Mary Louise Brooks (November 14, 1906 – August 8, 1985), known professionally as Louise Brooks, was an American film actress and dancer during the 1920s and 1930s. She is noted as a flapper icon and sex symbol, and is famous for her bob hairstyle that she helped popularize during the prime of her career.
Brooks is best known as the lead in three feature films made in Europe: Pandora's Box (1929), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), and Miss Europe (1930); the first two were made by G. W. Pabst. She starred in seventeen silent films and eight sound films before retiring in 1938. Brooks published her memoir, Lulu in Hollywood, in 1982; three years later she died of a heart attack at age 78.
Born in Cherryvale, Kansas, Louise Brooks was the daughter of Leonard Porter Brooks, a lawyer, who was usually preoccupied with his legal practice, and Myra Rude, an artistic mother who said that any "squalling brats she produced could take care of themselves". Rude was a talented pianist who played the latest Debussy and Ravel for her children, inspiring them with a love of books and music.
When Louise was nine years old, a neighborhood man sexually abused her. Beyond the physical trauma at the time, the event continued to have damaging psychological effects on her personal life as an adult and on her career. That early abuse caused her later to acknowledge that she was incapable of real love, explaining that 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". When Brooks at last told her mother of the incident, many years later, her mother suggested that it must have been Louise's fault for "leading him on".
Brooks began her entertainment career as a dancer, joining the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts modern dance company in Los Angeles in 1922. The company included founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, as well as a young Martha Graham. In her second season with the company, Brooks advanced to a starring role in one work opposite Shawn. However, a long-simmering personal conflict between Brooks and St. Denis boiled over one day, and St. Denis abruptly fired Brooks from the troupe in Spring 1924, telling her in front of the other members, "I am dismissing you from the company because you want life handed to you on a silver salver". These words made a strong impression on Brooks; when she drew up an outline for a planned autobiographical novel in 1949, "The Silver Salver" was the title she gave the tenth and final chapter. Brooks was 17 years old at the time of her dismissal.
Thanks to her friend Barbara Bennett, the sister of Constance and Joan Bennett, Brooks almost immediately found employment as a chorus girl in George White's Scandals, followed by an appearance as a featured dancer in the 1925 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. As a result of her work in the Follies, she came to the attention of Paramount Pictures producer Walter Wanger, who signed her to a five-year contract with the studio in 1925. She was also noticed by visiting movie star Charlie Chaplin, who was in town for the premiere of his film The Gold Rush. The two had a two-month affair that summer while Chaplin was married to Lita Grey. When their affair ended, Chaplin sent her a cheque in the mail, but she declined to write him a thank-you note.
Brooks made her screen debut in the silent The Street of Forgotten Men, in an uncredited role in 1925. Soon, however, she was playing the female lead in a number of silent light comedies and flapper films over the next few years, starring with Adolphe Menjou and W. C. Fields, among others.
Brooks had an on-and-off affair with Walter Wanger, head of Paramount Pictures, and after her small roles in 1925, both Paramount and MGM offered her contracts. Wanger tried to persuade her to take the MGM contract to avoid rumors that she only obtained the Paramount contract because of her intimate relationship with him. Despite his advice, she decided to accept Paramount's offer. During this time, Brooks gained a cult following in Europe for her pivotal vamp role in the 1928 Howard Hawks silent buddy film A Girl in Every Port. Her distinctive bob haircut helped start a trend; many women styled their hair in imitation of both her and fellow film star Colleen Moore.
In the early sound film drama Beggars of Life (1928), Brooks plays an abused country girl who kills her foster father in a moment of desperation. A hobo (Richard Arlen) happens on the murder scene and convinces Brooks to disguise herself as a young boy and escape the law by "riding the rails" with him. In a hobo encampment, or "jungle," they meet another hobo (Wallace Beery). Brooks' disguise is soon uncovered and she finds herself the only female in a world of brutal, sex-hungry men. Much of this film was shot on location in the Jacumba Mountains near the Mexican border, and the boom microphone was invented for this film by the director William Wellman, who needed it for one of the first experimental talking scenes in the movies.
