During the switch from silent movies to sound in 1928, a number of film studios refused to grant promised raises to their stars, ostensibly because they didn’t know which performers’ voices would be suitable for talking films. Most stars, even the biggest, didn’t protest, but one young actress at Paramount exercised her option to quit, and walked out. The actress was Louise Brooks, a twenty-two-year-old, five-foot-two-inch-tall former dancer, whose relaxed, natural acting style, distinctive shiny black hair, and extraordinary beauty had already propelled her well on the way toward being a star.
When Brooks quit, B.P. Schulberg, Paramount’s West Coast chief of operations, told her she was now free to accept an offer that Paramount had previously refused without consulting her: the German director G.W. Pabst had asked to borrow Brooks for a film called Pandora’s Box. Brooks immediately told Schulberg to cable Pabst saying she would come.
Pabst’s film was based on two plays by the late-nineteenth-century German dramatist Frank Wedekind. Wedekind’s plays, Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) and Erdgeist (Earth Spirit), feature a prostitute named Lulu, whose careless amorality destroys men and ultimately causes her own violent death. Lulu is not a symbol of vice or degradation: her appetite for pleasure is childlike and unself-conscious, her fearlessness is a passive quality. She is, in Wedekind’s words, “not a real person, but the personification of primitive sexuality, who inspires evil unawares.”
Pabst’s film is only one of several adaptations of the Lulu story (Alban Berg’s opera Lulu is perhaps the most famous), but of all the actresses who have played Lulu in one form or another, Louise Brooks is considered by many to have been the truest. A great deal of energy has been devoted to describing what precisely was—and still is—so stirring about her performance. William Shawn, in his introduction to Brooks’s new book about her past, Lulu in Hollywood, summarizes the prevailing enthusiasm: “Many people think she possesses an erotic eloquence unmatched by that of any other woman ever to have appeared on the screen…. Louise Brooks presents herself to the camera squarely, totally, without equivocation; and what results is the sort of sublime acting that is not like acting at all.”
Brooks’s performance arguably should have made her a great star. But the reactions of German critics were mixed (many of them objected to an American playing their “German Lulu”), and the film was not distributed widely outside Germany. It was twenty-five years before this late masterpiece of the silent era began to be recognized.
In the meantime, Brooks had returned to New York, where Paramount tried to persuade her to dub her own voice for the soundtrack of The Canary Murder Case, her last film for them, which was being made into a “talkie.” Brooks refused, despite their offers of larger and larger sums of money, and she also rejected a contract offered her by the newly formed RKO Studios. According to Brooks, Paramount punished her recalcitrance by announcing that her voice recorded badly and by privately blacklisting her; whether or not this is true, a decade of joblessness, penury, and humiliation followed. After making two more films in Europe in 1929, Pabst’s Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (The Diary of a Lost Girl) and Prix de Beauté (directed by Augusto Genina in Paris), she never starred in another major feature; in 1940, she left Hollywood for good. Although she began writing essays about her past for a variety of film journals during the Sixties and Seventies, she lived in virtual obscurity until Kenneth Tynan’s adulatory 1979 New Yorker profile effectively rediscovered her for modern audiences.
Tynan had unearthed an experience that seemed especially representative of the glamorous Jazz Age. Brooks had arrived in New York in 1921, when she was fifteen, and enjoyed seven heady, promising years before her career fell apart in 1929. She danced with Martha Graham and in several Ziegfeld shows on Broadway, had love affairs with men of power, wealth, or celebrity, and even inspired a comic strip about the ultimate flapper—who was called Dixie Dugan and looked just like Brooks. She worked in Paris, Berlin, Hollywood, and New York, made one great movie and a few good ones, and then, as Tynan told it, at the peak of her beauty and talent, “enigmatically” walked away from it all. Never mind that that’s not exactly what happened; it’s a great story, and when her book was published, it became something of an event.
A collection of six of her previously published essays about the early film industry, with a new introductory piece on her childhood in Kansas and early years in New York, Lulu in Hollywood is not strictly an autobiography. Although Brooks includes many details about herself, only three of the seven essays deal specifically with her own experiences. The book does, nevertheless, answer the most intriguing question about Brooks—namely, what happened to her career? Her own explanation is simple: a fixed habit of telling-it-as-she-saw-it and a strong drive for independence prevented her from lying or dissembling in order to promote herself. She did as she pleased—speaking her mind and refusing to cooperate with unreasonable demands—and Hollywood responded by turning its back on her.
This incorrigible integrity of hers was not unlike Lulu’s, she suggests. Her principal undertaking in Lulu in Hollywood, in fact, is to lay claim to a personal truthfulness equivalent to that now-famous image of guileless, automatic candor which she projected on the screen. And just as critics and audiences have loved Lulu in the person of Brooks, she appears to hope that they will love Brooks in the person of Lulu.
