Flapper. Actress. Writer.
Hi, I'm Kat!
What I am most passionate about is to inspire you to see that your life is your own and biggest masterpiece.
Louise Brooks has been one of the most prominent icons of the 1920s and her short bobbed hair made her recognisable for all generations. Her life story is incredibly interesting and if you are interested in seeing her act – her most famous movie “Pandora’s Box” is available on Youtube to watch. I just watched it and it is marvellous. To be honest, Louise Brooks has been the one starting my journey into Old Hollywood and into the lives and styles of all the colourful people it boasted because she was connected to so many people that I started to research as well. And that is when I just wanted to spread the word on their fabulous lives.
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So, Louise Brooks was born on November 4, 1906 in Cherryvale, Kansas. Her parents were occupied with their job – her father was a lawyer – or the arts – her mother was very artistic and played the piano very skilfully. Her childhood was mostly unsupervised and that is probably where she learned to be disobedient and not follow anybody.
Her small town upbringing.had the side effect of hypocrisy – as she put it in her own words “ where the inhabitants prayed in the parlour and practiced incest in the barn.” Very small-minded.
After a short stay in Independence, also Kansas, and Wichita in 1920, Louise Brooks finally settled in Los Angeles in 1922, at the age of 15. There she started training as a dancer wit the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts modern dance company. Brooks not only learned from and danced with the two founders, but also with Martha Graham, who went on to define the new American style of dance. As part of the dancing company, Louise even travelled abroad to perform in London and Paris and got a taste of the world. The company finally arrived in New York and Louise embraced the New York lifestyle fully. But at age 17 she was dismissed from the company after a personal quarrel with founder Ruth St. Denis about broken decorum.
But, what are friends for? Louise Brooks was best friends with Barbara Bennett, who is the sister of Hollywood duo Constance and Joan Bennett. So, Louise landed employment as a chorus girl and went on a dance tour to Europe with Barbara. During that tour Brooks performed the Charleston, which was popular in the US, but not yet in Europe. So, Brooks became the first woman ever to perform the Charleston in London. After her return, she landed a gig as a semi-nude dancer at the Ziegfeld Follies.
And it was then and there that Louise attracted the attention of Walter Wanger, who was a producer at Paramount Pictures. He signed her for a five year deal with the studio.
Louise Brooks started out in uncredited roles, but rose to leading roles in minor movies shortly after. Her genre was that of light comedies and flapper movies. And she started kind of a cult following with Howard Hawks’ silent movie “A girl in every port”. What made her so distinctive was her short bobbed hair that Brooks had actually worn that way since childhood. So, she was one of the first ones next to Colleen Moore to fashion that hairstyle and influence a whole generation.
A photoplay interview from April 1926 is really insightful as how Brooks was supposed to look – just pure sex appeal, nothing else. The headlines and the text contain innuendos and her photo in a leotard certainly plays into that image. The interview actually starts with Brooks making a remark on art and then being shut down by reporter Ruth Waterbury with the words: “Be yourself”.
Actually, Louise Brooks would get known for reading Schopenhauer on set and being a really intellectual, well-read person – not just the a decoration to put in movies.
Initially, Brooks stayed in New York and tried to work on the New Jersey movie sets – even when her husband Edward Sutherland was moved to LA to direct movies there. Eventually, though, she succumbed to the movie industry that moved West for the most part.
Her stubbornness and her unwillingness to follow orders made her career in Hollywood a tough time. She actually declared that she did not want to make another movie with one of her earlier costars, but the studio forced her. So, what did she do? She was always late – but they could not fire her, because it was already too long in the filming and she was too damn stunning (these are her own words). She also detested BP Schulberg from Paramount. Brooks was different and she did not want to play the Hollywood game – she talked openly to magazines about what she thought about Hollywood and the producers, the men behind the system and had a very loose attitude towards fidelity and her marriage – two things that don’t sit well with reputation conscious studio bosses. Thus, she was rarely ever granted a leading role – not even in the adaption of the Dixie Dugan comic stripped, that was actually modelled after her during her Broadway days.