Soon after the production of Beggars Of Life was completed, Brooks began filming the pre-Code crime-mystery film The Canary Murder Case (1929). By this time in her life, she was socializing with wealthy and famous persons. She was a frequent house guest of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, being intimate friends with Davies' lesbian niece, Pepi Lederer.
Brooks, who loathed the Hollywood "scene", refused to stay on at Paramount after being denied a promised raise. Learning of her refusal, her friend and lover George Preston Marshall counseled her to sail with him to Europe in order to make films with director G.W. Pabst, the prominent Austrian Expressionist director.
As such, on the last day of filming The Canary Murder Case, Brooks departed Paramount Pictures to leave Hollywood for Berlin to work for Pabst. It was not until thirty years later that this rebellious decision would come to be seen as arguably the most beneficial to her career, securing her immortality as a silent film legend and independent spirit.
While her initial snubbing of Paramount alone would not have finished her in Hollywood altogether, her later refusal after returning from Germany to come back to Paramount for sound retakes of The Canary Murder Case (1929) irrevocably placed her on an unofficial blacklist. Angered by her refusal, the studio allegedly claimed that Brooks' voice was unsuitable for sound pictures, and another actress, Margaret Livingston, was hired to dub Brooks' voice for the film.
After her arrival in Weimar Germany, she starred in the 1929 silent film Pandora's Box, directed by Pabst in his New Objectivity period. The film is based on two plays by Frank Wedekind (Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora) and Brooks plays the central figure, Lulu. This film is notable for its frank treatment of modern sexual mores, including one of the first overt on-screen portrayals of a lesbian.
It was Brooks' performance in Pandora's Box which made her into a star. In looking for the right actress to play Lulu, Pabst had rejected Marlene Dietrich as "too 'old" and too 'knowing'", In choosing Brooks, a relative unknown who had only appeared – not to very great effect – in secondary roles, Pabst was going against the advice of those around him.
After the filming of Pandora's Box concluded, Brooks had a brief one-night stand with Pabst, and the director cast Brooks again in his controversial social drama Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), based on the book by Margarete Böhme. She next appeared in Miss Europe (1930) by Italian director Augusto Genina, the latter filmed in France and having a famous surprise ending.
When audiences and critics first viewed Brooks' German films, they were bewildered by her naturalistic acting style. Viewers purportedly exited the theater vocally complaining, "She doesn't act! She does nothing!" In the late 1920's, cinemagoers were habituated to theatre-style stage acting with exaggerated body language and facial expressions. Yet Brooks' acting style was deliberately subtle as she knew the close-up images of the actors' bodies and faces made such exaggerations unnecessary. When explaining her acting method, Brooks posited that acting "does not consist of descriptive movement of face and body but in the movements of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation." This innovative style continues to be used today by film actors but, at the time, it was surprising to viewers who assumed she wasn't acting at all. Film critic Roger Ebert later noted that, by employing this acting method, "Brooks became one of the most modern and effective of actors, projecting a presence that could be startling."
The result of her appearances in the two films by Pabst was that Brooks' became a star. According to the film critic and historian Molly Haskell, the films "expos[ed] her animal sensuality and turn[ed] 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.
Near the end of 1929, English film critic and journalist Cedric Belfrage interviewed Pabst for an article about Brooks' film work in Europe, one that was published in the February 1930 issue of the American monthly Motion Picture. The Austrian director, according to Belfrage, attributed Brooks' acting success outside of the United States to her seemingly inherent or instinctive "European" sensibilities:
...the eminent Herr Pabst described it to me over a cocktail in the Bristol Bar, Berlin. "Louise," said Herr Pabst, "has a European soul. You can't get away from it. When she described Hollywood to me—I have never been there—I cry out against the absurd fate that ever put her there at all. She belongs to Europe and to Europeans. She has been a sensational hit in her German pictures. I do not have her play silly little cuties. She plays real women, and plays them marvelously."