In view of this ambition, her book is, in its way, a triumph of style. Brooks gives the impression of withholding nothing while actually concealing a great deal. She pretends to total frankness while presenting an elaborate myth of herself: the actress as moral exemplar, more honest and uncompromising than her more successful contemporaries and, it would seem, just about everyone else. She pronounces her opinions forcefully, admits her sexual adventurism without embarrassment, and recounts her own peccadilloes in the same dispassionate tone with which she describes the deterioration of Lillian Gish’s career or the strictly controlled lavishness of William Randolph Hearst’s parties at San Simeon.
Still, there is in her prose none of the spontaneity, merriment, and seemingly complete, offhand openness that are so winning in her screen presence. Sounding through her hard-nosed, unsentimental tone is a voice that is deeply bitter. She intends a comprehensive indictment of Hollywood and everyone who survived there, and her book is harsh and recriminatory—an angry apologia for the failure that clearly ruined her life.
Sample Brooks on Bogart:
On the stage, he was as formless as an impression lost through lack of meditation, as blurred as a name inked on blotting paper…. In The Maltese Falcon his part was uncomplicated, but too much dialogue betrayed the fact that his miserable theatrical training had left him permanently afraid of words. In short speeches, he cleverly masked his fear with his tricks of mouth and voice, but when, in this film, he was allotted part of the burden of exposition, his eyes glazed and invisible comic-strip balloons circled his dialogue.
In 1928, after nearly two years of marriage, Brooks left her first husband, comedy director Eddie Sutherland, for another man. Her description of Sutherland’s response is a model of breezy cruelty.
Eddie reacted to news of my divorce proceedings with a series of scenes, ended by my removal to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, two days after which Dr. Crispin telephoned me to say that Eddie’s houseboy had found him in a stupor on the living-room floor. He had drunk a quart of whiskey and swallowed an assortment of pills. Although he had been very sick, he was recovering. A week later, I sent my maid back to the house to collect some forgotten knickknacks, and she returned to report that his friend Jimmy Cromwell was Eddie’s houseguest. Aided by a flow of parties and pretty extra girls, Cromwell had brought about Eddie’s full recovery.
Brooks left Sutherland to marry a millionaire named George Marshall, who had made his fortune from a laundry chain in Washington, DC (he later bought the Boston Braves football team and transformed it into the hugely successful—for a while—Washington Redskins). Marshall had left his wife for Brooks, but called the wedding off in 1929, after she had an affair with another man. By her reckoning, Marshall’s reason for abandoning her was his fear that she would cost him too much. “He had repossessed me for reasons of pride and jealousy,” she explains, “but now, viewed in a sensible light, I threatened to become an expensive burden. I had made two thousand dollars a week in Europe and returned to New York with three thousand dollars in the bank.”
She says in Lulu in Hollywood that she was in love with Marshall, but in her interview with Tynan she claimed never to have loved anyone. “And if I had loved a man, could I have been faithful to him? Could he have trusted me beyond a closed door? I doubt it. It was clever of Pabst to know even before he met me that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu.”
Brooks grew up in Cherryvale and Wichita, Kansas, the second of four children of a hard-working lawyer. Her mother Myra devoted herself to piano playing and other amateur artistic pursuits, leaving her children to their own devices. When the Brooks siblings fought or misbehaved, Myra laughed and ignored them; their father, if he was around, retired to his law library at the top of the house. Brooks describes this pattern of her childhood to demonstrate that her parents’ way of doing wholly as they pleased—as well as their easy leniency in raising their children—cultivated in her that appetite for freedom which eventually caused her professional undoing. “Never having experienced the necessity for lying at home,” she writes, she was never able to lie when she went out in the world.
The picture that emerges instead is of a willful child—both spoiled and neglected—belligerently fighting for her parents’ attention, “given to temper tantrums,” and unpopular in school. In 1916, at age ten, Brooks finally discovered something she could do that interested her mother—dancing—and her career began. With Myra as her imperturbable accompanist, she danced for various club meetings and fairs around southeastern Kansas. Thrown out of her dance class at Wichita College of Music when she was fifteen for being “spoiled, bad-tempered, and insulting” (the first of many ousters for similar reasons), Brooks convinced her parents to send her to New York to study with Ted Shawn, who had brought his traveling troupe (which included among its illustrious members Martha Graham) through Wichita.
