Loos, Anita (1893–1981)
Loos, Anita (1893–1981)
Loos, Anita (1893–1981)
American novelist, playwright and screenwriter who gave the world the unflappable Lorelei Lee in Gentleman Prefer Blondes. Born Corinne Anita Loos on April 26, 1893, in Sisson, California; died on August 18, 1981, in New York City; daughter of Richard Beers Loos (a newspaper publisher) and Anita "Minnie" (Smith) Loos; married Frank Pallma (a composer), in 1915 (divorced 1920); married John Emerson (a film director), on June 21, 1920; no children.
Briefly pursued a career on the stage until she sold her first "scenario" for a silent film and embarked on a career in the movie business; many of her early efforts were for pioneering director D. W. Griffith, for whom she wrote the subtitles for the director's landmark silent film, Intolerance (1916); though her long and prolific career was closely tied to films, her talent for sharp social and sexual satire came to full prominence with novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925); by the time of her death, had written, alone or in collaboration, some 200 scripts for stage and film, as well as three novels and as many volumes of memoirs of her years in Hollywood.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925); But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes; (memoir) A Girl Like I (Viking, 1966); (with Helen Hayes) Twice Over Lightly; (memoir) The Talmadge Girls; (memoir) Cast of Thousands (1977).
Filmography—as screenwriter, alone or in collaboration:
The New York Hat (1912); The Telephone Girl and the Lady (1913); The Power of the Camera (1913); The Hicksville Epicure (1913); Highbrow Love (1913); A Narrow Escape (1913); The Widow's Kids (1913); The Lady in Black (1913); The Wedding Gown (1913); His Awful Vengeance (1914); Gentleman or Thief (1914); A Bunch of Flowers (1914); When a Woman Guides (1914); The Road to Plaindale (1914); The Wall Flower (1914); The Saving Presence (1914); The Fatal Dress Suit (1914); The Girl in the Shack (1914); For Her Father's Sins (1914); The Million-Dollar Bride (1914); A Flurry in Art (1914); Mixed Values (1915); Symphony Sal (1915); The Deacon's Whiskers (1915); Pennington's Choice (1915); His Picture in the Papers (1916); A Corner in Cotton (1916); (titles only) Macbeth (1916); Wild Girl of the Sierras (1916); The Little Liar (1916); The Half-Breed (1916); (titles only) Intolerance (1916); The Social Secretary (1916); Stranded (1916); The Wharf Rat (1916); Manhattan Madness (1916); American Aristocracy (1916); The Matrimaniac (1916); The Americano (1916); A Daughter of the Poor (1917); In Again Out Again (1917); Wild and Wooly (1917); Reaching for the Moon (1917); Let's Get a Divorce (1917); Hit-the-Trail Holiday (1918); Come on In (1918); (co-story, co-producer only) Getting Mary Married (1919); Oh You Women! (1919); (also co-producer) A Temperamental Wife (1919); The Isle of Conquest (1919); (also co-producer) A Virtuous Vamp (1919); Two Weeks (1920); (also co-producer) In Search of a Sinner (1920); The Love Expert (1920); The Perfect Woman (1920); The Branded Woman (1920); Dangerous Business (1920); Mama's Affair (1921); Woman's Place (1921); (also co-producer) Red Hot Romance (1922); Polly of the Follies (1922); Dulcy (1923); Three Miles Out (1924); Learning to Love (1925); (story only) Stranded (1927); (story only) Publicity Madness (1927); (co-adaptor from her novel and play) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928); (co-story only) The Fall of Eve (1929); The Struggle (1931); Red-Headed Woman (1932); (dialogue only) Blondie of the Follies (1932); Hold Your Man (1933); (story only) Midnight Mary (1933); The Barbarian (1933); The Girl from Missouri (1934); The Biography of a Bachelor Girl (1935); Riffraff (1936); San Francisco (1936); Mama Steps Out (1937); Saratoga (1937); The Women (1939); Susan and God (1940); Blossoms in the Dust (1941); They Met in Bombay (1941); When Ladies Meet (1941); I Married an Angel (1942); (remake, co-play basis only) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
Halfway through the 20th century, America rediscovered Anita Loos. Few were more surprised than Loos herself, then nearing 60 years of age. She had never felt as if she had been lost in the first place, especially since the occasion of her reconstituted fame was a musical based on a wildly popular book she had written 25 years before, and movie audiences had been watching films produced from her scripts since the days of silent pictures. She particularly scoffed at one critic's mention of her as "the last of the flappers." "Me? A flapper?," she hooted. "The only things I ever flapped were the pages of a yellow legal pad."
