Brooks, Louise (1906–1985)

views updated

Brooks, Louise (1906–1985)

American actress whose highly memorable performance in the 1929 silent German film Pandora's Box helped make that film a landmark in the history of the international cinema. Pronunciation: Bruhks. Born November 14, 1906, in Cherryvale, Kansas; died on August 8, 1985, in Rochester, New York; daughter of Leonard Porter Brooks (a lawyer) and Myra Rude Brooks; married Edward Sutherland, 1926 (divorced, 1928); married Deering Davis, 1934 (divorced six months later); children: none.

Left home at 15 to pursue a career as a dancer in New York City, studying with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn and going on tour with their company (1922); danced in George White's Scandals (1924) and the Ziegfeld Follies (1925); signed a five-year contract with Paramount Motion Picture Studios at age 19 (1925); selected by German filmmaker G.W. Pabst to star in Pandora's Box (1928); made her final film (1938).

Selected films:

The American Venus (1926); It's the Old Army Game (1926); The Canary Murder Case (1928); A Girl in Every Port (1928); Pandora's Box (later named Lulu, 1929); Diary of a Lost Girl (1929).

In 1929, a visitor to the Berlin film studio of the celebrated German director G.W. Pabst was startled to discover that the leading lady in the film, a "fascinatingly beautiful" woman, was using the time between filming to read the aphorisms of the philosopher Schopenhauer. Asked if she always read Schopenhauer on the movie set, the actress replied, no; sometimes she read Proust. "I was immediately intrigued by this Louise Brooks," the visitor wrote. "It was her curious blend of passivity and presence that dominated the entire shoot."

Louise Brooks was a unique film actress. Never a "star" in the traditional Hollywood sense, she found that her intelligence and independence gave her an image, in that film capital, of being too "stubborn" and having an "attitude problem." Refusing to renew her contract, she expanded her career into European films, where she became the dominant presence in the landmark 1929 silent German film Pandora's Box. When Hollywood, unlike Europe, still would not recognize her stature as a "film actress," she went into retirement at age 34, spending the rest of her life at hobbies like painting, translating books, and writing penetrating character sketches of Hollywood stars.

The second of four children born to Leonard Porter Brooks, a Kansas lawyer, and Myra Rude Brooks , Louise came to admire her parent's honesty and her mother's determination to create her own sense of freedom in the midst of Kansas. Her father, whom she remembered as hardworking and quiet, dreamed of becoming a federal district judge but, unwilling to play the political games necessary to achieve that, settled for appointment as assistant attorney general for the state of Kansas. "L.P. Brooks," the locals joked, "is so honest that his secretary makes more money than he does."

Louise Brooks described her mother as a "tiny, withdrawn" woman whose health was never very good. Tired of being the disciplinarian for her own brothers and sisters when she was growing up, Myra Brooks told her husband

that any "squalling brats" that resulted from their marriage would have to take care of themselves. "When my older brother and I got into a fight, my father would retire to his lawbooks and violin on the third floor, and my mother, who had a sense of the absurd which almost always reduced crime and punishment to laughter, often simply laughed."

Louise wrote that "my mother pursued her [own] freedom by presenting book reviews to her women's club, by delivering lectures on Wagner, and by playing the piano, at which she was extremely talented (and also self-taught)." Brooks "always felt" that the way her mother played Debussy was "incomparable." "It was by watching her face that I first recognized the joy of creative effort."

Louise Brooks is the only woman who had the ability to transfigure no matter what film into a masterpiece.

—Kenneth Tynan

In addition to the delights of creative effort, Brooks also learned perfectionism, and a demanding sense of honesty, from her mother. "My mother did try to make me less openly critical of other people's false faces…. I would watch my mother … make people feel clever and pleased with themselves, but I could not act that way," she later recalled. "And so I have remained, in cruel pursuit of truth and excellence, an inhumane executioner of the bogus." Her mother, she later concluded, had fostered in her an idea of freedom that was "totally utopian, and a guaranteed source of disillusionment."

Myra Brooks also encouraged her daughter to begin a dancing career. Louise was dancing in public by age ten, at men's clubs and women's clubs. "I was," she later wrote, "what amounted to a professional dancer." When the dancer Ted Shawn presented a dance show in the area—assisted by, among others, Martha Graham —Myra and Louise attended. Against the opposition of her father, who thought the idea of a dancing career was "just silly," Louise's mother worked to send her to a new dancing school being established by Shawn and Ruth St. Denis in New York City. At age 15, Louise Brooks was sent off to Manhattan to attend the Denishawn school, accompanied by a middle-aged Kansas woman who also wished to take dance lessons and who was paid to be a chaperon.

