Friday, November 16, 2012

Michael Arlen wrote of 1920s England

Time cover featuring Michael Arlen
It is the birthday of writer Michael Arlen (1895), who once was the toast of literary circles England and America, the subject of a cover story in Time magazine in 1927. He was part of London's modernist literary circles and a friend of Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, and D.H. Lawrence, among others. Lawrence's character, the society playwright Michaelis in Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), was based on Arlen.

Arlen is best remembered for his novels that captured the wild abandon of the Roaring Twenties in England, especially The Green Hat (1924). It is a tapestry of nightclubs, parties and the pursuit of pleasure in London and Paris, whose heroine cultivates a reputation of recklessness. On their wedding night, her husband leaps from their bedroom window to his death. In the end, the heroine is killed when her yellow Spanish-Swiss luxury car crashes into a huge tree. Her rakish green hat floats away above the flames.

Arlen himself developed a reputation as something of a dandy, driving around London in a luxurious yellow Rolls Royce. He was an impeccable dresser and an immaculately mannered man with the practiced air of a born aristocrat but with a slight hint of foreignness. He fueled a sense of adventure and intrigue, especially among women, describing himself as "every other inch a gentleman."

He was Armenian by birth, born in Bulgaria. He father was a successful merchant and importer who moved the family to England to escape the Turkish persecutions of Armenians. Arlen's birth name was Dikran Kouyoumdjian. He became a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, though his family wanted him to attend Oxford University. it was a time spent in the study of metaphysics, theosophy, and elementary medicine. it was also a time spent consumed in fecklessness and beer. Arlen remained at the university only a few months before he moved to London and decided to pursue a career in writing. His deeply disappointed family disowned him.

He wrote under his birth name for awhile, producing essays for London-based Ararat: A Searchlight on Armenia. Then he wrote for a British weekly, The New Age. He began using Michael Arlen as a pen name and in 1922 became a naturalized British citizen and adopted his pen name as his real name.

Arlen also wrote gothic horror stories and dabbled in crime fiction with the creation of the gentleman detective Gay Stanhope Falcon in a short story Gay Falcon (1940). George Sanders starred in a series of mystery films based on the character.

During World War II, Arlen served as the Civil Defence Public Relations Officer for the East Midlands but when his loyalty to England was questioned he resigned and moved to America. He settled in New York in 1946 and lived there until his death 10 years later. His son, Michael J. Arlen, was formerly the television critic for The New Yorker magazine and won the National Book Award for his book Passages to Ararat (1975).

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