Louise Brooks was one of the most fascinating characters of Hollywood at this time. When we look now at photographs of the quintessential ‘flapper’, one can’t help feeling that she could be gracing our screens today. Something so contemporary about her look and presence, whereas many of her contemporaries seem today to be absolutely of their time. ‘Brooksie’, as she was sometimes known, exuded a ‘modern day’ confidence that came right through the lens.
Mary Louise Brooks, was born in the midwest town of Cherryvale, Kansas, on November 14, 1906. The daughter of a busy lawyer, and a mother who was a talented pianist who would nurture her interest in music. When, aged 9 she told her mother that she had been sexually abused by a local male, her mother replied that it was probably her own fault. Unsurprisingly she developed a deep mistrust of men. She was later abused again, aged 14, by the local sunday school teacher. These early experiences may have forged her unconventional, spirited and uncompromising attitude to life.
She began dancing at an early age, and in the summer of 1922 at 15 years old she left her Kansas home for New York to dance with the Denishawn Dancers. It wasn’t long however before her penchant for drinking and appetite for men conflicted with her bosses strict policy and she had to leave. A stint with George White’s Scandals, a risqué dance act, followed, before eventually joining the Ziegfeld Follies in 1925. She was an incredibly talented dancer, it was said she could do the Charleston better than anybody. In 1924, she was the first person to bring the dance to London.
During her time with the Follies, she came to the attention of Paramount Pictures producer Walter Wanger, who signed her to a five-year contract in 1925. She was also noticed by Charlie Chaplin, who was in town for the premiere of his film The Gold Rush. – the two embarked on a two month affair that summer.
She made her film debut in the silent The Street of Forgotten Men, it wasn’t long before she was to star in a series of silent films of the late 1920s, mainly comedies and ‘flapper’ vehicles. In 1928, she acted in Paramounts first sound film, ‘Beggars of Life’ in which she plays Nancy, a girl trying to escape abuse. Also in 1928, she played the role of a vamp named Marie in ‘A Girl in Every Port’, a silent comedy film directed by Howard Hawks, made her popular in Europe.
She walked out on Paramount after the studio went back on a promise to give her a raise. Having always hated the Hollywood scene, she grabbed an opportunity to work in Germany with leading Expressionist director, Austrian G.W. Pabst. The move was to signal the pinnacle of her career. In 1929 she played arguably her most celebrated role, that of Lulu, in Pabsts ‘Pandoras Box’. A film controversial due to its open portrayal of sexuality, including one of the first portrayals of a lesbian. She then starred in another Pabst directed film, the social drama, Diary of a lost girl, another controversial film.
Returning to Hollywood in 1931, she featured in a couple of unremarkable films, Gods Gift to Women, and It Pays to advertise. Following on from these, offers were in short supply, partly down to her ‘difficult’ reputation. However she was offered a part to play opposite James Cagney in The Public Enemy. Foolishly, she turned down the role (which went to Jean Harlow). She gradually faded out of the acting scene, playing her final screen role in 1938.
Louise Brooks was one of the most alluring and fascinating actresses of the silent era. Her innocent sexuality, physical poise and expressiveness lit up her films. Her beauty and vivacious personalty drew the attention of many wealthy men and made her a toast of Broadway. Both beautiful and a trend setter – being (along with Colleen Moore) one of the first to sport the short ‘page boy’ bobbed hair style, and sharp fashion sense, she inspired many women to copy her style. With her refusal to act live in the ‘expected’ way, she became a torch bearer for independent minded, free spirited women.
A heavy drinker from the age of 14, and well known to be insatiable, rebellious and outspoken. She considered herself to be sexually liberated, having many lovers, both male and female. Although known to be a spendthrift, she was, to a fault, kind and generous to her friends. After film acting, she did some radio work, tried to run a dance studio, and worked as a sales girl for a while. She also lived as a ‘courtesan’ for a few select wealthy clients. She eventually settled into writing, publishing successful articles as well as her own autobiography ‘Lulu in Hollywood’ in 1982.
Louise died of a heart attack in Rochester, New York on August 8, 1985. She was 78 years old. Without a doubt, one of Hollywoods most iconic personalities, Louise Brooks, we salute you!