Within two years, Brooks began touring with Shawn and his partner Ruth St. Denis as one of the Denishawn Dancers. By that time, she had made friends with Barbara Bennett, sister of actresses Constance and Joan, and daughter of the distinguished stage actor Richard Bennett, and his wife, actress Adrienne Morrison. (Brooks’s three-sentence delineation of Barbara Bennett’s character is typical of her ungenerous assessments of her friends: “Barbara made a career of her emotions,” she writes. “Periods of work or marriage were terminated by her frightening, abandoned laughter of despair and failure. Only her death, in 1958, achieved in her fifth suicide attempt, could be termed a success.”) Barbara introduced Brooks to a group of well-to-do young businessmen who enjoyed dating pretty theater girls who weren’t husband hunting, and who happily began squiring this luminous seventeen-year-old around the fashionable nightspots of New York.
Suddenly popular beyond any childhood dream, Brooks worked hastily to transform herself into a New York sophisticate—in her own words, a “dream woman.” She studied English with a well-spoken Times Square soda jerk in order to eradicate the Kansas twang from her voice, unraveled the mysteries of dining out with the help of a number of kindly waiters, and learned how to dress from a salesgirl at Milgrims, one of the most expensive stores in town. Money for the new gowns—slashed to the waist in front, bare in back—came from her rich escorts, who, she explains, enjoyed “competing to see whose girl would win the Best-Dressed title.” “Sexual submission was not a condition of this arrangement,” she adds, “although many affairs grew out of it.” She also remarks: “Truly, ours was a heartless racket. After receiving an ermine coat from Jaeckel’s, the gift of a stockbroker named John Lock, I let him take me just once to a tea dance at the Biltmore Hotel.”
Within a year of embarking on this new life, Brooks was thrown out of the Denishawn troupe for lack of commitment. Through her new contacts, however, she was soon dancing on Broadway, and quickly became one of Ziegfeld’s “prized beauties” (none of his other dancers would share a dressing-room with her, a fact which she implicitly attributes to their jealousy). By 1925, when she was nineteen, both Paramount and MGM offered her five-year contracts. She signed with Paramount, and made twelve films for them in the next three years, and one on loan to Fox. That picture for Fox, directed by Howard Hawks and released in 1928, was called A Girl in Every Port, and it contained the performance by Brooks that convinced G. W. Pabst he wanted her to play Lulu. The following year, she left Paramount and went to Germany to film Pandora’s Box, virtually ending her career.
What really happened? She didn’t immediately return to California, she says, because acting with Pabst had permanently changed her attitude toward Hollywood. “In Berlin, I stepped onto the station platform to meet Pabst and became an actress. I would be treated by him with a kind of decency and respect unknown to me in Hollywood. It was just as if Pabst had sat in on my whole life and knew exactly where I needed assurance and protection.” After meeting some rich and frivolous American friends of Brooks’s, with whom she spent all her nonworking hours, Pabst angrily warned her that they were just amusing themselves with her, and urged her to stay in Europe, learn German, and become a serious actress. But she ignored him, and went back to New York.
If she had accepted Pabst’s offer, and let him cultivate her talent as von Sternberg later did for Marlene Dietrich—or Godard did much later for Anna Karina (or Bergman did for Liv Ullmann)—she might have become a great actress. Although, by her own description, she had little conscious art of her own, no “actorly” techniques, she possessed a unique, concentrated sexual power on the screen, and an emotional responsiveness on which a gifted director could play brilliantly. As she explains in her chapter on the making of Pandora’s Box (the most successful in the book), “Pabst’s genius lay in getting to the heart of a person, banishing fear, and releasing the clean impact of a personality which jolts an audience to life…. He would saturate me with one clear emotion and turn me loose.” In the hands of less-skilled directors, Brooks’s acting was undistinguished; her chance of greatness seems to have lain in accepting Pabst’s offer, staying in Germany, and working.
But she seems not to have been interested in greatness at the time, or in working. She admits that the routine of picture-making bored and exasperated her, and boasts of being impossible to find when she was supposed to make a film. Her repeated excuse is that she hated Hollywood, but the truth seems to be that it wasn’t Hollywood itself that she hated. “I know I knock the studio system,” she confessed to Tynan, “but if you were to ask me what it was like to live in Hollywood in the twenties I’d have to say that we were all—oh!—so marvellously degenerate and happy.” She enjoyed Hollywood’s lavish parties, and the glamour of being a star, and gladly took the money that enabled her to continue doing so. But she resented having to do much to earn it. “There was no other occupation in the world,” she declares, “that so closely resembled enslavement as the career of a film star.” While under contract to Paramount, she “complained about being forced to hang around Hollywood waiting to make some film.” Their “harsh comment,” she reports, at a time when she was making $750 a week, was “that’s what we’re paying you for—your time.”
The spoiled child had become a spoiled star—but before she was established enough, enough in demand by audiences, to get away with it. Lack of professionalism seems to have destroyed her career, rather than the idealism she claims—and perhaps this is how, finally, she is like Lulu. Not her much-vaunted honesty but her appetite for pleasure ruined her life.