Learning to dance was the easiest part. Accustomed to walking barefoot in the Kansas summers, Brooks adapted easily to the school's tradition that dancers practice barefoot, on hard (and splinter-filled) wooden floors. She was even sent on tour with Shawn and St. Denis in 1922 and 1923. But Brooks discovered that her Kansas accent and her style of dress were obstacles in her planned career. Attempting to look sophisticated, she selected clothing that caused her to be evicted from two hotels—from the first hotel because her exercise outfit, while working out, was considered scandalous, and from the second hotel because a short pink dress she had chosen to wear in the lobby made her look 14 years old.

Brooks decided to consult the "people who were experts in such matters—the people at the bottom whose services were supported by the enchantment at the top of New York." To lose her Kansas accent and acquire a more Eastern manner of speaking, she practiced with a soda jerk in a local drugstore, who, she reported, was very good at teaching her to pronounce "water" as if it rhymed with "daughter." For the proper style of dress, she consulted one of the most expensive clothing salons in the city, one that catered to show-business women (and a store that would later use her picture in advertisements). There she was fitted with a dress that accentuated her figure—"it was cut almost to my navel … had no upper back," and left me "a nearly naked sight to behold," she reported.

The changes worked. In 1925, she was hired as a chorus girl in George White's Scandals; in 1926, she became a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1925, when she was only 18, both Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios had also offered her five-year contracts. Her friends suggested that she marry someone of importance in Hollywood, but they failed "to understand that I put no value in my beauty and sexual attractiveness and could not use them as a means to success." Between 1925 and 1929, she appeared in 14 films, including The American Venus (1926) and A Girl in Every Port (1928). Her signature look was her bangs—dubbed the "puppy look"—an image which, she later revealed, came about because the photographer in one of her early films decided her forehead was too high to photograph properly.

She lived what fan magazines portrayed as the glamorous life, meeting many of the 1930s stars who would become legends and staying regularly at the California castle (designed by Julia Morgan ) of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. In later life, Brooks would write perceptive and up-close character sketches of many of the stars of the period, including W.C. Fields, whom she saw as a solitary, isolated person who feared being discarded to die on the Hollywood "rubbish heap." Of Lillian Gish , she wrote, "I can only be eternally grateful that she was able to make so many marvelous pictures before the producers found the trick of curbing a star and standardizing their product according to their own wishes and personal taste."

The Hollywood years were not happy ones for her. She had had a foreboding about this, when, while still in New York City, she had been interviewed by a studio representative. The interviewer was stunned to realize that Brooks was not overwhelmed by the "magic of Hollywood," and that she was leaving the Ziegfeld show only because a screenwriter wanted her to appear in a particular movie. The interviewer saw Brooks as a stupid, lucky girl; Brooks viewed the interviewer as an "artistically retarded" studio employee who did not even realize that a dancing career was the best possible training to appear in silent films.

"Nobody could understand why I hated this terrible destructive place which seemed a marvelous paradise to all others," she wrote. "To me it was like a terrible dream I have—I am lost in the corridor of a big hotel and I cannot find my room." In contrast to Hollywood, "sycophancy had no merit" in the New York theater world where she had been trained. "I was unaware," she later wrote, "that prudent Hollywood actors wooed producers, directors, and writers with a flattering attention." She was viewed as cold or not interested in making motion pictures, an impression she tried to dispel through hard work and a willingness to do some of the stunts herself.

She also discovered that she was fundamentally different from most film actresses and actors. In addition to her habit of reading weighty tomes between "takes," she was not comfortable carrying on constant small talk with the crew—her ironic nickname was "Louise the chatterbox." To a film star, she wrote, to be let alone for an instant was terrifying; whereas Brooks wanted to choose her periods of aloneness and wanted to choose the people with whom she would spend her periods of "non-aloneness."

Others in Hollywood viewed her as insolent, while she thought she was being totally honest in rejecting the pretentiousness of those around her. She also refused to perpetuate the fiction that actresses and actors were actually anything like the roles they played. When a French interviewer assumed that a particular movie role reflected her real personality, she responded, "You talk as if I were a lesbian in real life." When he replied, "But of course," she lectured him that the public should not believe that an actress' public and private persona were the same.