In 1928, Brooks aged 22, starred in her first talking role in “Beggars of Life”. Under the direction of William Wellman, who was also the inventor of the boom mic. Well, he was one of two inventors. Around the same time, on another set a director used a mic hung up above actress Clara Bow to allow her to move freely. Well, moving freely was no problem any more for Brooks and Wellman got her climbing on top of moving trains and nearly killed her. Filming that movie became really tricky for Brooks – all the more when the relationship with her co-star Richard Arlen got marred by cheating rumours about her seeing that Arlen was her husband’s best friend.
Brooks was well connected in Hollywood and got frequently invited William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies. As mentioned in the episode about Davies I mentioned that her cousin Pepi Lederer was a frequent guest of their and Brooks and Lederer had a brief lesbian relationship. The discovery of that probably led to the institutionalisation of Pepi Lederer and her subsequent jump from the sixth floor of the hospital she was held at. This event traumatised Brooks and made her loathe the hypocrisy of Hollywood The make-belief. The fake-ness. This dictate of the Hollywood industry got even more augmented, when a raise that Brooks was promised beforehand at Paramount did not go through.
She decided to follow her friend George Preston Marshall’s advice to sail with him to Europe in make film with prominent Austrian director G.W. Pabst. And she did. This decision had consequences for her in the Hollywood bubble: She departed on the last day of shooting “The Canary Murder Case” and severed ties with Paramount – which basically put her on Hollywood’s unofficial black list of actors and actresses not to hire. But it even got worse when she came back and refused to do the sound retakes on “The Canary Murder Case”. That’s when Paramount pulled out the big guns and started a rumour and campaign saying that Brooks’ voice was unfit for sound pictures and that they had to hired actress Margaret Livingston to do her parts. This coming from one of the major studios during the advent of sound movies was basically the official end of her career in Hollywood.
Germany and G.W. Pabst
Germany back then, in the late 1920s, was the only major rival of Hollywood’s movie industry. The German “Filmwelt” (which means “film world” was highly glamorous and exclusive and had major appeal. This is exactly the setting where director G.W. Pabst flourished – he was known for very refined, elegant films.
Together with Pabst, Brooks filmed “Pandora’s Box”. And that made her a major star. The film adaptation of two of Frank Wedekind’s plays was initially refused by critics as it treats themes like lesbianism, modern sexual mores and infidelity in a very casual and overt way. Pabst had refused many other actresses in his quest for the perfect Lulu – even Marlene Dietrich. He chose Louise Brooks who was fairly unknown to major audiences and brought a new kind of charm to the screen. Brooks liked working with Pabst – as she recalled in a later publication herself – because she was treated with respect and acknowledged as a real actress, not just a pretty extra. Brooks and Pabst actually had a one-night-stand and subsequently, Brooks also starred in his movie “Diary of a Lost Girl”, which deals with the theme of abuse and molestation.
These two movies actually bewildered audiences. Because Brooks was very subtle in her acting – a bit like Lilian Gish, the Queen of American Cinema. Subtle, naturalistic acting, which was way more adept for the medium of the movies. But the audiences were used to the exaggerated movements from the stage that early actors and actresses back then used to also do in the movies. They blamed her for not acting at all actually. As Brooks herself says about her acting: “Acting does not consist of descriptive movements of face and body but in the movements of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation.” And one of the critics later said about her acting: “Brooks became one of the most modern and effective of actors, projecting a presence that could be startling.”
Pabst actually was the one who told Brooks to not go back to Hollywood but stay in Europe, be a real actress and have success there. He actually warned her that she might end up like Lulu, her role in Pandora’s box. Alone and penniless. Pabst actually already had a feeling of the Hollywood scene, of what Hollywood would do to her and for her. He called Brooks “a European soul” that does not belong to Hollywood. Pabst, who was interviewed by journalist Cedric Belfrage in 1930 said that the mention of Hollywood would give Broosk nausea and that she detested its pettiness, its dullness, the monotony and the stupidity.
