I once showed G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film version of Wedekind’s Lulu plays, Louise Brooks’s starring vehicle Pandora’s Box, to a graduate class at the University of Iowa. I was apprehensive; these were children of the television age, unfamiliar with the codes of silent movies, especially of German silents, the exaggerated gesture, the mask-like make-up, the distorted shadows. But I badly wanted to show them this great film about the unholy alliance between desire and money as part of a course about 20th-century narrative I’d titled, quoting from Thomas Wolfe, ‘Life is strange and the world is bad’; nothing else but Pandora’s Box would do.
Happily, they did not fidget or shuffle, but sat like mice. Finally Jack the Ripper stabbed Lulu just as, or just because, she turns towards him the full force of her radiant sexuality; he cannot bear to look at her for long, as we can’t look at the sun for long. The film was over. There was a silence. Then a young man said: ‘That was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in the movies.’
And they all said: yes. The most beautiful. The best performance. Who is she? What else did she do? This biography provides a comprehensive answer to that question. Note how no attempt has been made to gussy up the title: Louise Brooks is a name that carries with it all the resonance of a quotation, a name that instantly evokes her personal logo, that haircut, those eyebrows. There are sumptuous photographs on the front and back flaps – oh! the patented Brooks version of the Giaconda smile, the one that, as Barry Paris says, isn’t so much a ‘come hither’ look as a look that says, to each and every gender: ‘I’ll come to you.’ (If, that is, she likes the look of you – a big if, in fact.)
That straightforward look of hers is what makes these 60-year-old photographs of Louise Brooks so provocative, so disturbing, so unchanged by time. Like Manet’s Olympia, she is directly challenging the person who is looking at her; she is piercing right through the camera with her questing gaze to give your look back, with interest. ‘This provocative eyeful’, as Picturegoer magazine called her in the brief springtime of her youthful fame, is not presenting herself as an object of contemplation so much as throwing down a gauntlet. She is ‘the girl in the black helmet’, she’d have you know. She is the one they call ‘the exotic black orchid’. She has a Cartier watch and a copy of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu tucked into her purse. Essentially, her attitude is one of: ‘Now show me what you can do.’
It is still an unusual attitude for a woman to adopt. Many men, even if aroused by it, would think it was a bad attitude; so would those women who were neither aroused nor felt complicitous with her.
‘Women of exceptional beauty are doomed to unhappiness,’ says Theodor Adorno. Beautiful is as beautiful does: Brooks’s features in repose can look doll-like, chocolate-boxy. The spirit that animated them was the exceptional thing. On the evidence of this book and her own book of essays, Lulu in Hollywood, I don’t think she was unhappy, exactly. She was certainly, as she says, ‘inept’ at marriage, trying it briefly twice. She quarrelled with her best-loved brother shortly before he died, as if to insure herself against grieving for him. She was a vain, imperious bitch with a tongue like a knife, yet she was loved far more than she deserved, or acknowledged, and even during her bleakest periods of despair, she always seems to have been buoyed up by a mysterious, self-sustaining glee. Drunk or sober (more often the former than the latter), flush or destitute, star, salesgirl, call-girl, or, final incarnation, grande dame and monstre sacrée, she never lost a talent for living memorably. Born a self-dramatiser, she always enjoyed the spectacle of herself.
It was an unusually picaresque life, for a woman – one of varied sexual encounters, booze, violent reversals of fortune, a good deal of laughter, and fairly continuous intellectual activity. Lotte Eisner, the critic, first spotted Brooks on the set of Pandora’s Box, immersed in a volume of Schopenhauer’s Aphorisms. She thought it was a publicity stunt.
Neither guilt nor remorse were items in Brooks’s repertoire. It was a life like a man’s, complicated by her beauty, and by the unimpeachable fact that she was not a man.
It was a life centred around, given meaning by, an extraordinary accident: that this young American adventuress and budding glamour star, on the advice of her handsome but sinister millionaire lover, accepted, without reading the script beforehand, the role of the Life Force incarnate, Wedekind’s earth spirit, the Dionysiacally unrepressed Lulu, who must die because she is free. She went off to Berlin to shoot the film because she and her lover felt like an ocean cruise.
The role of Lulu itself is one of the key representations of female sexuality in 20th-century literature. Brooks, under Pabst’s direction in the movie, perhaps did nothing more than what came naturally. As Dorothy Mackail, a colleague from early Hollywood days, remarked: ‘All they had to do with Brooksie was turn the camera on.’ Mackail did not realise that therein lay the essence of a great screen performer. Pabst did.