Loos had been scribbling on a long line of notepads since her childhood in a household boasting several memorable characters. To begin with, there was her father Richard Beers Loos, whom she described as "a first scale rogue." Richard, a raffish newspaper publisher from Ohio with an eye for women and a fondness for saloons, had come to rural northern California in the late 19th century to establish a new paper in mountainous Sissons, California (now Mount Shasta), The Sissons Mascot. He attracted the attention of Sissons' young women by appearing at a dance in blackface and performing a popular music-hall song of the day. "He was an overnight sensation," Loos wrote of her beloved "Pop" years later, "witty, outrageous and with the urbane type of good looks which foretells early baldness." Among the women who caught his eye was Anita "Minnie" Smith , a pretty brunette and the daughter of an adventurous Easterner who had made a fortune in California's mid-century gold rush. Minnie Smith defied her father's wishes and married Richard Loos in the early 1880s. "With her marriage," Loos said, "began the lifelong heartache of being in love with a scamp." Anita was the second of the couple's three children, born in April 1893.
Although it was the rollicking behavior of her father that ruled much of Anita's childhood and adolescence, Minnie's side of the family was not without color. There was, for instance, Minnie's sister Nina Smith , who had caused a scandal in her teens by running away from home and returning some years later as the wife of a wealthy confidence man. Loos would always remember Aunt Nina as the glamorous black sheep of the family, always well taken care of by a series of men friends after her divorce and periodically descending on the family, plumed and bejeweled, from her travels in Europe. Then there was Minnie's grandmother, the daunting Cleopatra Fairbrother Smith , who had come West as a young bride during the gold rush and who by the time Anita was born had become a virtual recluse. Cleopatra would consent only rarely to a visit by her grandchildren to her darkened bedroom filled with the scent of lavender and stories of survival in a man's world.
By the time Anita was four, The Sissons Mascot had prospered sufficiently for her father to sell the journal and move his family to San Francisco, where he was sure he would meet with similar success by buying a theatrical journal
called Music and Drama, which he patriotically renamed The Democratic Event. The show-business connections that came with the purchase provided Richard Loos ample opportunity to indulge in brief affairs with young starlets and stage hopefuls, along with two other favorite activities, fishing and drinking. Over Minnie's protests, Richard would often bring Anita along for a morning spent on San Francisco's docks with a fishing rod, followed by a lengthy visit to one or another of the city's wharfside saloons, where Anita dined on hard-boiled eggs and pickled beets while her father downed beer with the locals. In those pre-earthquake years, San Francisco was one of America's most liberal-minded cities, looked down on by the more puritanical regions of the country as a sink of debauchery, especially for its "Barbary Coast" district lined with burlesque houses, brothels, and raucous taverns. "Its honky-tonks and sporting houses welcomed colored musicians at a time when they were barred from most white places," Loos once recalled, adding that several of the most famous stars of the American stage first learned their trade there. Many of her father's paramours, she said, were little better than street walkers from the red light district—one of whom had the courage to actually pay a visit to Minnie to demand a divorce. Loos, who claimed to have witnessed the confrontation, remembered her mother's calm response for the rest of her life. "She explained that she had suffered for years because of other women's infatuations [with her husband]," Loos recalled, "and that it would be best for the young lady to be assured of his feelings before trying to legalize her penchant for him." Thwarted in her expectations of a dramatic scene, the young beauty was left speechless and flounced out of the house, never to be seen again.
Beauty combined with a lack of brains is extremely deleterious to the health.