Belfarge goes on in his article to elaborate on Brooks' opinion of Hollywood, and he refers to Pabst's firsthand knowledge of that opinion. "The very mention of the place," he states, "gives her a sensation of nausea. He continues, "The pettiness of it, the dulness, the monotony, the stupidity—no, no, that is no place for Louise Brooks."
Return to America
Dissatisfied with Europe, Brooks returned to New York in December 1929. When Brooks returned to Hollywood in 1931, she was cast in two mainstream films, God's Gift to Women (1931) and It Pays to Advertise (1931), but her performances in these films were largely ignored by critics, and few other job offers were forthcoming due to her informal "blacklisting". As the sole member of the cast who had refused to return to make the talkie version of The Canary Murder Case, Brooks became convinced that "no major studio would hire [her] to make a film."
Purportedly, director William Wellman—despite their previous acrimonious relationship on Beggars of Life—offered Brooks the female lead in his new picture The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney. Brooks turned down Wellman's offer in order to visit her then-lover George Preston Marshall in New York City, and the coveted role instead went to Jean Harlow, who began her own rise to stardom largely as a result. Brooks later explained to Wellman that she simply "hated Hollywood" but, according to film historian James Card, who came to know Brooks intimately later in her life, "she just wasn't interested. ... She was more interested in Marshall". In the opinion of biographer Barry Paris, "turning down Public Enemy marked the real end of Louise Brooks's film career".
She returned to Hollywood after being offered of a $500 per week salary from Columbia Pictures but, after refusing to do a screen test for a Buck Jones Western film, the contract offer was withdrawn. She made one more film at that time, a two-reel comedy short, Windy Riley Goes Hollywood (1931), directed by disgraced Hollywood outcast Fatty Arbuckle, working under the pseudonym "William Goodrich".
Brooks declared bankruptcy in 1932, and she began dancing in nightclubs to earn a living. She attempted a film comeback in 1936 and did a bit part in Empty Saddles, a Western that led Columbia to offer her a screen test, contingent on appearing in the 1937 musical When You're in Love, uncredited, as a specialty ballerina in the chorus. She made two more films after that, including the 1938 Western Overland Stage Raiders in which she plays the romantic lead, opposite John Wayne, with a long hairstyle that renders her all but unrecognizable from her Lulu days. In contemporary reviews of that Western in newspapers and trade publications, Brooks received little attention from critics for her role. The review by The Film Daily in September 1938 provides one example of that general disregard. The New York-based paper barely mentions her, stating only that "Louise Brooks makes an appearance as a female attraction." Variety, the nation's leading entertainment publication at the time, also devotes very little ink to her in its review. "Louise Brooks is the femme appeal with nothing much to do", it reports, "except look glamorous in a shoulder-length straight-bang coiffure."
Life after film
Brooks' career prospects as a film actress had significantly declined by 1940. According to the federal census in May that year, she was living in a $55-a-month apartment at 1317 North Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood and was working as a copy writer for a magazine. Soon, however, she found herself unemployed and increasingly desperate for a steady income. She also realized during this time that "the only people who wanted to see me were men who wanted to sleep with me." That realization was underscored by her longtime friend Paramount executive Walter Wanger, who warned her that she would likely "become a call girl" if she remained in Hollywood.
Heeding Wanger's warning, Brooks briefly returned to Wichita, where she was raised, but this undesired return "turned out to be another kind of hell." "I retired first to my father's home in Wichita," she later recalled, "but there I found that the citizens could not decide whether they despised me for having once been a success away from home or for now being a failure in their midst." For her part, Brooks admitted that "I wasn't exactly enchanted with them," and "I must confess to a lifelong curse: My own failure as a social creature." After an unsuccessful attempt at operating a dance studio, she returned to New York City. Following brief stints there as a radio actor in soap operas and a gossip columnist, she worked as a salesgirl in a Saks Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan. Between 1948 and 1953, Brooks embarked upon a career as a courtesan with a few select wealthy men as clients. As her finances eroded, an impoverished Brooks began working regularly for an escort agency in New York. Recalling this difficult period in her memoirs, Brooks wrote that she frequently pondered suicide:
I found that the only well-paying career open to me, as an unsuccessful actress of thirty-six, was that of a call girl ... and (I) began to flirt with the fancies related to little bottles filled with yellow sleeping pills.