Her chance to appear in European films came at a time when Hollywood studios were converting to sound. "It was the time of the switchover to talkies, and studios were taking advantage of that fact to cut contract players' salaries." Refusing to accept what would have amounted to a pay cut, she became, in effect, the first Hollywood player to go on strike. She traveled to Europe, accepting an offer from the German film director G.W. Pabst to play the lead in his new film Pandora's Box. "In Hollywood, I was a pretty flibbertigibbet whose charm for the executive department decreased with every increase in fan mail. In Berlin, I stepped onto the railroad station platform to meet Pabst and became an actress. I would be treated by him with a kind of decency and respect unknown to me in Hollywood."

The role that Pabst wanted Brooks to play was Lulu, a character in two plays by the 19th-century German playwright Frank Wedekind, Pandora's Box and The Earth Spirit. Wedekind's Lulu, who becomes a prostitute in the course of the plays, has been described as a "sexual demon—insatiable and destructive." The plays had caused Wedekind constant problems with censors, but censorship was less of a problem in 1920's Berlin. Pabst had considered hiring Marlene Dietrich for the role, at a time when she had not yet won international fame in The Blue Angel. He rejected that idea when he learned that Brooks was available, commenting that the sexual overtones of Dietrich's acting were so obvious that the film would have become a "burlesque" if she played Lulu.

Brooks credited Pabst for motivating much of her characterization of Lulu as amoral, perverse, and child-like. "I revered Pabst," she later wrote, "for his truthful picture of the world of pleasure which let me play Lulu naturally." Pabst selected her wardrobes carefully, arguing that both she and her fellow actors would be aware of what they were wearing. He coaxed another actress into playing a lesbian love scene by convincing her that she was really playing the scene to him, off camera. To play Jack the Ripper in one of the movie's final scenes with Brooks, he cleverly selected one of the few male actors on the set that she found attractive.

But several dimensions of Lulu's character were created by Brooks herself—such as Lulu's disconcerting "sweet innocence" and playfulness, what has been called her "fiery eroticism," and the fact that, as a prostitute, Lulu was portrayed as a victim rather than a villain. She said that the role seemed "perfectly normal to me" and recalled that during her work in the Ziegfeld Follies, one of her best friends was a lesbian and that two millionaires in the story were very reminiscent of two studio figures she remembered from Hollywood.

Although the film would become a landmark in the European cinema, Pabst came under criticism for selecting an "American girl" to play "our Lulu." Brooks made only two more films in Europe—Diary of a Lost Girl, also directed by Pabst in 1929, and Prix de Beauté (1930), based on a script by the French director René Clair.

In 1930's Hollywood, she made seven more pictures after returning from Europe, the last in 1938. After Brooks left Hollywood in 1940, she lived for a time in Wichita, where, she said, citizens could not decide "whether they should dismiss me for having once been a success away from home or for now being a failure in their midst." Finally moving to New York, she was shocked to discover that the "only well-paying career open to me, as an unsuccessful actress of thirty-six," was the career of a call girl.

Cutting herself off from all friends of her movie days, she relied, for a time, on "yellow sleeping pills," until, in 1956, the film curator of Eastman House in Rochester, New York, persuaded her to move to that city. It was while living there, she wrote, that she came to judge her films for their artistic quality rather than the Hollywood standard of the amount of money they drew at the box office. Among the items she wrote was an introduction to a book about W.C. Fields. She also translated into English Johanna Spyri 's Heidi.

During the 1950s, Brooks was invited to Paris, where a retrospective of her film career was in progress. When asked why she had left the movies, she replied that she had become bored doing the same thing over and over again. The questioner found that puzzling, since her voice was still "marvelous," and he added that he "couldn't possibly understand why the American directors hadn't brought her back to the screen, like they had Joan Crawford or Bette Davis." Asked by an interviewer if she was unhappy, she replied, "What my friends were searching for—fame, money, and power—were not the things that made me happy. I only began to find a little happiness when I moved to Rochester."

Louise Brooks remained there until her death, spending time at her hobbies or painting, reading, and sometimes watching film from Hollywood's earlier days. She said that she lived like "millions of old people, enslaved by their habits." But, she added, "I was free! Although my mother had left us … she was still [present] in me. She brings me comfort every time I read a book."


Brooks, Louise. Lulu in Hollywood. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

——. Louise Brooks: Portrait of an Anti-Star. Edited by Roland Jaccard. NY: New York Zoetrope, 1980.

suggested reading:

Paris, Barry. Louise Brooks. NY: Anchor Books, 1990.

Tynan, Kenneth. "Profile: Louise Brooks," in The New Yorker. June 11, 1979, pp. 45-48.

Niles R. Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal-Bloomington, Illinois

About this article

Brooks, Louise (1906–1985)

Updated About content Print Article