Nevertheless, Brooks only did one more film in Europe, Miss Europe in 1930 with Italian director Augusto Genina and returned to Hollywood. Why? I could not yet find out why! I guess she wanted to go back home, talk American, not doing what people tell her to.
But, Hollywood snubbed her because of her trip to Europe and gave her only side parts as sisters or fiends, never the leading role. Apparently, director Wellman, who had worked with her on Beggars of Life, offered her the leading role in “The Public Enemy”, which Brooks turned down and propelled Jean Harlow to stardom instead. Why did she turn down the first leading role that she was offered? She went to see George Preston Marshall in New York – the one she sailed to Europe with. She actually claimed she turned down the role because she hated Hollywood, but close sources claimed that she simply wasn’t interested, that she was more interested in Marshall at that time. But, that movie role was basically the last time Hollywood would try to reach out to Brooks and her turning it down was the real end of her career.
Decline and Revival
She declared bankruptcy in 1932, when she was 26 years of age and started to dance in nightclubs to earn some money. Four years later, in 1936, aged 30, she did some bit parts in B movies here and there, some even uncredited and starred in two movies in 1938. None of these were particularly successful, no critic mentioned Brooks a lot, nobody took notice of her actually.
Her career prospects decreased, her financial troubles increased. She was unemployed and the only people that wanted to see her were men that wanted to sleep with her. And Walter Wanger, the one who had discovered her, that she had a affair with and who had become a long-time friend of hers warned her, just like Pabst that she would meet Lulu’s fate.
So, what she do? She packed her bags and, after a little detour home to Kansas, she finally settled in New York City – the city that she had begun her show career in and that she had been so eager to stay in. She worked as a radio actor, a gossip columnist and a sales girl in Manhattan. But that really did not bring in that much money.
So, Louise Brooks went on to become a courtesan between 1948 and 1953, a mistress to some very rich men. And, finally, she signed on as an escort girl and became suicidal. All her friends from Hollywood, all the rich and beautiful had completely forgotten her and she wrote a tell-all memoir, which she called “Naked on My Goat”, which is a reference to German writer Goethe. But, she actually threw it in the fire and completely destroyed it. Those days, she drank and escorted and didn’t do much else. She actually had been a heavy drinker since the age of 14.
It was in 1955, when French film historians rediscovered Brooks’ films and called her a bigger and better actress than Garbo and Dietrich. In 1957, there was even a Louise Brooks film festival, which completely rehabilitated her reputation as an actress in the US.
In 1956, Brooks got persuaded by the film curator of the George Eastman House, James Card, to move to Rochester, New York to be near the film collection, so she could write about her past and study cinema. So, she did. She sobered up and wrote some very insightful pieces on the Hollywood she knew and cinema in general for magazines. That became her second career. A collection of these articles, called Lulu in Hollywood was published in 1982 and is still available today (I got a copy and will devour it this week!).
In “Gish and Garbo: The executive war on stars” Brooks is totalling the Hollywood bosses and it made my blood boil. Basically, she very analytically shows the deliberate damage that was done to both careers of Gish and Garbo to undermine their success and power in Hollywood. Because the studio bosses feared that stars and not the studios would capture the audience’s heart and steer the ship. When the female stars got too powerful, they were just exchanged for younger stars, less powerful, less expensive. And you know what Brooks wrote – I will read out her own words: “Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old-men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.” And that went on for almost a century. Isn’t that frightening?