She spent subsequent years "drinking and escorting" while subsisting in obscurity and poverty in a small New York apartment. By this time, "all of her rich and famous friends had forgotten her." Angered by this ostracization, she attempted to write a tell-all memoir titled Naked on My Goat, a title drawn from Goethe's novel Faust. After working on that autobiography for years, she destroyed the entire manuscript by throwing it into an incinerator. As time passed, she increasingly drank more and continued to suffer from suicidal tendencies.
— Henri Langlois, 1953
In the early 1950s, French film historians such as Henri Langlois rediscovered Brooks' films, proclaiming her an unparalleled actress who surpassed even Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo as a film icon, much to her purported amusement. This rediscovery led to Louise Brooks film revivals and rehabilitated her reputation in her home country.
During this time, James Card, the film curator for the George Eastman House, discovered Brooks "living as a recluse" in New York City. He persuaded her in 1956 to move to Rochester, New York, to be near the George Eastman House film collection where she could study cinema and write about her past career. With Card's assistance, she became a noted film writer. Although Brooks had been a heavy drinker since the age of 14, she remained relatively sober to begin writing perceptive essays on cinema in film magazines, which became her second career. (A collection of her writings, titled Lulu in Hollywood, was published in 1982 and was heralded by film critic Roger Ebert as "one of the few film books that can be called indispensable.")
In her later years, Brooks rarely granted interviews yet had special relationships with film historians John Kobal and Kevin Brownlow. In the 1970s, she was interviewed extensively on film for the documentaries Memories of Berlin: The Twilight of Weimar Culture (1976), produced and directed by Gary Conklin, and Hollywood (1980), by Brownlow and David Gill. Lulu in Berlin (1984) is another rare filmed interview, produced by Richard Leacock and Susan Woll, released a year before her death but filmed a decade earlier. In 1979, she was profiled by the film writer Kenneth Tynan in his essay "The Girl in the Black Helmet", the title an allusion to her bobbed hair, worn since childhood. In 1982, writer Tom Graves was allowed into Brooks' small apartment for an interview, and later wrote about the often awkward and tense conversation in his article "My Afternoon with Louise Brooks".
On August 8, 1985, after suffering from arthritis and emphysema for many years, Brooks died of a heart attack in her apartment in Rochester, New York.. She had no survivors and was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rochester.
Marriages and relationships
In the summer of 1926, Brooks married Eddie Sutherland, the director of the film she made with W. C. Fields, but by 1927 had become infatuated with George Preston Marshall, owner of a chain of laundries and future owner of the Washington Redskins football team, following a chance meeting with him that she later referred to as "the most fateful encounter of my life". She divorced Sutherland, mainly due to her budding relationship with Marshall, in June 1928. Marshall was purportedly "her frequent bedfellow and constant adviser between 1927 and 1933."
Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Brooks continued her on-again, off-again relationship with George Preston Marshall which she later described as abusive. Marshall repeatedly asked her to marry him but, after learning that she had had many affairs while they were together and believing her to be incapable of fidelity, he married film actress Corinne Griffith instead.
In 1933, she married Chicago millionaire Deering Davis, a son of Nathan Smith Davis, Jr., but abruptly left him in March 1934 after only five months of marriage, "without a good-bye ... and leaving only a note of her intentions" behind her. According to Card, Davis was just "another elegant, well-heeled admirer", nothing more. The couple officially divorced in 1938.