But Brooks’s chaotic life had an enormous artistic logic to it, as if Mr Pabst himself defined its parameters that day in Berlin when Brooks was 22, hungover from partying till all hours with rich American friends. Finally Pabst, exasperated, said: ‘Your life is exactly like Lulu’s and you will end in the same way.’
Another Pabst movie, Diary of a Lost Girl shows that Pandora’s Box isn’t a fluke, that Brooks could do it twice. It isn’t as good a film as Pandora’s Box, but Brooks is, if anything, even more luminous, more like a transparency through which joy and pain, pleasure and heartbreak, are transmitted directly to the audience. The ‘lost girl’, seduced and abandoned, finds herself in a brothel, makes the best of it. At one point, Brooks is raffled off as a prize. Brooks, laughing, preening her extraordinary neck like a swan, looks as if it is the most exciting adventure in the world, that random chance will bring her a partner for that night. Her particular quality is, she makes being polymorphously perverse look like the only way to be.
In her thirties, after she hit the skids, and was doing a bit of this, a bit of that in New York, she and her great friend Tallulah Bankhead used to go out on the town together, bar-hopping, up to God knows what. Behaviour of Henry Miller buddies. But, however scabrous the circumstances, Brooks never lost a thoroughly un-Millerian elegance and self-irony and when she finally took up her pen and wrote, in her sixties and seventies, she wrote, not about life in the lower depths, but about her work in the movies, and if she wrote very little, she wrote very well, with an acute critical intelligence, and much showing-off. She was a culture vulture, an intellectual snob, an autodidact – good for her!
Although her life spiralled downwards, like Lulu’s, no victim, she. She died, unregenerate, in her own bed, at the ripe age of 78. But she was also the ‘lost girl’. In 1976, she wrote to an admirer: ‘Remember when the prodigal son returned the father said: “He was lost and is found.” It was the father who found the lost son. Somehow I have missed being found.’ But this kind of existential rhetoric may have been only the gin talking. Barry Paris makes it plain that somebody, somewhere, always did arrive in the nick of time to bale Brooks out. Always magnificently ungrateful, she would then scornfully retreat to the tried and tested company of ‘my beloved Proust’, her Ortega y Gasset, her Goethe.
She was born deep in the American grain, in Kansas, in 1906, of pioneer stock – her father, aged three, had been brought out West in a covered waggon. Her first dancing teacher had a name straight out of Mark Twain, Mrs Argue Buckspitt. In Lulu in Hollywood she describes an unconventionally idyllic childhood, full of books, music and freedom. It sounds too good to be true; yet proves to be true in every detail, even to the music her beautiful, unhappy mother played all day on the piano. Bach, Debussy, Ravel ...
All true. Except that Brooks edited it. Her parents preferred the company of books and music to that of their children, whose freedom was the product of indifference. Louise, the elder daughter, the image of her beautiful mother, was ‘more or less a professional dancer by the age of ten’, performing at fairs, junkets, jamborees all over South-Eastern Kansas, whether to fulfil her mother’s thwarted ambitions, or, more simply, to coax from her, however fleetingly, attention and praise, is now beyond surmise. Probably a bit of both. At 15 Brooks left home, an act most bourgeois parents would consider premature even in these permissive times: Brooks père was a highly respected lawyer. Nevertheless, with the parental blessing, off she went to join a modern dance troupe, the Denishawn company. Barry Paris is succinct about Denishawn: ‘In effect, Denishawn founded American modern dance.’ It was also as chaste an establishment as a convent. One of Denishawn’s then stars was Martha Graham. Later, Brooks would say she learnt to act by watching Martha Graham dance, and to dance by watching Charlie Chaplin act.
Brooks wrote in her journal, reminding herself how hard she must work, since ‘I some day intend to rise high in the ranks.’ There is something very touching, something uncharacteristically earnest about that phrase. She worked extremely hard, but it did her no good. Yet dance was her first and probably abiding love; at 70, hair scraped austerely back from her vividly mobile face, the lovely old bones sticking out everywhere, she looks not in the least like an antique movie star but exactly like a retired dancer, as if, as a final indulgence to herself, she has decided to allow herself to look like the thing she’d wished she’d always been.
She never became a match for Martha Graham because she was thrown out of Denishawn after two years, not for dancing badly but for hell-raising. Sex, mostly. The sexual double standard was to haunt her for the rest of her life. No young man would have been censured in this way for sexual experimentation. At the same age, the impenetrably respectable Kafka regularly spent one evening a week at a brothel and was neither dismissed from his insurance company nor turned out of his home.
