Icon of the Jazz Age, famed for her beauty and her bobbed hair that became a cultural phenomenon, once one of the world’s biggest stars. Yet her life was gripped by tragedy, scandal and recklessness. Mary Louise Brooks was born November 14th, 1906 and she would go on to epitomise the darling flappers of the wild and hedonistic Jazz Age, bringing to the screens of the world a sense of fancy-free, flirtatious fun. Yet one day, suddenly, she vanished. She was the starlet of Hollywood’s 1920s but everything fell apart. Whatever happened to Louise Brooks? This is the story of a fallen star…
Shooting from the Hip
Cherryvale, Kansas. Louise’s childhood was anything but ordinary. Her father was absent, preoccupied with his legal practice, whilst her mother, the artist, left her children to fend for themselves. Louise was free and laden with a rebellious streak that often led to self-destruction. She was wild and unshackled to any notions of womanhood of the early 1900s. She once said of Cherryvale:
[It was] a typical Midwestern community where the inhabitants prayed in the parlour and practiced incest in the barn.
Louise was never one to mince her words. Her life was incredibly hard. When she was just nine years of age, she was sexually abused by a neighbour and it wouldn’t be the last time she suffered. She suffered immense physical and psychological trauma, which she later said shaped her adult life and her career choices. It made her, in her own words, ‘incapable of love’. Even worse, Louise’s mother said it was her own fault, that Louise ‘lead him [her abuser] on’. Louise wasn’t independent as a child by choice. She was completely on her own without choice. She later said of her abuser:
[This man] must have had a great deal to do with forming my attitude toward sexual pleasure… for me, nice, soft, easy men were never enough – there had to be an element of domination.
Louise was a heavy drinker and it began when she was just 14. One thing her mother was good for was art. She made sure her children expressed themselves however they could and as a child, Louise loved to dance. It was escapism. At 15, she joined the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, a modern dance company in LA. She had had a tough life but she wanted to dance. It added a slice of normality to her existence, and perhaps harmony. It made her happy. With the company, she toured the world, spending an entire season abroad in London and Paris. She even made her way to starring in lead roles in the productions, yet her happiness was not to last.
Jealousy was to break her…
The Sour Wonder
Ruth St Denis. One of the dance troupe’s leading stars. She was immensely jealous of Louise. Louise was talented, she was brilliant, seemingly effortless in her graceful movements but in truth, it was hard work. Louise was never easy to get along with. She could be incredibly difficult. And one day, at just 17, she was called to stand in front of all the other dancers and there… Ruth fired her on the spot. Louise was devastated.
Young, yet talented, Louise soon found work as a chorus girl and then as a semi-nude dancer as one of the Ziegfeld girls, a path in life many of the 1920s flappers chose. As a result of her fierce determination to succeed, Louise caught the eye of one Walter Wanger, a producer at Paramount Pictures. Just like that, a snap of the fingers, Louise found herself in a room behind the stage presented with a five-year contract with the studio. Her life was never to be the same again…
1925. A cocktail bar. The setting quintessentially of the Jazz Age, piano music playing live and the drinks flowing free. Here Louise met a man, but he was no ordinary man. It was Charlie Chaplin. Let’s just say, Louise and Charlie hit it off. And so began a two-month affair. Charlie was married but decided to call off the affair, sending Louise a cheque as a ‘thank you’, for some reason. Louise declined the cheque. Predictably.
She made her screen debut in the silent era in the picture, The Street of Forgotten Men. She was uncredited but she soon found herself starring as the lead in features, comedies in particular, but flapper films, too. Louise loved sex. After Charlie came Walter Wanger, head of Paramount. And also married. She was signed to Paramount before the affair begun, Walter begging Louise to sign for MGM to avoid ‘salacious rumours’.
Louise’s career was taking off. And, already, she was a star in Europe…
The Cult of Charleston
Inexplicably, Louise’s pictures were huge across Europe, crowds in their hundreds lining the streets outside movie theatres to see her perform onscreen. She was so grateful to Europe for supporting her that, in 1925, she undertook a dance tour of Europe, becoming, in the process, to the first woman to dance the Charleston in London, popular in America but never seen before in Europe. All until Louise showed up, that is.
She had a cult following, a raw magnetism oozing from her reputation as a party girl and one of the most famous flappers of the age. Her scandal sheet grew and grew each night. She loved the controversy as she loved the spotlight of the stage. Throughout the 1920s, she continued to pose nude for photographs and they left little to the imagination. She was completely exposed yet that was who she was. She wore her soul for all to see.
[Louise is] one of the decorative daughters of the New York night life.