In her later years, Brooks insisted that both her previous marriages were loveless and that she had never loved anyone in her lifetime: "As a matter of fact, I've never been in love. And if I had loved a man, could I have been faithful to him? Could he have trusted me beyond a closed door? I doubt it." Despite her two marriages, she never had children, referring to herself as "Barren Brooks". Her many paramours from years before had included a young William S. Paley, the founder of CBS. Paley provided a small monthly stipend to Brooks for the remainder of her life, and this stipend kept her from committing suicide at one point.
Sometime before 1955, Brooks converted to Roman Catholicism.
In a 1979 New Yorker profile of Brooks, theater critic and writer Kenneth Tynan described her as "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." By her own admission, Brooks was a sexually liberated woman, unafraid to experiment, even posing nude for art photography, and her liaisons with many film people were legendary, although much of it is speculation.
Brooks enjoyed fostering speculation about her sexuality, cultivating friendships with lesbian and bisexual women including Pepi Lederer and Peggy Fears, but eschewing relationships. She admitted to some lesbian dalliances, including a one-night stand with Greta Garbo. She later described Garbo as masculine but a "charming and tender lover". Despite all this, she considered herself neither lesbian nor bisexual:
I had a lot of fun writing Marion Davies' Niece [an article about Pepi Lederer], 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 lesbians. But that is one point upon which I agree positively with [Christopher] Isherwood: There is no such thing as bisexuality. Ordinary people, although they may accommodate themselves, for reasons of whoring or marriage, are one-sexed. Out of curiosity, I had two affairs with girls — they did nothing for me.
— Liza Minnelli, Inside the Actors Studio, on her portrayal of "Sally Bowles" in Cabaret (1972)
Following her death, Brooks has had a significant legacy in novels, comics, music and film.
Brooks has inspired cinematic characters such as Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse's 1972 film Cabaret. For her portrayal of Bowles, Liza Minnelli reinvented the character with "Lulu makeup and helmet-like coiffure" based on Brooks' 1920s persona. Similarly, films such as Jonathan Demme's Something Wild features a reckless femme fatale (Melanie Griffith) who calls herself "Lulu" and wears a bob, and in the 1992 film Death Becomes Her, Isabella Rosselini plays Lisle von Rhoman, a character inspired by Brooks. More recently, Laura Moriarty wrote The Chaperone, which depicts Brooks' initial arrival in New York, plus her career decline as an actress. The film stars Haley Lu Richardson and Elizabeth McGovern.
Brooks' film persona served as the literary inspiration for Adolfo Bioy Casares when he wrote his science fiction novel The Invention of Morel (1940) about a man attracted to Faustine, a woman who is only a projected 3-D image. In a 1995 interview, Casares explained that Faustine is directly based on his love for Louise Brooks who "vanished too early from the movies". Elements of The Invention of Morel, minus the science fiction elements, served as a basis for Alain Resnais's 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad.
In Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods, the character Czernobog refers to Brooks as the greatest movie star of all time. In her 2011 novel of supernatural horror, Houdini Heart, Ki Longfellow uses Brooks as an actual character in the leading character's visions. Brooks appears as a central character in the 2012 novel The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty. In Gayle Forman's novels Just One Day and Just One Year, the protagonist is called "Lulu" because her bobbed hair resembles Brooks.
Brooks also had a significant influence in the graphics world. She inspired the long-running Dixie Dugan newspaper strip by John H. Striebel. The strip began in the late 1920s and ran until 1966, which grew out of the serialized novel and later stage musical, Show Girl, that writer J.P. McEvoy had loosely based on Louise's days as a Follies girl on Broadway.
Brooks also inspired the erotic comic books of Valentina, by the late Guido Crepax, which began publication in 1965 and continued for many years. Crepax became a friend and regular correspondent with Louise late in her life. Hugo Pratt, another comics artist, also used her as inspiration for characters, and even named them after her.
