“A well-dressed woman, even though her purse is painfully empty, can conquer the world.”
No actress epitomised the glamour, the excitement or the burgeoning sexuality of the 1920s like Louise Brooks. Think of the iconic image of the black bobbed hair, the string of pearls and the dancers elegant gait. She was the quintessential flapper and “Jazz Baby” and yet no other actress ever did more to destroy herself or sabotage her own career.
Louise Brooks was born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1906, the daughter of a lawyer and an artistic, yet emotionally cold mother. Her childhood left her irrevocably damaged, not only by her distant mother but also from the horror of sexual abuse perpetrated by a family friend. In hindsight, it would be possible to say that her self-destructive behaviour was the result of this childhood trauma but Louise Brooks would never identify herself as a victim. She was impetuous, wilful and had a mercurial temper but she was also extremely intelligent, sensitive and talented.
Her first love was dance and, although her mother could never be described as caring, she encouraged this passion in Louise for both of their benefits. By the age of 10, Louise was a professional dancer. She was also, at this age, prone to unprofessional tantrums, “I was given to temper tantrums, brought on by an unruly costume or a wrong dance tempo” and high drama, “I’m going to die if I can’t study under a fine teacher”. Louise’s ambition (and that of her mother) paid off and at the age of 15 she was accepted by the prestigious Denishawn Dance Company. She was in esteemed company – Martha Graham was a contemporary here.
Louise arrived in New York with the Denishawn Company in 1922 but by spring 1924 she found herself unceremoniously fired on account of her inability to kowtow to her directors wishes and for wanting “life handed to her on a silver salver”. True to her nature, by summer the tenacious Louise had already found a job as a chorus girl and by 1925 she was a featured dancer with The Ziegfeld Follies. Luck had a way of following her around (as did the eyes of mostly every man in New York) and that year she signed a five-year contract with Paramount Pictures. The only person opposed to this was Louise herself, she found the film industry intrinsically inferior to the theatre. The “flickers” were not something she aspired to be in.
Her star was on the rise and with her temperament, astonishing beauty and capacity for hedonism she truly embraced the roaring twenties. She was quoted as saying, “If I ever bore you, it will be with a knife”. An affair with Charlie Chaplin, sexual liaisons with Greta Garbo, friendships with William Randolph Hearst and two short-lived marriages with the film director Eddie Sutherland and the millionaire George Marshall followed.
As her career developed, she gained a reputation for being difficult and demanding and was often drunk. She said of herself, “I have a gift for enraging people” but when in front of the camera she always performed, even if she had to be wheeled onto the set from her dressing room to do it. Hungover or not, her face was still luminous.
By the late 1920s, the advent of the talkies had many silent movie actresses running scared. Louise however, had always had a take or leave it attitude to Hollywood and in 1928 she turned her back on the studio heads and headed for Europe. It was this trip and the two movies she made with G W Pabst’s Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl that have ensured her legacy as an icon and to critics hailing her “the most important silent movie actress who ever lived”. When both films where rediscovered in the 1950s the critics proclaimed, “There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks”.
By the 1950s Louise herself was an embittered and almost broken woman. Years of alcoholism had destroyed her once ravishing looks, and her volatile temperament, while tolerated when young had left her almost friendless and destitute in middle age. She had walked away from a career full of promise and from marriages full of money (if not love) for no other reason except she had wanted to. The furs, jewels, silks and satins had never meant much to her and she never had the foresight or cunning to walk away from a relationship with anything but her pride. One of her most telling quotes is, “ I never gave away anything without wishing I’d kept it; nor kept anything without wishing I’d given it away.”
Louise Brooks lived her life with a ferociousness that only comes from a damaged childhood but she made her own choices and she did exactly as she pleased. Her rediscovery by the film industry, and the renewed interest in her, led her to forge a career as a writer and in her later years finally saw her find some happiness and stability. Her writing shows a keen mind and a trenchant wit – yet she refused to publish an autobiography, something that would have certainly helped her financially.
She had written it (twice) and then thrown it into the furnace as she didn’t want to name any of her lovers, her so called “friends” or her enemies who were still alive. Instead, she turned her intense gaze on Hollywood itself and a collection of pieces she wrote for various magazines were published in May 1982. Lulu in Hollywood received an avalanche of rave reviews and introduced her to a new generation of fans and followers.
Louise Brooks died aged 78 on August 8, 1985. The worlds of fashion, film and music still reference her style, her beauty, her defiant sexuality and her iconic look. Her most enduring images are still as relevant today as they were in the 1920s. The writer Barry Paris said of Louise Brooks “nobody burned more bridges or left prettier blazes” and it is a fitting epitaph.
by Daniel Warner