Richard Loos' fondness for show business propelled Anita on the stage before long, again over Minnie's strenuous objections. At the suggestion of a producer friend of her father's, Anita and her younger sister Gladys Loos found themselves in a stock-company production of Quo Vadis, in which they were among a group of Christians about to be fed to the lions. Anita wailed in terror to such effect that she went on to appear in East Lynne, a popular melodrama of the day in which she played the heroine's young son and moved the audience to tears with her death scene, complete with harp music. Her reputation grew to such an extent that David Belasco, a San Francisco native who had become Broadway's leading producer, chose her for the title role of his first production in his hometown, Frances Hodgson Burnett 's Little Lord Fauntleroy. Anita's income as an actress became more than a frivolous perk as Richard Loos' Democratic Event began to lose subscribers and income, so much so that by her early teens Anita was touring throughout northern California with a number of stock companies to provide much of the family's finances. The strains at home became apparent to her when her sister Gladys died suddenly of appendicitis while Richard was off on a boozy, weeklong fishing jaunt with his cronies and female companions. Minnie arranged for her younger daughter's burial in her husband's absence, angrily revealing to Anita what "Pop" was up to while his child was dying.
By the time the 1906 earthquake rocked San Francisco, Richard had moved his family to San Diego to take a job managing a theater which combined live entertainment with one-reel silent films, which were then still a novelty. The business went well enough to lead to a partnership with a husband-and-wife vaudeville team to purchase the Lyceum Theater and, later, the Empire Theater, both of which had repertory companies in which Anita often appeared. When both companies had shows on the boards at the same time, Anita appeared at the Lyceum under her own name and borrowed her grandmother's for appearances at the Empire, appearing as Cleopatra Fairbrother in a blonde wig and high heels. Further income was provided when Anita cribbed articles from several East Coast newspapers and fashioned them into a New York City news sheet for wealthy Easterners vacationing at San Diego's elegant Del Coronado hotel. There were also the royalties from her first play, The Soul Sinners, which her father's business partners bought and took on the road. Nothing survives of this first effort except the name of its heroine, Fiamma LaFlamme, leaving the question of whether it was a melodrama or a comedy still in doubt. Despite all this extra-curricular activity, Loos managed to graduate in 1907 from San Diego High School, where she had often been criticized for not participating in school activities. "I was always standing on the sidelines, making impudent comments," she remembered, adding, "I was destined to be an outsider, too much the observer to ever be deeply involved in anything but my work."
All the while, Loos had been fascinated by the one-reel "flickers" shown at her father's theaters, noticing that the best of them were made by a New York company called Biograph. In a few days, she had produced a five-page scenario for The Road to Plaindale, about a young married couple who move to the country only to find the delights of city living more to their liking. Loos had also noticed that none of the writers credited on the films were women, so she merely signed her submission letter to Biograph "A. Loos." Biograph promptly bought her work for $25 and bought three more from her during 1912. Among them was The New York Hat, which was the first of the four to be produced. Loos' story of a dying mother in a small Vermont town who persuades her minister to buy her daughter a fancy hat as a parting gift, causing much scandal, occupied a mere 12 minutes of screen time; but Biograph considered the story good enough to give the role of the daughter to one of its more promising actresses, a young Mary Pickford , and that of the minister to the respected stage actor Lionel Barrymore. The film was directed by David Wark Griffith, about to become early Hollywood's most influential artist. With his aristocratic features and sophisticated demeanor, Griffith reminded Loos of "an Egyptian god" on their first meeting in 1913, when Biograph sent the director west to set up its first studio in Los Angeles. Griffith, surprised to find that "A. Loos" was a 20-year-old girl, was equally impressed and offered her a role in the film he was then shooting. But Minnie, who had made sure to accompany Anita to the meeting, was scandalized by Griffith's hold on Anita and quickly whisked her daughter back to San Diego.