Other comics have drawn upon Brooks' distinctive hair-style. Brooks was the visual model for the character of Ivy Pepper in Tracy Butler's Lackadaisy comic series. More recently, illustrator Rick Geary published a 2015 graphic novel entitled Louise Brooks: Detective in which Brooks, "her movie career having sputtered to a stop," returns to her native Kansas and becomes a private investigator who solves murders.
Brooks has been referenced in a number of songs. In 1991, British new wave group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark released "Pandora's Box" as a tribute to Brooks' film. Similarly, Soul Coughing's 1998 song "St. Louise Is Listening" contains several references to Brooks, and the song "Interior Lulu" released the next year by Marillion is a reference to Brooks and mentions her in its first lines.
In 2011, American metal group Metallica and singer-songwriter Lou Reed released the double album Lulu with a Brooks-like mannequin on the cover. And, more recently, Natalie Merchant's self-titled 2014 album, the song "Lulu" is a biographical portrait of Brooks.
As is the case with many of her contemporaries, a number of Brooks's films are considered to be lost. Her key films survive, however, particularly Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, which have been released on DVD in North America by the Criterion Collection and Kino Video, respectively.
As of 2007, Miss Europe and The Show Off have also seen limited North American DVD release. Her short film (and one of her only talkies) Windy Riley Goes Hollywood was included on the DVD release of Diary of a Lost Girl. Her final film, Overland Stage Raiders, was released on VHS and then in 2012 on DVD.
|1925||The Street of Forgotten Men||A Moll||Herbert Brenon||Incomplete (missing reel 7)|
|1926||The American Venus||Miss Bayport||Frank Tuttle||Lost film. In the late 1990s some fragments in both black and white and color were found in Australia. In 2018 a three second long technicolor screen test featuring Brooks was discovered by archivist Jane Fernandes, the only color film footage of the actress during her prime known to exist. Another lost scene was found in 2018 in a YouTube video that had been uploaded to the site in 2007.|
|1926||A Social Celebrity||Kitty Laverne||Malcolm St. Clair||Lost film|
|1926||It's the Old Army Game||Mildred Marshall||A. Edward Sutherland|
|1926||The Show Off||Clara||Malcolm St. Clair|
|1926||Just Another Blonde||Diana O'Sullivan||Alfred Santell||Fragments survive|
|1926||Love 'Em and Leave 'Em||Janie Walsh||Frank Tuttle|
|1927||Evening Clothes||Fox Trot||Luther Reed||Lost film|
|1927||Rolled Stockings||Carol Fleming||Richard Rosson||Lost film|
|1927||Now We're in the Air||Griselle/Grisette||Frank R. Strayer||In 2016, a twenty-three minute fragment was found at the Czech national film archive in Prague. The surviving material was preserved and shown for the first time at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on June 2, 2017.|
|1927||The City Gone Wild||Snuggles Joy||James Cruze||Lost film|
|1928||A Girl in Every Port||Marie, Girl in France||Howard Hawks|
|1928||Beggars of Life||The Girl (Nancy)||William A. Wellman||Sound version is considered lost; only silent version survives|
|1929||The Canary Murder Case||Margaret Odell||Malcolm St. Clair||Silent and sound versions survive|
|1929||Pandora's Box||Lulu||G. W. Pabst|
|1929||Diary of a Lost Girl||Thymian||G. W. Pabst|
|1930||Miss Europe||Lucienne Garnier||Augusto Genina||Alternate title: Prix de Beauté [Beauty Prize] - silent and sound versions survive|
|1931||It Pays to Advertise||Thelma Temple||Frank Tuttle|
|1931||God's Gift to Women||Florine||Michael Curtiz|
|1931||Windy Riley Goes Hollywood||Betty Grey||Roscoe Arbuckle|
|1936||Empty Saddles||"Boots" Boone||Lesley Selander|
|1937||When You're in Love||Chorus Girl||Robert Riskin||Uncredited role|
|1937||King of Gamblers||Joyce Beaton||Robert Florey||Scenes deleted|
|1938||Overland Stage Raiders||Beth Hoyt||George Sherman|