June 01, 1987 12:00 PM

by Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher

The ladies in question were certainly to be reckoned with. Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, designing under the name Lucile, gave us the split skirt and the first mannequin show, coined the fashion term “chic” and was the inspiration behind the Flo Ziegfeld showgirl. At her peak during the Edwardian age in England and the belle époque in Paris, she counted among her clients the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary), Lillie Langtry, Isadora Duncan, the Dolly Sisters, Mary Pickford and Vanderbilts and Astors. Her sister Elinor Glyn, considered homely as a child, was a novelist, journalist and Hollywood screenwriter who in the Roaring ’20s wrote the hit film It, which made former typist Clara Bow a star. Glyn coached Gloria Swanson, taught Rudolf Valentino to kiss the palms of his leading ladies’ hands and discovered John Gilbert. She and her sister were the daughters of Canadian civil engineer Douglas Sutherland, who died when the girls were tots. Reared in London, both entered British society through the back door of marriage and were later ostracized. Elinor in 1907 published a sensational novel, Three Weeks. Five years later Lucy survived the Titanic sinking only to be unjustly accused of cowardly behavior. Both earned fortunes and lost them because of oversize egos and underdeveloped business sense. Lucy died at 71, Elinor at 79. For two sisters who were such numbers, though, their stories are stuffily told by Etherington-Smith, a journalist-author, and Pilcher, an ex-investment banker: “To be told at an early age that one is ugly is to be left with a pronounced complex on the subject.” Elinor, who had red hair and a penchant for lying on tiger skins, might sum up the book in a word: tame. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $17.95)

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