Michael Arlen

From Academic Kids

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1927 Time cover featuring Arlen

Michael Arlen (November 16, 1895June 23, 1956) was an Armenian novelist and short story writer who had his greatest successes in the 1920s while living and writing in England. As a chronicler of the lives of young, rich and trendy people he has sometimes been compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Born Dikran Kouyoumdjian in Rustchuk, Bulgaria to a Christian Armenian merchant family during their flight from Turkish-controlled Armenia, Arlen arrived in England in 1901 and settled with his family in Lancashire. He went to public school and to St Andrews, Scotland but left again without taking a degree. Disinherited, he went to London, where he wanted to live by his pen. Adopting the English-sounding nom de plume of Michael Arlen, he at first wrote for newspapers and magazines. His first novel, The London Venture (1920), a fictionalised account of his own life as a fledgling author, received some attention, as did his first volume of short stories, The Romantic Lady (1921).

In 1920 Arlen spent some time in France, where he got to know, and spent a lot of time with, Nancy Cunard although she was married to someone else at the time—a relationship which fuelled Aldous Huxley's jealousy. In 1922 Arlen became a naturalized British citizen and on that occasion made Michael Arlen also his legal name.

In 1922, Arlen's successful novel Piracy came out. In the following year, in his short story volume, These Charming People, he for the first time published tales which included elements of fantasy and horror, in particular "The Ancient Sin" and "The Loquacious Lady of Lansdowne Passage". The volume also introduced a gentleman crook reminiscent of Raffles in the story "The Cavalier of the Streets".

In 1924 Michael Arlen eventually shot to fame and prosperity with the publication of his novel The Green Hat. He dramatised it himself, and it was shown on the West End stage starring Tallulah Bankhead (128 performances at the Adelphi Theatre). In 1928, a silent movie entitled A Woman of Affairs starring Greta Garbo was also based on The Green Hat.

Over the following years, Arlen wrote both novels and short stories, but none could equal the success he had already achieved. Some storylines, like that of, say, Lily Christine (1929), are very similar to the plot of The Green Hat. He tried to break new ground with his novel Man's Mortality (1933), which, set in the 1980s, is a serious attempt at utopian fiction. Most critics, however, compared it unfavourably with Huxley's Brave New World, which had been published the year before. His last novel, The Flying Dutchman, a political thriller, appeared in 1939. His 1920s novels about trendy people and how they spend their lives soon appeared dated, and were no longer reprinted when the era was over.

His claim to fame in the world of crime fiction rests on one short story, "Gay Falcon" (1940), in which he introduced gentleman sleuth Gay Stanhope Falcon. Renamed Gay Lawrence, the character was taken up by Hollywood in 1941 and expanded into a long-running series of feature films with George Sanders in the title role. (Cf. Farewell, My Lovely.)

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Dust jacket of the first edition of Arlen's 1934 novel

Arlen also wrote a number of ghost stories, and a collection actually entitled Ghost Stories was published in London by Collins in 1927. Two of his macabre stories, "The Gentleman from America" and "The Smell in the Library", have been widely anthologized. In 1934 he published a vampire novel, Hell! Said the Duchess: A Bedtime Story, which many critics have found remarkable.

Very much a 1920s society figure resembling the characters he portrayed in his novels, and a man who might be referred to as a dandy, Arlen invariably impressed everyone with his immaculate manners. He was always impeccably dressed and groomed and was seen driving around London in a fashionable yellow Rolls Royce and engaging in all kinds of luxurious activities. However, he was well aware of the latent racism, the contempt for foreigners mixed with envy, with which his success was viewed. Sydney Horler (1888-1954), another popular author of the time, is said to have called Arlen "the only Armenian who never tried to sell me a carpet", while Arlen half-jokingly described himself as "every other inch a gentleman".

In 1928 he married a Greek countess, Atalanta Mercati. He later preferred to live in Cannes on the Cote d'Azur. At the outbreak of the Second World War he moved to the United States, and died of cancer in New York in 1956. His son, Michael J. Arlen, wrote a biography of his father, Exiles (1970), in which his final years, characterized by writer's block, are detailed.

The young Michael Arlen served as a model for Michaelis, the successful Irish playwright with whom Connie starts an affair in D. H. Lawrence's 1928 novel Lady Chatterley's Lover.



Short stories

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