During 1913, Loos sold 36 scenarios to Biograph and several other movie companies, relishing all the while the excitement of a business from which her mother was determined to keep her. Her method of escaping was to marry. She had already received two marriage proposals from eager young men who were among the inhabitants of San Diego's "Tent City," an off-season community of middle-class vacationers living on the Del Coronado's beach. Richard Loos had moved his family into a bungalow nearby by wangling a job as the editor of a Tent City community newspaper. Loos decided to accept the offer of marriage from a hopeful young composer named Frank Pallma because, as she frankly admitted later, it might lead to further contacts in show business free of Minnie's stern protection. Even her father was dismayed at her acceptance. "Look, Pop, it didn't count," Loos told him after the ceremony in 1915. "I kept my fingers crossed the whole time." It soon became painfully obvious that Pallma had no intention of promoting a career for his wife. After six months, Loos sent Pallma out one day to buy her some hat pins, packed her things and left for home as soon as he was out of sight. But the brief union was not without its benefits, for Minnie reluctantly accompanied her daughter back to Los Angeles and D.W. Griffith.
By now, Griffith had formed his own company, Triangle/Fine Arts, with two other pioneers of the film business, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett. While Griffith handled the company's dramatic and comedy productions, Ince produced and directed its Westerns and Sennett its vaudeville-inspired slapstick material. Griffith was then in the midst of production on his epic Intolerance and offered Loos $75 a week to help reduce the film's sprawling plot to a series of title cards inserted in the action, providing the story advancement and dialogue that silent actors could not. Loos' first credited production for Triangle was an adaptation of Macbeth, the plot of which she condensed so effectively that the picture's title sequence lists "William Shakespeare and Anita Loos" as its authors. She quickly learned the mechanics of filmmaking from Macbeth's director, John Emerson, and made friends with actresses Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish , who was impressed by Loos' habit of reading everything from popular novels to philosophical works for new story ideas. "I was positively in awe of her," Gish said. "We called her Mrs. Socrates."
Minnie was never far away, even when Griffith included Anita in his party traveling to New York for the premier of Intolerance in 1916, the first trip East for both women. Loos fell in love with the city that would be her home in later life, so much so that she stayed behind with Mae Marsh and, of course, Minnie, after Griffith returned to California. Loos was fascinated with the scruffy intellectuals and artists she met in Greenwich Village, thanks to Mae Marsh's friendship with poet Vachel Lindsay, and she made good use of her time by arranging a luncheon at Delmonico's with Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair, which had printed several of her short stories and essays.
Called back to Los Angeles, Loos found Triangle in turmoil over rumors that Griffith was threatening to leave the studio and take some of its top talent with him. Among the actors Triangle was struggling to keep was Douglas Fairbanks, a former stage actor who had built his reputation on good looks and athleticism. Although Fairbanks' pictures were immensely popular, especially with female audiences, Griffith considered his acting talent negligible and suitable only for lightweight comedies. He had always handed the direction of Fairbanks' films to Triangle's second-string directors, like John Emerson. It was to Emerson and Loos that Triangle's executives turned in their efforts to keep Fairbanks in their stable. Loos and Emerson quickly turned out His Picture in the Papers, which Anita adapted from one of Fairbanks' stage successes about a mild-mannered salesman who inadvertently becomes an overnight celebrity. It was the first of ten films that she would write for Fairbanks, and Emerson would direct, over the next year. All of them were great successes, especially Loos' Western spoof Wild and Wooly. The hardest part of writing for the agile Fairbanks, Loos said, was "finding a variety of spots from which Doug could jump."
When Fairbanks eventually left Triangle for Famous Players/Lasky (the forerunner of Paramount Pictures), he took his writer and director with him. He also provided Loos a front-row seat for his very public and scandalous romance with Famous Players' leading actress, Mary Pickford, who had, since the days of The New York Hat, become Hollywood's highest paid actress and would soon emerge as the industry's most powerful woman. Meanwhile, Loos' own relationship with John Emerson was becoming more than professional. Like Fairbanks and most of Hollywood's artists in those early days, Emerson had begun on Broadway as a director and actor before being hired by Triangle to direct adaptations of material written for the legitimate stage. Many of the couple's associates thought Loos and Emerson an odd match, especially since Emerson was her senior by 14 years. But Loos was attracted by Emerson's witty urbanity and gave him credit for refining her writing skills and, even more important, teaching her the value of self-promotion, at which Emerson was a master. Fairbanks, in fact, confided to friends that he was jealous of Loos for capitalizing on her association with him to such an extent that she had become the only writer for the screen known by name to movie audiences. Fairbanks' opinions probably were a factor in Famous Players' offer to move Loos and Emerson to its New York facilities at higher salaries while Fairbanks embarked on the series of swashbucklers for which he is most remembered.