Louise Brooks* love life definitely was influenced by sexual abuse from a neighbour when she was 9 years old. The worst about it: Her mother never believed her and told her that Louise must have been at fault leading the man on. Which is the worst thing – to victim shame and victim blame. Louise herself acknowledged that the abuse did not only cause physical damage, but also psychological problems that resulted in her never ever being able to fully love somebody. She also never went for soft, nice men – always for dominant men.
When Brooks got discovered by Walter Wanger, she met Charlie Chaplin at one of Wanger’s dinners and they did have an affair for about 2 months, whilst Chaplin was married to Lita Grey (who was close friends with Marion Davies that I have covered in last weeks episode). And guess what he did when the affair ended? He sent her a check – she, lady through and through sent it back with a thank-you-note. Keep that in mind for later.
She actually had an affair with Walter Wanger at the beginning of her time at Paramount, whilst he was married to wife Justine Johnstone.
Shortly after signing on to Paramount, Louise Brooks married Eddie Sutherland, a director on one of her movies. By 1927, she had gotten infatuated with George Preston Marshall, who owned not only a chain of laundries, but was also the future owner of the Washington Redskins football team. During her marriage to Sutherland, she also cheated on him during the filming of Beggars of Life with a stuntman. That had two implications for her: First, the stuntman bragged about the one-night-stand but also spread the rumour that Brooks had general disease contracted by producer Jack Pickford, who was Mary Pickford’s brother.
But, in 1928, Brooks finally divorced Sutherland, mainly because of Marshall. Her ex-husband was really upset and even tried to commit suicide. Brooks and Marshall continued their relationship for a couple of years – on-again, off-again. He actually asked her multiple times to marry her, but when he learned that she had multiple affairs during their relationship, he eventually married Corinne Griffith instead, who was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful actresses of the silent movie era.
So, Brooks went on and married Chicago-based millionaire Deering Davis, but left him after five months and divorced him four years later.
Brooks actually said that she had never been in love with a man and referred to herself as “Barren Brooks” because she never had children despite her many love affairs. One of her many lovers was William Paley, the founder of CBS, who actually paid her a small sum each month until her death, which actually kept her from committing suicide at least once.
But, as I said earlier, Louise Brooks also had relationships with women, Pepi Lederer, the niece of Marion Davies being one of them, but also Peggy Fears and apparently a one-night stand with Great Garbo and probably also with Marlene Dietrich. She was a liberated woman, did not make a clear cut of heterosexuality or homosexuality or bisexuality. She was just Louise Brooks with sexuality.
Louise Brooks had a distinct style – her short bobbed, very angular dark hair, the heavy straight eyebrows and the heart-shaped mouth made her particularly beautiful and made her the poster child for the flapper, the 1920s life-loving free spirited young woman of the Jazz age.
This style, together with fellow flappers Colleen Moore and Clara Bow, made her iconic for decades.
Brooks was also the inspiration behind numerous artistic creations : Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Lulu in Something Wild Lisle von Rhoman in Death Becomes Her, the Dixie Dugan newspaper strip, Comic book character Valentina as well as some songs dedicated to her.
Reading up on Louise Brooks’ life made me really sad – because she had a tough start, was different than the others, but a talented actress and supremely beautiful and ended up an escort girl. But, she had a happy ending, crafting a second career as a journalist and coming back strong.
Actually, when you watch her interviews on Youtube aged 60 – she is still fierce and independent and confident. A woman to really look up to. I found there to be many lessons in her life:
- Stay where you are valued.
- There is always a way – your insights, your strengths, your learnings. They are valuable and there is someone who wants them or needs them.
- Be the smartest woman in the room. Never succumb to bullies. Never play their game.
- Plan your financials for later. Live your life now – but don’t forget future you.
- Be a unicorn. Be different. Have the haircut. Wear the dress. G o to Europe. Dance with the wolves.
- Connect with other women. Have your own little heaven with friends that you can lean on. Have your network.
- Work on your traumas. Never shy away from seeking help. This is your fantastic one life. Time’s too short to carry old wounds. Let them heal.
With all my love!