“Selling writing and selling acting are exactly the same in this: Most buyers know nothing of either art and they are equally jealous of what they, who can do nothing, call the writer’s gift and the actor’s intuition. As long as you are young and pretty and willing to be used and abused, they will lead your hope and feed your vanity while they destroy your vision.”
Speaking in 1939 about Russia, Winston Churchill opined with candor and elegance: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” and at about that time the silent-film actress Louise was in that in-between time, having finished her last film in 1938 and deciding to say goodbye to Hollywood for good, which she did in 1940. Like Judy Garland, she had become a cult icon – the girl with “it” before the famous Clara Bow film of the same name in 1927. Veronica Lake had the peek-a-boo and there was the spit curl, and we have Jennifer Aniston, but nobody had the Louise Brooks bob with bangs. She was the flapper girl. Her favorite photograph of herself would appear on the cover of the nyrb edition of Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel. Don’t know the title? It is the inspiration for the television series Lost and has echoes of Last Year at Marienbad.
Louise Brooks had come from the cornfields of Kansas, made her mark in both Weimar Berlin and Hollywood cinema, and then left Hollywood. She returned briefly to Kansas and then elected for final seclusion at the Eastman House. Ironically, her last film, in which she did use her voice, was with John Wayne in 1938’s Overland Stage Raiders. It was at the Eastman House that Louise devoted herself to the other craft she loved: writing. Her first love had been dancing and, unlike other silent film actresses who had started in dance (Joan Crawford), Louise was quite good and developed a mutually affectionate life-long friendship with her one-time roommate, Martha Graham.
Lulu in Hollywood (1982) was Brooks’s anti-memoir. She had withdrawn and shrunk from public view, starting in 1940, and controlled her interactions with others. She married twice, seemed to have tried to love George P. Marshall, future owner of the Washington Redskins, because she admired his mind. I should note that he refused to marry her because he had discovered that she had numerous affairs while they were together. In her later years she became a call girl, and subsisted on the generosity of Marshall and William Paley. Brooks was an alcoholic, drinking since her early teen years, and apparently hedonistic about sex but ill-equipped for if not incapable of intimacy. She had been sexually abused at the age of nine; it was a memory that had so traumatized her and one that she had suppressed and when one day she had spoken to her mother about it, her mother blamed her for it. Although Brooks had a penchant for teasing others about her own sexuality, she had had only two lesbian affairs (Greta Garbo was one), while her male lovers had numbered in the hundreds. In the end, though, she had chosen to be alone because she had always felt alone, retreating into the written words and calling herself “the best-read idiot in the world.” Her “fatal mistake,” according to film historians, had been turning down the Gwen Allen role that secured Jean Harlow’s fame (Public Enemy, 1931). The renaissance of Louise Brooks bloomed with Kenneth Tynan’s pivotal New Yorker essay about his time with her. Both figures were nearing the end of their lives and the essay gets uncomfortable at times. The Louise Brooks Society has a dedicated blog to all things Brooksian.
Brooks was an insightful writer. As you read her you realize that while we have Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age, Brooks also gives us the scenes behind the parties. She partied with everyone who was anybody. She had stayed with the Hearsts; and it is clear that both William and Marion Davies “kept” people. Read her and Citizen Kane takes on another dimension. In Lulu, Louise details the tragic price of being kept in “Marion Davies’ Niece.” In that essay, which had no doubt hastened her departure from Hollywood, we see how Hearst-Davies systematically frustrated Pepi Lederer’s attempts at a writing career. The scene in the essay in which Louise discusses, with absolute horror and shock, Pepi’s abortion in a hotel room: horror that Pepi, who had been a lesbian and never sexual with a man, had been raped at a party and Louise would later meet the man, who bragged about the fact; and shock that, while Pepi had had a serious cocaine addiction, she was whisked away to a hospital where she committed suicide. The funeral would be the scene of one more act of callous indifference.
Brooks wrote fondly of W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin. In the essay on Fields, she proposes an argument as to why stage is better than film. She tried to dispel rumors that Chaplin was “mean with money” and a quasi-pedophile. She also exposes some falsehoods about the transition from silent films to talking pictures. We are told that many actors could not make the transition because they had poor speaking voices. Utter nonsense, said Brooks. The studio system, which was already a labor camp, had become a true plantation with the advent of talkies. Many film stars opted to leave.
When Paramount had balked at giving her a raise and insinuated that she should be a good girl and take what they offered, because sound was around the corner, Louise went to Europe. As a complete unknown, without knowing a word of German, she would do Pandora’s Box (1929), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), and Prix de Beauté (1930). All three films were risqué and provocative, even by today’s standards.
The girl with the “covered wagon” accent, the Kansas corn in her hair and a healthy appetite for gin would describe the Humphrey Bogart of the stage in 1924 and whom she would last see in New York in 1943 and say: “during the last ten years of his life, Bogart allowed himself to be presented to the world by journalists as a coarse and drunken bully, and as a puppet Iago who fomented evil without a motive. He was neither.” Bogart, she would explain, practiced and practiced ways of speaking his lines and projecting his lines, saying that “his painful wince, his leer, his fiendish grin were the most accomplished ever seen on film.” She would describe his marriages as sequences of his artistic development. That is an insightful writer!
I called Lulu her anti-memoir because Lulu ends with an essay entitled: “Why I Will Never Write My Memoirs.” She obliquely alludes to the American birthright from our Puritan forebears – sex and guilt. She struggled all her life with intimacy and at best dissociated sex and pleasure from connecting with another. It could have stemmed from her sexual abuse and parental indifference. Louise Brooks felt that she was a degenerate, “born in the Bible Belt of Anglo-Saxon farmers who prayed in the parlor and practiced incest in the barn.” That final essay discusses sex a lot, but as a reader you sense that it isn’t sex that Louise is hedging around. She was aware at the end of her life, as she suffered from emphysema and osteoarthritis, that people were drawn to her decades after she had finished contributing to an image, to the mystique of her haircut and a bygone era somehow idealized. That is the riddle that eats its own tail. I suspect that behind the persona was a writer who — after exhausting the physical in her hypersexual conquests — sought refuge in words, in turns of phrases, and anesthetized herself with tumblers of gin when she was too old to seduce men. She was a vulnerable and scarred woman, complete with a man’s scowl, and “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” As any writer, and as a woman in particular, she sought communication and validation on her own terms. I say this because Louise Brooks returned repeatedly to the lines in letters and in Lulu by one of her favorite authors, Goethe. Substitute for gender and I think that you can begin to understand the wrapping around the mystery:
“For a man remains of consequence, not so far as he leaves something behind him, but so far as he acts and enjoys, and rouses others to action and enjoyment.”