In New York, while Loos cranked out adaptations of stage works for the likes of George M. Cohan and Billie Burke , she and Emerson indulged enthusiastically in the city's fervid artistic life. Friends continued to speculate on the odd relationship between the two. "When Emerson wasn't around," one of them later noted, "she was mischievous, giddy, very funny. But once he walked on the set … she became very subdued, very ladylike. She deferred to him completely. It was obvious she worshiped him." Emerson had enjoyed early success at Triangle when few competent directors for the new medium were to be found, although by the time he relocated to New York the industry's artistic sensibilities were maturing beyond his capabilities. But such was Loos' infatuation with Emerson that she agreed to his suggestion of sharing writing credits for material to which he had contributed little or nothing, and even allowed his name to appear before hers on screen, Emerson airily explaining that a woman should naturally take second place to a man of his stature. The truth was that attention for Loos' work was fast superseding that given to his directorial skills. Some critics, in fact, accused Loos of overwriting, interrupting a picture's action with an overabundance of title cards. "I kept wondering," commented one reviewer after screening a Loos-decorated picture, "whether Miss Loos never suffered from writer's cramp."
By now, Loos' work had attracted the attention of William Randolph Hearst, the bombastic newspaper publisher who had been carrying on a well-known affair for years with actress Marion Davies . Davies would become the first of a number of actresses whose careers would be resuscitated by Loos' imagination and skill. Hearst hired Anita to help him turn a frustrated Davies, who had been cast in a series of heavy melodramas to much critical disdain, from America's most famous mistress into a respected screen star. Loos' solution was Getting Mary Married, a domestic comedy that was the first film starring Davies to actually make money at the box office. Loos did the same for Constance Talmadge , whom she had met at Triangle and who had appeared in one of Fairbanks' Loos-scripted films. Talmadge had failed to attract an audience at the box office but, as with Davies, Loos saw that it was a question of the proper material for Talmadge's talent. She was fascinated by Talmadge's odd combination of a sharp and sometimes earthy wit with an elegance of manner and speech. The result was a series of films, beginning with A Temperamental Wife, which played Talmadge's off-beat comedy against an elegant, upper-class background. Loos and Constance Talmadge, along with Connie's actress sister Norma Talmadge , became fast friends in the process, being seen together around New York's shops and restaurants when not working at a makeshift studio that had been built especially to house the Talmadge sisters' films by Connie's husband, producer Joseph Schenck. So close was her relationship to the Talmadges that Loos' marriage to John Emerson, on June 21, 1920, took place at Schenck's Long Island estate.
The more cynical of Anita's friends saw the marriage as Emerson's way of ensuring an income, for Emerson's career as a director seemed over. He had long been complaining of various illnesses and discomforts and had been leaving much of the daily tasks of directing a film to an assistant; these same friends noted that the marriage followed swiftly on the heels of Loos' rumored affections for Emerson's replacement behind the camera. Publicly, however, Emerson continued to insist on taking center stage. Perhaps inspired by his influential role in organizing Actors' Equity during the actors' strike on Broadway in 1919, Emerson announced that he and Loos would henceforth devote their talents to the legitimate stage, about which Anita acknowledged her husband knew more than she. The first of their nine plays written for Broadway was The Whole Town's Talking, a romantic comedy which Emerson himself directed. Loos also gamely agreed to Emerson's suggestion, a popular one in New York society at the time, that their marriage would benefit by their taking one day a week off from each other. Loos thus found herself a member of the "Tuesday Widows" club, in the company of Connie Talmadge, Marion Davies, Adele Astaire, Tallulah Bankhead , and a number of other outspoken, sharp-tongued New York show-business women. Loos called their weekly meetings "cat parties," but she was surprised at how much the women shared in common. "They had an unusual kindness toward each other," she later wrote, "having been mauled by practically every man they met, who freely picked and dropped mistresses only as a way to call attention to themselves." On the other hand, she was equally surprised by how the most glittering of New York's male sophisticates and intellectuals were putty in the hands of a pretty, if not particularly bright, young lady.