– Photoplay Magazine.
By 1926, Louise was a global superstar. Her pictures, her nude photography shoots, most full-frontal and her wild and glamorous scandal fuelled lifestyle all led to her receiving some 2,000 fan letters a week. Dancing with Martha Graham, dating Charlie Chaplin, befriending Rudolph Valentino, Louise knew how to live and she made every second count. Yet this lifestyle made her a target. Being so popular led to jealousy. More than once in Louise’s life people tried to take her out. Rumours, lies and aggression were never far away.
It beggared belief…
The Malicious Life
In 1928, Louise starred in ‘Beggars of Life’, a very early talkie, in which Louise plays an abused girl who kills her foster father after he tries to rape her. It was a traumatic ordeal for Louise. During production, she had a one-night stand with a stuntman who spread a now proven to be false rumour that she was ‘riddled with venereal diseases’, all to discredit her. It wasn’t true yet the stuntman was well-regarded. The false allegations spread and spread and soon, Louise’s relationship with her co-stars broke down. They wanted nothing to do with her. Tensions rose and Louise snapped, involved in more than one altercation. During one scene, Louise was asked by the director to jump onto a moving train. She nearly died. Not that anyone seemed to care. This was the life of the flapper. Dangerous and often destructive, few flappers made it through their lives without suffering anguish.
Louise left Paramount in 1928 when she was denied a raise, one she had been promised. So she set off for Europe to star in two German movies, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. At least Europe loved her. And her hairstyle. She popularised the bobcat and because of her, it became the most common style of women’s hair in the 1920s. It was her emblem, her defining feature.
She was mixing it up with the biggest stars of her day, a true socialite. The men loved her but so did the women. Louise had many relationships with women in her life, including with Pepi Lederer. Her uncle, Randolph Hearst, was not happy. He hated his niece for being gay. He had her committed to a mental institution for ‘drug addiction’, which we now know was not true. He wanted to… ‘fix’ her, somehow. Seven days later, Pepi committed suicide. Louise’s life had been deeply traumatic. It was loss after loss, accusation after accusation. But losing Pepi broke her. She was lost.
Pepi’s death drove Louise even farther away from Hollywood’s cruel grasp. It would cement her legacy as an immortal star of the silent film era, a legend noted for her indomitable and independent spirit. She was resilient. Even when she was blacklisted by Hollywood, she was determined to carry on. And soon, her choices would pay off.
The box was about to be opened.
1929. Pandora’s Box. Now considered a legendary film of the silent era, one of the very best. And Louise was wanted. This was Germany and Louise would play Lulu, the lead. Perhaps what drew her to the picture was the frank and honest depiction of modern sexuality. This was one of the first movies ever made to have a lesbian lead depicted openly. Controversial? Sure. But that was Louise in a nutshell.
‘Pandora’s Box’ catapulted Louise to stardom. She had beaten Marlene Dietrich to the lead role, no less. And Louise lapped it up. “In Hollywood, I was a pretty flibbertigibbet whose charm for the executive department decreased with every increase in my fan mail… in Berlin, I stepped to the station platform… and became an actress… everywhere I was treated with a kind of decency and respect unknown to me in Hollywood.” Shortly after the movie was released, she had a one-night stand with the director…
He cast her again in ‘Diary of a Lost Girl’, a controversial social drama. But Louise was more than she appeared. She was a damn fine actress. Her naturalistic style had never been seen in cinema before. It bewildered audiences. They were excited to see her. Actors of the day were dependent on being overly expressive and using exaggerated body and face movements. Louise didn’t. She acted normally. She was subtle. And it paid off.
[Louise’s films] exposed her animal sensuality and turned her into one of the most erotic figures on the screen – the bold, black-helmeted young girl who, with only a shy grin to acknowledge her ‘fall’, became a prostitute in Diary of a Lost Girl and who, with no more sense of sin than a baby, drives men out of their minds in Pandora’s Box.
– Molly Haskell.
A Lavish Sin
Louise was living the luxurious, glamourous lifestyle of a Hollywood starlet… without Hollywood anywhere to be seen. Parties by night, martinis for breakfast, a complicated and often difficult individual, who was now, unquestionably, riding on the crest of a silver screen wave. She was an icon for millions. Sexually liberated, she lived life on the edge of infamy.
She was unafraid. She was experimental. Her liaisons were legendary, especially those with women such as Pepi and Peggy Fears. Even Greta Garbo at one point. She never said she was gay or bisexual. She did not like those particular labels. She liked sex and she liked love, she didn’t care who it was with or who was intertwined with. She later said:
I had a lot of fun… leaving the lesbian theme in question marks. All my life it has been fun for me… when I am dead, I believe that film writers will fasten on the story that I am a lesbian… I have done lots to make it believable… all my women friends have been lesbian.
