Michael Arlen was one of the stars of English literature in the 1920s, but he was also a controversial name within the Armenian diaspora. His position regarding Armenian reality was frequently contrasted with that of another writer across the pond, who would shine in the 1930s: William Saroyan.
He was born Dikran Kouyoumdjian on November 16, 1895 in Rustchuk (Bulgaria), now Ruse. He was the youngest child of five to an Armenian merchant family that had initially settled in Plovdiv in 1892, where his father had established a successful import business. The family moved again, this time to England, in 1901, and settled in the seaside town of Southport.
Young Dikran attended Malvern College, and in 1913 enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, as a medical student. However, both he and his family intended that he would go to Oxford. In his first book, The London Venture, Arlen wrote: “I, up at Edinburgh, was on the high road to general fecklessness. I only stayed there a few months; jumbled months of elementary medicine, political economy, metaphysics, theosophy--I once handed round programs at an Annie Besant lecture at the Usher Hall--and beer, lots of beer. And then, one night, I emptied my last mug, and with another side-glance at Oxford, came down to London; 'to take up a literary career' my biographer will no doubt write of me.”
His literary career actually started in 1916. He contributed regularly under his birth name to the Armenian monthly Ararat, published in London between 1913 and 1919, where he wrote essays and book reviews about Armenian issues. He also published essays and literary pieces in the British weekly The New Age. He assembled some personal essays from the latter and published it as The London Venture in 1920 with the pen name Michael Arlen, which he adopted as his legal name when he naturalized as a British citizen in 1922.
After this book, he worked on collections of short stories, including The Romantic Lady (1921), Piracy: A Romantic Chronicle of These Days (1922), and These Charming People (1923). They culminated into the book that would launch Arlen's fame and fortune in the 1920s: The Green Hat (1924). This novel narrates the short life and violent death of femme fatale and dashing widow Iris Storm, owner of the hat of the title and a yellow Hispano Suiza car. Arlen became almost instantly famous, rich, and incessantly in the spotlight. He frequently traveled to the United States and worked on plays and films. The Green Hat was adapted into Broadway and London’s West End plays, and a silent Hollywood film starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in 1928. The novel was considered provocative in the United States; the movie was therefore dubbed A Woman of Affairs. It was adapted again in 1934 for a sound movie, Outcast Lady, with Constance Bennett and Herbert Marshall in the main roles.
Arlen published Young Men in Love (1927), but it received mixed reviews, the same as the next books: Lily Christine (1928), Babes in the Wood (1929), and Men Dislike Women (1931). He moved to Cannes (France), where he married Greek Countess Atalanta Mercati. They had two children, Michael John (1930), the author of the celebrated memoir Passage to Ararat, and Venetia Arlen (1933).
His immaculate manners invariably impressed everyone. He was always impeccably dressed and groomed, and drove around London in a fashionable yellow Rolls Royce, engaging in all kinds of luxurious activities. His success was viewed by some with envy, mixed with latent suspicion for foreigners. Another popular author of the time, Sydney Horler, is said to have called Arlen “the only Armenian who never tried to sell me a carpet.”
Arlen made occasional references to Armenians (he gave a speech in 1925 to the Armenian Cultural Foundation in New York) in the 1920s, but run in trouble after an essay published in Babes in the Wood, “Confessions of a Naturalized Englishman.” Many pieces published in the Armenian press criticized his seemingly anti-Armenian stance.
He would never be able to make a comeback into the literary fame that The Green Hat had brought to him. He ventured into science fiction with Man’s Mortality (1933) and into gothic horror with Hell! Said the Duchess: A Bed-Time Story (1934), and briefly returned to his earlier romantic style in his final collection of short stories, The Crooked Coronet (1939), but did not have much success.
His final novel, The Flying Dutchman (1939), was released coincidentally with the outbreak of World War II. He returned to England to contribute to the war effort. He was appointed as an information officer for Civil Defense in 1940, but when his loyalty to England was questioned in 1941, he resigned and returned to America. He moved to New York in 1945, but he suffered from writer’s block for the rest of his life. He died of lung cancer on June 23, 1956 in New York.