This was especially evident to her in the person of H.L. Mencken. She had been reading Mencken's tart social observations for years and shared his disdain for his "booboisie," characterized by what Mencken saw as the middle class' vulgar imitations of upper-class manners and lifestyles. The two writers had met through Frank Crowninshield at Vanity Fair, and Loos made sure to lunch with Mencken whenever he traveled to New York on business from his beloved Baltimore. She observed firsthand his helpless infatuations with bubbly young women and, on a train trip to Los Angeles to work on a film with Connie Talmadge, began to sketch out the story of a cheerfully scheming female successful at bending any man, and particularly older ones, to her will. She cast her short story in the form of a diary written by an unnamed woman of incomplete education and imperfect grammar, given to such pronouncements as "Fate was just about to start happening" and such profound musings as "Bird life is the highest form of civilization." This anonymous heroine reveals that she has begun writing her memoirs because of a recent affair with a prominent U.S. senator who might be interested to know she is setting it all down on paper, and recounts past acquaintances with a well-known "Chicago button king" and a British novelist. Loos dashed off the story before her train crossed the Mississippi and stuffed it in the flap of her suitcase, thinking Mencken might find it amusing on her return to the East.
Mencken was, indeed, amused; so much so that he arranged for the story's publication in Harper's. It became so popular that the magazine's editor asked for a second installment, for which Loos came up with a name for her narrator, Lorelei Lee ("after the girl who became famous for sitting on a rock in Germany," Lorelei explains). The continuation of Lorelei's story details her adventures in Europe, where the button king has sent her to keep her away from the British novelist of the first installment, and the generosity of a Philadelphia millionaire she meets in Austria who agrees to bankroll her dream of a film career if she will only marry him. Harper's soaring circulation figures, and the fact that thousands of men were buying copies of what was a traditionally woman's magazine, convinced Mencken that Lorelei should see the light of day in book form. Loos arranged the material under the title Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the book appeared in November 1925. Six months later, it had gone through nine editions and the name Anita Loos had leaped off the movie screen and into homes across the country.
Blondes' popularity lay in Loos' skill at making fun of sex without ever resorting to crude language or salacious descriptions, at a time when America's social mores were beginning to loosen after the horrors of World War I. "Miss Loos' book is civilized, ironic, and never crude in its effect," said The New York Times, and some critics went so far as to locate Lorelei's ancestor in the character of Cunégonde in Voltaire's Candide. Although Loos had certainly read such exalted material, she variously attributed her creation to the blonde girlfriend of a prominent judge she had met on her train journey; to Lillian Gish, from whom Loos cheerfully admitted stealing the line about the nobility of avian civilization; and to Mary Pickford, whose much-publicized embrace of Christian Science was skewered in Lorelei's brief flirtation with that religion. No doubt other women ranging from Anita's Aunt Nina to Constance Talmadge were part of the mosaic, too, for Loos had invented a wholly new character, one that Irving Berlin called "the virtuous vamp."
Despite its success, however, Blondes marked the beginning of what Loos would later call her "wasted years," self-imposed when a doctor whom John Emerson had consulted suggested that the only way to help Emerson's hypochondria was for Loos to abandon her career. The doctor's opinion that Emerson's complaints were a desperate attempt to attract attention and overcome his wife's celebrity filled Loos with guilt. "My own experience is sex turned a strong-willed character I had adored into a sick man," she later wrote. "If only we'd remained sympathetic co-workers, without the complication of marriage, no stranger would have ever addressed [Emerson] as 'Mr. Loos.'" For the next few years, Anita attempted to follow the doctor's advice and produced little work. A Broadway adaptation of Blondes closed after only a few months, and a companion novel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes which Loos called But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes was not well received, although it is considered the literary superior to the first book. As the years passed, the psychological component of Emerson's ailments became more apparent and his behavior more erratic, while Loos sought comfort in an affair with Wilson Mizner, the dashing younger brother of Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner. Wilson Mizner died of a drug overdose in 1933, and Anita would circle the date in black on her calendar each year for the rest of her life.