She was uncompromising, her decisions taken ‘out of curiosity’. She grew bored of Europe and returned to America in 1929 but found work hard to come by due to her blacklisting. Her movie career was drying up just when it had reached the pinnacle. It all came to an end when she turned down the lead role in The Public Enemy, one of the biggest movies of her day. She just wasn’t interested anymore. Even when Columbia Pictures came knocking, all for a salary of $500 a week, she too turned down the offer. That’s nearly $9,000 a week in today’s money or just over $450,000 a year. Why? Why did she turn her back on her career? Maybe life had become too much.
In 1932, she declared bankruptcy and to make a living, she started dancing in nightclubs. Her star had fallen and soon, she would be forgotten…
One Empty Saddle
1936. Louise attempted a comeback, a bit part in ‘Empty Saddles’. This was a western but it came to nothing. She acted in another movie, ‘King of Gamblers’, in 1937, but her scenes were deleted. She was desperate to return to the spotlight. In 1938, she landed a starring role in ‘Overland Stage Raiders’ opposite John Wayne, her hair now long, Louise almost unrecognisable. Nobody paid much attention. She had been disregarded. The magazines of America and their reviewers tore into her. Variety wrote:
‘Louise Brooks is the femme appeal with nothing much to do except look glamorous in a shoulder-length straight-bang coiffure.’
Everything was falling apart. By 1950, she had been completely forgotten. She returned to Kansas to live in Wichita, but even here she could never escape scorn. “[It] turned out to be another kind of hell,” she said. “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.” She was unemployed and the only time anyone spoke to her were men who wanted to sleep with her. Walter Wanger, head of Paramount, told Louise that if she had stayed in Hollywood, she would have become a prostitute. She hated life.
I must confess to a lifelong curse: my own failure as a social creature.
Louise was not one to give up but her lust for life and her energy ebbed away each new day. Every new venture failed. She started her own dance studio but it failed. She moved to New York to star as a radio actor in soap operas. But it failed. She became a gossip columnist. But she was fired. She worked as a salesgirl in Saks. And just when life seemingly couldn’t become any more desperate, when her funds were gone and she couldn’t find work, Walter’s words came true.
In 1948, she did indeed become a prostitute…
No Life to Live
Louise was living a life of hell that she didn’t deserve and didn’t ask for. She was courageous and industrious but nobody would give her a second chance. She did everything to earn her money but nothing worked. She became an escort because it was all she could do to earn money. Her clients were wealthy men. In her own words, she had hit rock bottom. Life had become so hard she contemplated suicide.
I found that the only well-paying career open to me, as an unsuccessful actress of 36, was that of a call girl… and [I] began to flirt with the fancies related to little bottles filled with yellow sleeping pills.
She was mired in obscurity, living in a dank, small apartment in relative poverty, her clients never paying her too much. She drank heavily, too. All of her rich and famous friends had abandoned her, just as she was warned they would do when she was younger. She had been ostracised and she was damn angry. She wrote an autobiography, Naked on My Goat, but after three years, she threw the manuscript into an incinerator. Thoughts of suicide proliferated…
Louise would never star in another movie but in 1955, she was given a second chance in life. That’s all anyone could ask for. Lotte Eisner and Henri Langlois ‘rediscovered’ Pandora’s Box and started to dig deep into Louise’s life. They adored her. They said of her:
There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks.
Louise, and I cannot stress this enough, was a phenomenal actress. Her life was so desperately sad but she never thought anyone would care about her ever again. Louise was amused by this claim. She had, after all, slept with Greta Garbo, who she described as a ‘charming and tender lover’ if ‘a bit masculine’. And the most unbelievable thing happened in 1957 for 51-year-old Louise, now no longer escorting.
Eisner and Langlois created a one-time only Louise Brooks Film Festival…
Louise had been rediscovered. Americans loved her movies. Overnight, the Louise Brooks Film Festival had, once more, catapulted her into the bigtime. She was a star again. She was rediscovered. Her reputation was restored in an instant. Everyone went wild for Louise: the papers, the critics, the movie fans, everyone was so captivated by Hollywood’s lost starlet. And it made people wonder… what happened to her? When folk found out she was living in poverty as a recluse, spending the previous few years as a prostitute, many were stunned. How could this happen? Look at her! She’s brilliant! What the hell happened?