When she left Hollywood in 1940, Brooks went home to Kansas for three years and tried to teach dance. But the Wichita locals hated her, she says, both for having left to become a star and for having failed in the attempt. She returned to New York, and spent the next twelve years trying her hand—unsuccessfully—at a series of jobs, and being kept by various men. “I was always a kept woman,” she said to Tynan. “Even when I was making a thousand dollars a week.” Two years as a salesgirl at Saks may have been the only time in her life when she was self-supporting.
By the mid-Fifties she was completely destitute, and a group of her more successful friends set up a lifelong annuity for her. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Rochester, New York, near the International Museum of Photography, which contains the world’s largest collection (seven) of her surviving films. With this resource at hand, she began writing occasional articles for film journals.
Now, near the end of her life, her writing has revived some of the fame and admiration that she lost so long ago. The small cult following that Pandora’s Box earned over the years has burgeoned with the publication of Lulu in Hollywood, and much of the enthusiasm for the book is for Brooks’s prose. William Shawn announces in his introduction that “she writes marvelously, in a style that is all her own: direct, graceful, terse, exact, piercing, radiant.” Although Brooks left school at fifteen, she came from a book-reading household (she repeatedly alludes to all the famous authors she has read), and does produce some handsome sentences—all in her own distinctive voice. But though she can be sharply observant of the personalities she describes, she has produced in this book no truly memorable portraits. Moreover, many of her observations seem projections of her own feelings rather than true accounts of her subjects’ lives. Her analysis of W.C. Fields could almost be about Brooks herself, who was a heavy drinker until 1974—she told Tynan she used to spend four out of seven days “gincoherent.”
…it wasn’t fame that distorted Fields. It was sickness and the clutching fear of being discarded to die on the Hollywood rubbish heap…. He was an isolated person…. Gradually he reduced reality to exclude all but his work, filling the gaps with alcohol whose dim eyes transformed the world into a distant view of harmless shadows. He was also a solitary person. Years of traveling alone around the world with his juggling act taught him the value of solitude and the release it gave his mind.
Where she does seem to have known her subjects well, as in her portrait of Pepi Lederer, niece of Marion Davies and one of Brooks’s best friends, her descriptions are strangely flat and unfeeling. Lederer, a lesbian, was pampered and pacified by Hearst money. Eventually, addicted to cocaine and preyed upon by fortune-hunting women, Pepi was committed to a drug rehabilitation clinic by her aunt and Hearst. There, at the age of twenty-five, she killed herself. Here is Brooks’s version of her last encounter with her friend.
Pepi telephoned asking whether she could come alone to see me at four o’clock. I said yes. At four I was gossiping on the telephone with Avis Golden, the daughter of the writer Rupert Hughes. With much laughter, I was telling her that last night had been a Mack Sennett comedy at the Ritz Tower, with Monica chasing me and Pepi chasing Monica from room to room. When I hung up, Pepi knocked at my door and came into the bedroom. She said that she had been standing in the hall for ten minutes listening to my conversation with Avis. “Everything you told Avis she will tell Marie Glendinning, who lives next door to her in Greenwich Village, and Marie will tell Marion,” she said.
“And what,” I asked, “have I told Avis that Marie and Marion do not already know?”
We were both furious, in quite different ways. Pepi was sitting on the side of my bed glaring at me with heavy menace, while I pressed against my pillows glaring back with cold disdain. After a moment’s deadlock, she got up and silently left the room. I later felt guilty about having made fun of her on the phone to Avis. I wanted to telephone her to say I was sorry, but, in her drugged condition, she might have become even more furious.
Pepi immediately left for Hollywood and, less than two months later, after Davies and Hearst had discovered her addiction, threw herself out of a hospital window. Brooks was performing in a ballroom dance act in the Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel when she heard the news. “Looking in the mirror as I checked my hair, makeup, and costume for the dinner show,” she records, “I thought, her dreaded visit to Hollywood had lasted exactly six weeks.” One of the most distinctive features of Brooks’s memoirs is the almost total absence of regret.
Still, she is true to the persona she imagined for herself, and her self-portrait is the one undeniable success of the book. A current photograph would have been interesting—there are thirty-some pictures in this book, but none after 1931, when she was twenty-five (and this despite her insistence that she “put no value on [her] beauty and sexual attractiveness”)—but Brooks’s cranky, muddle-headed personality comes through clearly. By turning her impulsiveness and self-indulgence into a fiery iconoclasm, she has transmogrified the very quality for which Hollywood rejected her so many years ago into one for which she is extravagantly admired today. Where then she was merely unprofessional, now she has become the quirky individualist, willing to sacrifice everything—career, fame, fortune—in her need to flaunt convention. It may be her greatest role.
October 21, 1982