The moment we’re born we begin to self-destruct. Some do it quicker and more beautifully than others.
Ian Curtis. Alexander McQueen. Sylvia Plath.
Some admiration of self-destructive people lurks in me, whether disembodied heroes (or heroines) or those drawn into my real life orbit. S. A. Jenner Lewis.
Some die without their genius or lives even being acknowledged.
Van Gogh. Jim Thompson. Louise Brooks.
Although silent film icon Louise Brooks lived into her seventies dying of a heart attack in 1985, her life was all but over in 1929 at age twenty-two. The rest of her existence dwelt in a purgatory-hell of poverty and gin, only lightened by a writing career post-sixty. Although by her own estimate her career had made her the equivalent of $1.8 million dollars today, she had spent it all by 1938. Tantalizing, Louise failed to complete an autobiography because she felt unable to write openly about her sexuality. “In writing the history of a life I believe absolutely that the reader cannot understand the character and deeds of the subject unless he is given a basic understanding of that person’s sexual loves and hates and conflicts. It is the only way the reader can make sense out of innumerable apparently senseless actions.”
I have toyed with the idea of a Louise Brooks story for some time (a comic book or a screenplay). My comic book The Home Front had a character at least physically based on her and drawn beautifully by the great Spanish artist Carlos Pino.
Part of the challenge of attempting to tell a life story over a short duration can be seen in the end product of most bio-pics. A brief dash through the key events of a life in an A to Z fashion with no time to delve deeply into the psychology of the person. The Ian Curtis bio-pic Control (2007) being a disappointing example of this approach. Steven Jobs (2015) is a rare, though not completely successfully, exception—preferring to tell the story within a series of key moments. The fantasy elements in The Doors (1991) lift it; exploring even fictitiously the dense consciousness and megalomania that was Jim Morrison.
Falling from a constellation, a beautiful disintegration, shooting stars, that's what we are.
—The Party’s Over, Ian McCulloch
I never gave away anything without wishing I had kept it; nor kept it without wishing I had given it away.
― Louise Brooks
Mary Louise Brooks was born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1906 to Leonard Porter Brooks, a workaholic lawyer, and Myra Rude, a dilettante pianist, who determined that any “squalling brats she produced could take care of themselves”. When Louise was sexually abused at age nine, Myra blamed her daughter. Louise grew up unsupervised and untamed, but gifted (or cursed) with a lasting interest in books and the arts.
Aged fifteen, she moved to New York and joined the Denishawn modern dance company. A gifted performer, Louise soon landed featured roles, but her disregard for authority and promiscuity (which included allegedly sleeping with the entire backstage crew) irked Ruth St Denis, who fired the seventeen-year-old in front of the class, telling her: “I am dismissing you from the company because you want life handed to you on a silver salver.”
For Louise, whose only dream was to be a dancer equal of Martha Graham, it left a deep scar from which she would never recover. The final chapter of her unfinished autobiography, written three years before her death, is tellingly titled: The Silver Salver.
She found work as a chorus girl and featured in the Ziegfeld Follies. Partying and photoshoots brought her to the attention of Paramount Pictures. Louise spent three years in Hollywood making fourteen largely forgettable films.
Uninterested in a career as an actress, rebellious and self-destructive to the extreme, Louise could never bring herself to play along with the system. “I was always late,” she said. “But just too damn stunning for them to fire me.”
She was equally uncompromising in her personal life. “I have a gift for enraging people, but if I ever bore you, it will be with a knife,” she told a lover. There were brief marriages to director Eddie Sutherland, and Chicago millionaire Deering Davis. She danced with Martha Graham, dated Charlie Chaplin, hung out with the Algonquin Roundtable, and partied with Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. She met the surrealist painter Man Ray, and future Nazi propagandist Leni Reifenstahl. Several affairs with women, including Greta Garbo, whom Louise described as masculine but a “charming and tender lover”. A firefly dancing across the night sky leaving men, women (and bridges) burned to ashes in her wake.
Perhaps anticipating her future existence, Louise remained emotionally detached, and all but alone inside. In her later years, she wrote: “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.”
