Louise Brooks is one the most famous fashion icons of the 20th century and of the 1920s. You may not know her name, but you will know her face. Her distinctive Dutch bob, which she became famous for, framed a face of astonishing beauty. Fair skinned and freckled, Brooks appeared on film as something almost luminous. Her sleek black hair defining a face both inviting and enigmatic. Her’s was a “face that the camera loved.”
|Birth Name||-||Mary Louise Brooks|
|Born||-||November 14, 1906|
||-||August 8, 1985
|Place||-||Cherryvale, Kansas, USA|
Not unlike Marilyn Monroe, Louise’s persona has taken on a life of its own – it’s hard to imagine her as a real person, and a hard-working one at that. She was born Mary Louise Brooks on November 14, 1906 in Cherryvale, Kansas, USA.
During her childhood she was given the Brooksie and Scrubbie, names seemingly at odds with her adult self, a gorgeous woman with smoldering dark eyes and refined elegance. As a child, Louise loved dancing, and while still young she became one of the Denishawn Dancers, which took her from Kansas to New York City.
In New York, she continued dancing with George White’s Scandals, and then landed a coveted spot with the renowned Ziegfeld Follies, where she positively shone. But fate had much more in store for her, and it wasn’t long before she turned to acting in a medium that had already won audiences over: the pictures. She wasn’t one of the first movie stars; it was already 1925 when she made her first film, in an uncredited role in The Street of Forgotten Men. It would be another three years before she became a bona fide star, but half of her film roles occurred during this time, in films like The American Venus, A Social Celebrity, Just Another Blonde (all 1926), Ten Years Old, Evening Clothes, The City Gone Wild (all 1927) and Beggars of Life (1928).
Not Yet Famous
Though not yet famous, Louise honed her acting skills working with major talent of the time, and worked with such acclaimed directors as Malcolm St. Clair, Eddie Sutherland and Howard Hawks, and also worked with W.C. Fields on It’s the Old Army Game in 1926. More than her acting accomplishments, however, Louise was rapidly becoming all the rage in the public eye. Her dancing for Denishawn and Ziegfeld Follies inspired a comic strip called Dixie Dugan, and a play called Show Girl.
It is also believed that in these years, there were only three starlets written about more than Louise: Clara Bow, Joan Crawford and Colleen Moore. Not bad company for a rising star to be in. Louise virtually became the poster girl of the Jazz Age. It’s rare that an era is celebrated for what it is while it is still happening, but the Jazz Age was one of these times, and Louise Brooks was partly responsible for sense of abandon and carefree ways that defined it. Everyone wanted the pageboy cut that Louise had – no one’s hair would be that famous again, arguably, until Jennifer Aniston came along six decades later.
The film that she is best remembered for 1928’s Pandora’s Box, made in Germany by G.W. Pabst. She appeared fragile and waiflike as a woebegone flapper called Lulu – a name that would be associated with her for all time. But the film didn’t do well in Germany, and it was barely seen in the United States either. What critics see now is that Louise mastered a natural acting style far ahead of its time. In her own day, reviewers complained that she couldn’t act, or at least wasn’t acting in the film. It didn’t help her then, but today this film is considered one of the supreme classics of the silent age.
Tragically, this was the beginning of the end for Louise’s career. She was not appreciated for the talent that she had, and she didn’t deal well with being misunderstood as an actress. Unlike so many of her contemporaries, Louise was not offered the roles she deserved and had worked so hard for. After Pandora’s Box, she quit Paramount – an act almost unheard of at the time – to make films in Europe. After two films there, though, her career wasn’t taking off. She returned to the U.S., the studios were put off by her flagrant pomposity and the way she would openly criticize the quality of scripts being offered her. She was cast in a string of B movies – God’s Gift to Women (1931), Hollywood Boulevard (1936) and Overland Stage Raiders (1938, starring John Wayne) – among them. In many of these later films, her parts were minimal, uncredited or deleted entirely. She was disgusted, and quit acting for good.
Married and Divorced
During this time, she had married and divorced cameraman Edward Sutherland. She married for a second time in 1933, to a millionaire Deering Davis, who left her five months later. They divorced in 1937, clearly a very difficult time for Louise, who was then shooting her last films.
Back To Kansas
Louise moved back to Kansas for awhile, but hated living there. This is what she has said about that experience: “… that turned out to be another kind of hell. The citizens of Wichita either resented me having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn’t exactly enchanted with them. I must confess to a lifelong curse: My own failure as a social creature.” A very wise comment made by an extremely self-aware person, it speaks to the reality behind the haze characterizes our perception of so many movie stars past and present. She was extremely intelligent, and self-destructive too. What could have been one of the great Hollywood rags-to-riches stories ended with Louise in obscurity.
Back To New York
Eventually she moved back to New York – following the path that years earlier took her to stardom – and worked as a sales clerk at Saks. It was there that she was “discovered” again, this time by film historians (film had by then transformed from the newest craze to a serious medium to be studied and recorded for posterity). Through her acquaintance with them, and with their help, she began writing, and her essays appeared in respected publications like Sight and Sound, Film Culture and Focus on Film. Her collection called Lulu in Hollywood (alluded to above) was published in 1982, three years before she died on August 8, 1985. It was a bestseller.
Louise Brooks might not have played the Hollywood game well, but hers is one of the most interesting Hollywood stories. She was a cultural icon, an actress too defiant and assertive for her own good, a woman with a bewitching combination of beauty, curiosity and insight.
A rare interview with Louise Brooks
A rare interview with Louise Brooks by documentarian Richard Leacock and Susan Steinberg Woll. Part 1 – 4