a snub to the Air Marshal and a literary snub of Glyn by Waugh.
Elinor became one of the first women directors in Hollywood. Parrott writes that ‘her greatest Hollywood triumph’ was ‘undoubtedly the screen adaptation of her novella It. She had a big influence on the careers of Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow. Valentino was a regular dance partner. Anita Loos in her memoirs noted, ‘If Hollywood hadn’t existed Elinor Glyn would have to invent it.
She knew members of European royal families and her lovers included Lord Milner and Lord Curzon who wanted to marry her. Both men sent her tiger skins.
There are references to her in the works of Dorothy Sayers and S.J. Perelman
Her portrait was painted by society artist Philip de Lazlo when she was 48. In the 1923 film The Ten Commandments one title card say, 'Nobody believes in these commandment things nowadays and I think Elinor Glyn is a lot more interesting.' In 2001 a movie script of Elinor's was adapted into the Broadway musical The It Girl. More recently Joanna Lumley played her in a scene on Randolph Hearst's yacht and a character in Upstairs, Downstairs, is seen reading out an extract from her book Three Weeks.
She died in 1943 at 79. 'She had created a durable legend and she lived it to the end...she lived her life the way she wanted to live it, as a queen. As someone, somehow, above ordinary mortals. She was the queen of romance and her own definition of it is a fitting epitaph to this extraordinary woman – Romance is a spiritual disguise created by the imagination to envelop material happenings and desires, so that they may be in greater harmony with the soul.'
PS Elinor was for a time a war correspondent in France and a little episode in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles is described in the biography. She was in Paris at the time of the peace treaty at the end of World War I.
'In a far corner, a little man was working upon an enormous canvas. Lucy, never one to pass up an opportunity to give advice to a struggling artist, went up to him to look. "Dear man," she said to Greer (a friend) in English, “Why is he being so ambitious...some day he might do a little canvas and be quite good at it.” Then, to the painter, who had paused to blow on his red fingers, she said, “C'est exquis, Monsieur! Quelle beauté, vraiment!”
“Merci, Madame,” he replied.
“Poor thing,” said Lucy. He probably hasn't enough to eat. Why don't we ask him to come home and have lunch with us?” Greer, playing his supporting role to perfection, nodded his head. Responding with thanks to the invitation (couched in Lucy's perfect French) and to the information that he was talking to Lady Duff Gordon of whom he had probably heard, the little man introduced himself in English...as Sir William Orpen.
Interestingly, 'Orps' was a friend of my grandfather, Ivan Tilly, from my grandfather's days as Registrar at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin where Orpen had taught. Orpen’s was an official war artist at the Versailles peace treaty, his portraits are again coming into fashion and his work in Paris has been featured at the Imperial War Museum. I have some 30 letters to my grandfather illustrated by Sir William. 'Grandmamma', Lucy Saunders, was my grandfather Ivan Tilly's great aunt.