In 1929, fed up with Paramount using the advent of talking pictures to not give her an expected raise, Louise quit on the spot and left Hollywood for Europe. In Berlin she made two seminal films with G. W. Pabst in 1929—Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, and in Paris, Prix de Beauté directed by Augusto Genina. This seemingly hasty and self-destructive impulse would guarantee her immortality. All three, but Pandora’s Box in particular are regarded today as classics of the silent picture era.
At the time, it seemed all for nothing. The films were all but ignored. Louise, one of the first actors to abandon a melodramatic style to employ a realistic portrayal of emotions, proved too natural for contemporary tastes. Critics complained: “She doesn’t act! She does nothing!”
Enjoying Weimar parties and morning gin martinis throughout the Berlin shoots, Louise’s promiscuity and the hedonism of Weimar Berlin fits hand in glove. The period is one of the most culturally fertile and creative of human history. The Bauhaus movement is building architecture and furniture that matters. LGBT culture is on the rise. Sex of any kind is for sale. Young secretaries moonlight as hookers, standing along the Ku’Damm like candles aside seasoned pros. Josephine Baker performs cabaret (proto-art strip clubs), very much naked and very much the avant garde symbol of jazz music, exotic Africanization, and proto-feminist mystery. The Weimar era long romanticized as a "dance on the volcano"—the ground seething, unstable, unleashing all forms of cultural and social change.
There’s something seductive about the Weimar Republic; a last rush of joy in a golden age as political uncertainty, growing inequality and storm clouds gather on the horizon. A sense that horror is just around the corner.
It has clear echoes of the modern age. The spectacle of Nazi oppression, the erosion of free speech, censorship and book burning is being retrod, this time by the moralists of conservatism and the politically correct “regressive left”. Just as the Nazis judged art to be degenerate and threw the works of Proust, Mann and Wilde onto fires, today leftists (assisted by religiosity) repeat history, banning literature by Ingalls Wilder, Twain, Steinbeck, and Rushdie, turning the world of modern fiction timid, homogeneous, and dreary. Left and right wing media organizations (all funded, it must be said, by the wealthy 1%) push division and hatred, rubbing salt in old wounds to distract the working classes from the fresh cuts the powerful are making today, epitomizing the mantra of divide and rule.
As in the 1920s, so in the 2020s, people are trying to turn a blind eye to the totalitarianism unfolding around them. The vitality of true diversity and multiplicity of voices rips as democracy flails while young men and women dance in an ecstatic crowd twitching in sync to pounding club sounds: a generation half-reeling, half-dancing drunkenly on the edge of the abyss.
Somewhere there’s a thematic resonance in the artistic, literary, and musical culture that blooms ever so briefly amid Germany’s tenuous post-World War I democracy, and crashes violently in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power—and the sensuality and youth of Louise Brooks—blossoming brightly before it all (she) falls apart.
And so I have remained, in relentless pursuit of truth and excellence, an unforgiving executioner of the bogus, an abomination to all but those few people who have overcome their aversion to truth in order to free whatever is good in them.
Despite being warned by Pabst that she risked becoming Lulu, the tragic heroine of Pandora’s Box should she leave Europe, Louise ignored him and returned to Hollywood. “Your life is exactly like Lulu’s,” he concluded, “and you will end the same way."
Louise later confessed she didn’t understand the reference as she hadn’t bothered to read the Pandora’s Box script Pabst had translated for her.
A decade later Louise Brooks was all but forgotten. She made her last film, Overland Stage Raiders, opposite a then-unknown, John Wayne, in 1938. She left Hollywood forever, first for the purgatory of Witchita. Kansas, which she said: “. . .turned out to be another kind of hell. The citizens of Wichita either resented me having been a success or despised me for being a failure.”
She subsequently drifted to New York, where she worked as a publicity agent, a salesgirl at Saks Fifth Avenue, a gossip columnist, a radio voiceover artist, and an escort between 1943 and 1955.
An aging Louise recalled these grim years: “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 began to flirt with the fancies related to little bottles filled with yellow sleeping pills.”
All but forgotten for two decades, interest in her career was rekindled by the Cinémathèque Française’s “Sixty Years of Cinema” exhibition in Paris in 1955, which featured a giant portrait of a young woman with bobbed hair mounted above its entrance. Asked why he had chosen the relatively obscure Louise Brooks over Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich for such prominent placement, exhibition director Henri Langlois exclaimed: “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!”