Film curator for the George Eastman House, James Card, made it his mission to track her down and he didn’t want her life to end in obscurity. He convinced her to move to Rochester, New York, where she could study cinema and write about her career. He gave her a second chance in life. He’s the hero of the story. Louise had her life back.
Turns out, she was a damn good writer. I mean, impossibly wonderful, her words so well-constructed and her thoughts so damn engaging. In a matter of years, she became a famous, noted and well-respected film writer. And even then, in her later years, she was as scathing as she ever was…
In 1958, she wrote about the inherent sexism of the movie studio world where female stars were not cared for and were simply carted away for someone more youthful and buxom, kinda like MTV with presenters in the ‘90s. She said:
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.
Louise wasn’t just a great writer, no, she was determined to sort her life out. She quit drinking and quite a few other vices and converted to Catholicism, becoming a devout Catholic. For the rest of her life, she would write and received nothing but love and praise for her work and her career as a movie star. It was about damn time.
Louise is now considered one of the 20th century’s most astute film writers and she used her platform to criticise those who abandoned her or considered her too tough, too confrontational or too uppity. She wrote in all the big magazines. She also wrote her autobiography, written three years before her death, in which the final chapter is titled, ‘The Silver Salver’. When she was fired from her dance school, Ruth told her:
You expect life to be handed to you on a silver salver.
Giving her autobiography’s final chapter that name was, to be frank, her middle finger to her detractors. With her effervescent cheeky smile, she was growing old disgracefully in the sweet embrace of fame’s fabulous glory. She remained shy and withdrawn, somewhat awkward by nature, giving relatively few interviews into the 1970s and 1980s, but she continued writing until her death.
Louise Brooks died on August 8th, 1985. She was suffering from arthritis and emphysema when she had a heart attack in her apartment in Rochester, where she was buried in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. She was 78.
I was always late. But just too damn stunning for them to fire me.
Louise Brooks. Film actress and dancer extraordinaire. Star of the silent era and socialite femme fatale. Thriving off courting controversy, she lived life openly as a pansexual, carefree individual with a soul of fire and a heart of silver. Icon of the Jazz Age and a flapper sex symbol, noted for her bob hairstyle and her artistic, graphically raw nude photographs. Yet her life was marred by tragedy.
She was blacklisted by Hollywood after life became difficult. Hollywood conspired against her. How much of Louise’s downfall was her own fault and how much was the product of her time is irrelevant. From ultimate stardom to depression and alcoholism, leading to suicidal thoughts, Louise’s life could have ended tragically yet she was given a second chance, hope for change and a brighter future, which she most certainly did not turn down. And when she died, she was as famous as she had ever been, comfortable and happy with life and herself for the first time in a long while.
She is lauded for her naturalistic style of acting, truly one of the greatest actors who ever lived, but she was the product of the infamy of the flapper lifestyle. She was outspoken, too, describing Hollywood as ‘filled with poison’, statements of the industry that remain startlingly true to this day. One’s impression of Louise Brooks is personal. What you think of her is an opinion someone else will radically disagree with. Her life was so complicated and convoluted with so many bad things happening to her and because of her, that it really depends on your personal opinion whether or not you consider Louise to be great.
Personally, I do. All human beings are flawed. Everyone has bad and good in their lives, some more than others. She suffered sadness and abuse. She drunk heavily and resorted to prostitution. She rose and she fell, only to rise again. This is a life of contrasts. I feel nothing but sympathy for her. She did not deserve the lows of her life and should be celebrated for the highs. Nobody is perfect. Some may call her arrogant, others a selfish coward. But she was none of these things. Her life was hard yet she found her way home on her own merit. That is a testament to her true nature. Courageous, fearless and damn brave in every regard. For her resilience, for me, she is a legend and nothing less.
There was only one Louise Brooks. And that’s just how she liked it…
She was the most seductive, sexual image of woman ever committed to celluloid. She’s the only unrepentant hedonist, the only pure pleasure-seeker, I think I’ve ever known.
– Kenneth Tynan.
While it is true that many of Louise’s friends abandoned her, in the 1950s, Louise reached out to a man named William S. Paley for assistance with her financial troubles. He set up a fund of $200 a month which kept her financially stable for the rest of her life. Her lifestyle meant that although it was not a comfortable life, she had enough to get by. Also, her 1929 film, ‘Beggars of Life’, was shot and filmed as a silent film as most theatres of the time could not yet accommodate ‘talkies’. The soundtrack was later added but Louise did not contribute her voice to the final soundtrack. The only surviving copy is the original, silent film. My thanks to Bill O’Neill for these corrections, who has provided more information in the comments section below.
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