Her revenge on Denishawn and all it stood for in the way of High Art and Plain Living was swift and spectacular. Soon, in beads and feathers, she starred in Ziegfeld’s Follies, and engaged in a brief but highly visible affair with Chaplin, then at the dizzy height of his fame. The Gold Rush was freshly out. Crowds followed them in the streets of New York.
The dedicated dancer, moved by some ‘inner vision’ that Martha Graham, for one, saw in her, was now well on the way to becoming a grande horizontale. Men bought her furs. She let them take her out to tea. The management accused her of ‘using the theatre simply as a showcase – a place to publish her wares’. She was capricious, promiscuous, petulant. She could have said, in the words of another great Twenties beauty, Lee Miller: ‘I was terribly, terribly pretty. I looked like an angel but I was a fiend inside.’
Almost absent-mindedly, because it was the thing for showgirls to do, she started to make movies. Then came Hollywood. I’d always assumed her Hollywood movies were negligible, her career there a non-starter, but Barry Paris makes out a convincing case, based on the amount of fan mail she received, the sheer attention she got, her meteoric rise from supporting player to fledgling star, that she was set fair to be one of the major stars of the Thirties. Sound would have posed no problem: she went on to make a very successful stab at radio, dramas and soaps, in New York in the Forties, before she trashed that career in a fit of pique.
But that terrible accident intervened. She fell in love, broke up her new marriage, broke up her contract, went off to Berlin and made a huge flop of a movie. Because, in its time, Pandora’s Box proved dead on arrival at the box office in both Germany and the USA. The last great silent, it was rendered obsolete before the premiere by the arrival of sound. She stayed on in Europe to make a couple more movies that scarcely saw the light of day and when she got back to California, she found her own career was floating belly up.
Perhaps it had to do with her capricious libido. Although accustomed to follow the promptings of her own desires wherever they might lead, they tended to stop dead at the casting-couch. For a year or two, she coasted, doing bit parts in lousy films, until at last she was offered a chance at rehabilitation – the lead in Public Enemy, opposite James Cagney. When in doubt, Miss Brooks always burned her boats. She turned it down. It went to Jean Harlow. And that, barring a few minor roles in ‘B’ features, was that. Eventually she went home to Wichita; home is where you go when nobody else will have you. But they wouldn’t have her there, either. Her blue period began.
Until, like a miracle, Pandora’s Box emerged in the Fifties after years of neglect as one of the greatest of all silent movies, and the young woman who always believed she could not act, was not beautiful either, was too ‘black and furry’, who approached the movies as though they were modern dance, became retrospectively one of the iconographic faces of the cinema, because of a role she had forgotten, in a film she had never seen all the way through. She could have got the Myrna Loy role in The Thin Man series opines Barry Paris. And God – think of missing out on Public Enemy!
So what. Think of this as a possible analogy. After Clash by Night Marilyn Monroe got a phone call. Let us bend time a little, and say it was from Tarkovsky, who had read in a smuggled copy of Photoplay how she’d always wanted to play Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov. It just so happens, if she can get a release, that Mosfilm are just preparing a production he has scripted. Puzzled, flattered, Monroe accepts. No problems about her English. She’ll be dubbed.
After six months in Moscow, with no Russian, she’s no longer sure if she’s shooting The Brothers Karamazov or Carry on Comrade. Tarkovsky pours mud over her and barks at her to keep her clothes on every time she tries to take something off. However late she is on the set, she is always the first one there. And being Grushenka all that time breaks something inside her. She stops shaving her armpits. She lets her hair grow out. She stops worrying about her weight. She returns home to find she has gone out of fashion overnight: no place in Hollywood for overweight brunettes with too much body hair. Because I am fond of Marilyn Monroe, I will find her congenial work – in a children’s home, perhaps. How the children love her! Count your blessings, Marilyn: you missed out on Arthur Miller.
Meanwhile, back in the USSR, the Tarkovsky movie is shelved for painting a negative picture of life in the Urals. The years pass. Glasnost. Tarkovsky’s The Brothers Karamazov opens at the Venice Festival. His greatest picture. Who is the stunning girl with the blonde halo? Can it be possible she is still alive? So the lovely, fat old lady, resurrected, becomes a staple of film festivals. She is in a position of absolute security. Fame has come too late to bewilder or corrupt; it can only console. She is something better than a star. She is an eternal flame in the holy church of cinema.
Brooks was presented with a choice between Art and Fame, as straightforwardly as it might have been offered in a Renaissance allegory, and, without even being aware of it, she plumped, as it were, for the eternity promised by the poet. I do believe that, in her heart, she knew just what it was she wanted. She wanted ‘to rise high in the ranks’. It was the reverse of a Faustian bargain. She bartered her future for her soul.