Louise Brooks’ cultural chic is completely retrospective. When asked about her in an interview, perplexed, the great director of the silent era, George Cukor responded: “She was nobody. She was a nothing in films. What’s all this fuss about her?”
Bring a gun.
—Louise Brooks, in later years to potential visitors
“I have been taking stock of my fifty years since I left Wichita in 1922 at the age of fifteen to become a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. How I have existed fills me with horror. For I have failed in everything—spelling, arithmetic, riding, tennis, golf; dancing, singing, acting; wife, mistress, whore, friend. Even cooking. And I do not excuse myself with the usual escape of ‘not trying.’ I tried with all my heart.”
― Louise Brooks
These are just the facts. Hence the issue. You cannot scroll through Louise’s life and hope to impart anything about the deep and damaged person she was, the horror of her later life in obscurity, or the iconography she left.
Louise had within her a rebellious streak which drifted into serious self-sabotage. She constantly snatched defeat from victory. As if she could not accept or feel she deserved anything good.
What were the sexual loves and hates and conflicts she was unable to write about?
Like pebbles thrown into a pond; did the ripples of childhood sexual abuse keep on getting bigger?
Well-read; often analyzing Schopenhauer or Kant between takes, she distills the ideal of individuality found in Kant’s philosophy—the antithesis of modern group-think, where youth seeks conformity in looks and belief. The young Louise strongly didn’t want to fit. And she didn’t. Ever. Anywhere.
Her effortless incarnation of corrupt sensuality in silent-pictures during the 1920s, still mesmerizing to watch.
Fiercely intelligent and independent, German film critic Lotte Eisner described Brooks as an “An astonishing actress endowed with an intelligence beyond compare.”
She is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s candle that burned at both ends; the shinning light of the twenties extinguished.
Lost and lonely. Facing the end. Alcohol her only friend. Now that youth and beauty is gone, the laughter over.
She drank because she wanted to forget, or to die, or both.
“A beauty unparalleled in film history” is how film historian Kevin Brownlow described Louise Brooks.
Was Louise Brooks the most beautiful woman who ever lived?
The haircut doesn’t hurt. The Jazz Age bob has never gone out of fashion. Thousands of women copied her look. It’s one of the most iconic images of the 1920s. But even Louise couldn’t live up to the image.
You are either a fool or a liar to say I would comment on the low state of anyone's morals—mine being non-existent.
Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless...
―Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Rather than a timeline of events, I have thought of a story encompassing a single night in Louise Brooks’ life. A night in Berlin, because she is inextricably tied to that city, as am I. The decadence of Weimar Berlin and Louise Brooks. Dusk to dawn, opening with the final shot of Diary of a Lost Girl and Pabst’s message to her, while Louise stares blankly into space as a grave is dug. Louise drifts to a club in the late afternoon and orders gin.
Then, two weeks ago, Louise Brooks came to me in a dream. She gave me almost the complete story… beginning perhaps a third of the way in. Not whispering or telling, but showing. A chance overheard conversation propels her on a journey. All my life, my heart has sought a thing I cannot name. A night in which she spends time with other famous denizens. Christopher Isherwood who lived in Nollendorfstraße 17, a beast of a magician seeking only his next dollar, and a lost singer from the seventies on a mission of rediscovery. The sun rises with her drifting through Potsdamer Platz and through time. A tête-à-tête with her aged self before Louise too disintegrates.
I woke and wrote down all I remembered.
I almost want to throw everything else aside and write it. Yesterday I brought a pack of index cards to break down scenes.
Will I write it? Probably, given time.
In Alan Moore’s The Ballad of Halo Jones, a lecturer (and biographer of the centuries dead title character) is confronted by a student.
Ms. Kopek: Did it actually take you fifteen years to write? That’s such a long time. I suppose with all your research; you can’t have had any time for… well… love in your life or anything?
Dr. Brunhauer: I wouldn’t say that. There was one woman that I cared about, but I’m afraid she died.
Ms. Kopek: Oh, I’m Sorry. Recently?
Dr. Brunhauer: No. Fourteen hundred years ago.