But even her husband's worsening condition could not overpower Loos' compulsion to write. When MGM offered her a permanent staff position at $1,000 a week, she went west while Emerson stayed behind in New York. "It's you they want," he told her. "I'm just an afterthought." Her arrival at MGM brought a fresh challenge to make over the stalled career of a promising young actress. In this case, the actress was Jean Harlow and the film, 1932's Red-Headed Woman. The script was based on a lurid novel of mistresses and murder, but it was Loos' genius to turn the story on its head and make it into a sex comedy which jump-started Harlow's tragically brief career and marked the beginning of Loos' most successful relationship with a studio. Films which are now considered classics of 1930s Hollywood flowed from Loos' typewriter, either alone or in collaboration, including Hold Your Man, San Francisco, Saratoga, The Cowboy and the Lady, and Loos' best-known work of this period, the 1939 film adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce 's play The Women.
By 1938, however, John Emerson had been diagnosed with severe schizophrenia and was confined to the sanitarium where he would spend the rest of his life. It was the first time, Loos said, that she suffered from writer's cramp, with her right hand literally clenched uncontrollably on the train ride home from Emerson's confinement. Her output slowed after Emerson's hospitalization, and it was not until 1946 that she returned to Broadway, with Happy Birthday.Helen Hayes played the prim schoolteacher Addie Beamis, who tries to rescue her alcoholic father from a bar but instead finds a way to liberate herself from her own inhibitions. In a year when such weighty plays as Another Part of the Forest and The Iceman Cometh were playing Broadway, Loos' comedy ran for more than 600 performances to full houses. She found a new, younger audience with the musical version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which swept onto Broadway in 1949. Loos turned her story into a star vehicle for a young and still relatively unknown Carol Channing , who was cast as Lorelei at Anita's insistence over the producers' and director's protests. "She can play Lorelei like a Great Dane under the delusion it's a Pekingese," Loos said of the gangly, wide-eyed Channing, and Broadway audiences proved her instincts correct. The show ran for almost two years at the Ziegfeld Theater and then went on an equally successful national tour. In 1953, Blondes appeared in a film version, this time with Marilyn Monroe , whom Loos called the "most luscious" of all the Loreleis.
Loos' success on Broadway during the 1950s also included her adaptation of Gigi, Colette 's story of a 16-year-old Parisian girl trained to be a courtesan who outwits her family and marries the man to whom she is given. Audrey Hepburn delighted audiences in the role for five months, with the show closing in May 1952 only because of the star's film commitments. But in 1956, with John Emerson's death, Loos once again withdrew from the public eye.
She returned nearly ten years later with the first of her memoirs, A Girl Like I. "It is perhaps the most remarkable Hollywood memoir ever written for its candor, its wit, and its intelligence," said one reviewer. Loos followed this success with Twice over Lightly, a survey of New York's lesser-known attractions written with Helen Hayes, and another memoir called The Talmadge Girls, about her days with Norma and Constance Talmadge. Yet a third memoir, Cast of Thousands, was published in 1977. But by the late 1970s, Loos' strength seemed to be leaving her. In an odd echo of her husband's fate, doctors were unable to find a specific ailment, although it was clear that she was seriously ill, weighing only 75 pounds by the time she was admitted to New York's Doctor's Hospital during the summer of 1981. She died there on August 18, at the age of 88.
Anita Loos' wry humor and deft sexual satire are still much admired even if the deeper sources of her talent are less well known. Her relationships with the opposite sex, starting with her father and culminating in her long and, in the end, tragic marriage to John Emerson, proved her as helpless as anyone else in dealing with the mysteries of human foibles. But her great gift was the ability to memorialize her experience with high spirits. Hidden by all the attention paid to Loos' sources for Lorelei Lee was the autobiographical basis for Lorelei's best friend, Dorothy Shaw. "Fun is fun," Loos says, through Dorothy, "but no girl wants to go on laughing all the time."
Carey, Gary. Anita Loos: A Biography. NY: Knopf, 1988.
Loos, Anita. A Girl Like I. NY: Viking Press, 1966.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York