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The Girl in the Black Helmet

Kenneth Tynan

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks
 
None of this would have happened if I had not noticed, while lying late in bed on a hot Sunday morning last year in Santa Monica and flipping through the TV guide for the impending week, that one of the local public-broadcasting channels had decided to show, at 1 P.M. that very January day, a film on which my fantasies had fed ever since I first saw it, a quarter of a century before. Even for Channel 28, it was an eccentric piece of programming. I wondered how many of my Southern Californian neighbors would be tempted to forgo their poolside champagne brunches, their bicycle jaunts along Ocean Front Walk, their health-food picnics in Topanga Canyon, or their surfboard battles with the breakers of Malibu in order to watch a silent picture, shot in Berlin just fifty years earlier, about an artless young hedonist who, meaning no harm, rewards her lovers - and eventually herself - with the prize of violent death. Although the film is a tragedy, it is also a celebration of the pleasure principle. Outside in the midday. sunshine, California was celebrating the same principle, with the shadows of mortality left out.

I got to my set in time to catch the credits. The director: Georg Wilhelm Pabst, reigning maestro of German cinema in the late nineteen-twenties. The script: Adapted by Ladislaus Vajda from Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box), two scabrously erotic plays written in the eighteen-nineties by Frank Wedekind. For his movie, Pabst chose the title of the later work, though the screenplay differed markedly from Wedekind's original text: Pandora's Box belongs among the few films that have succeeded in improving on theatrical chefs-d'oeuvre. For his heroine, Lulu (the dominant figure in both plays), Pabst outraged a whole generation of German actresses by choosing a twenty-one-year-old girl from Kansas whom he had never met, who was currently working for Paramount in Hollywood, and who spoke not a word of any language other than English. This was Louise Brooks. She made only twenty-four films, in a movie career that began in 1925 and ended, with enigmatic suddenness, in 1938. Two of them were masterpieces: Pandoras Box and its immediate successor, also directed by Pabst - The Diary of a Lost Girl. Most, however, were assembly-line studio products. Yet around her, with a luxuriance that proliferates every year, a literature has grown up. I append a few excerpts:

An actress who needed no directing, but could move across the screen causing the work of art to be born by her mere presence.

- Lotte II. Eisner, French critic

Her youthful admirers see in her an actress of brilliance, a luminescent personality, and a beauty unparalleled in film history.

- Kevin Brownlow, British director and movie historian

One of the most mysterious and potent figures in the history of the cinema ... she was one of the first performers to penetrate to the heart of screen acting.

- David Thomson, British critic

Louise Brooks is the only woman who had the ability to transfigure no matter what film into a masterpiece... . Louise is the perfect apparition, the dream woman, the being without whom the cinema would be a poor thing. She is much more than a myth, she is a magical presence, a real phantom, the magnetism of the cinema.

- Ado Kyroit, French critic

Those who have seen her can never forget her. She is the modern actress par excellence. ... As soon as she takes the screen, fiction disappears along with art, and one has the impression of being present at a documentary. The camera seems to have caught her by surprise, without her knowledge. She is the intelligence of the cinematic process, the perfect incarnation of that which is photogenic; she embodies all that the cinema rediscovered in its last years of silence: complete naturalness and complete simplicity. Her art is so pure that it becomes invisible.

- Henri Langlois, director of the Cinémathèque Française

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks
 
On Channel 28, I stayed with the film to its end, which is also Lulu's. Of the climactic sequence, so decorously understated, Louise Brooks once wrote, in Sight & Sound, "It is Christmas Eve and she is about to receive the gift which has been her dream since childhood. Death by a sexual maniac." When it was over, I switched channels and returned to the real world of game shows and pet-food commercials, relieved to find that the spell she cast was still as powerful as ever. Brooks reminds me of the scene in Citizen Kane where Everett Sloane, as Kane's aging business manager, recalls a girl in a white dress whom he saw in his youth when he was crossing over to Jersey on a ferry. They never met or spoke. "I only saw her for one second," he says, "and she didn't see me at all - but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl."

I had now, by courtesy of Channel 28, seen Pandora's Box for the third time. My second encounter with the film had taken place several years earlier, in France. Consulting my journal, I found the latter experience recorded with the baroque extravagance that seems to overcome all those who pay tribute to Brooks. I unflinchingly quote:

Infatuation with L. Brooks reinforced by second viewing of "Pandora." She has run through my life like a magnetic thread - this shameless urchin tomboy, this unbroken, unbreakable porcelain filly. She is a prairie princess, equally at home in a waterfront bar and in the royal suite at Neuschwanstein; a creature of impulse, a creature of impulses, a temptress with no pretensions, capable of dissolving into a giggling fit at a peak of erotic ecstasy; amoral but totally selfless, with that sleek jet cloche of hair that rings such a peal of bells in my subconscious. In short, the only star actress I can imagine either being enslaved by or wanting to enslave; and a dark lady worthy of any poet's devotion:

For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Some basic information about Rochester, New York: With two hundred sixty-three thousand inhabitants, it is the sixth-largest city in the state, bestriding the Genesee River at its outlet into Lake Ontario. Here, in the eighteen-eighties, George Eastman completed the experiments that enabled him to manufacture the Kodak camera which, in turn, enabled ordinary people to capture monochrome images, posed or spontaneous, of the world around them. He was in at the birth of movies too. The flexible strips of film used in Thomas Edison's motion-picture machine were first produced by Eastman, in 1889. Rochester is plentifully dotted with monuments to the creator of the Kodak, among them a palatial Georgian house, with fifty rooms and a lofty neoclassical portico, that he built for himself in 1905. When he died, in 1932, he left his mansion to the University of Rochester, of whose president it became the official home. Shortly after the Second World War, Eastman House took on a new identity. It opened its doors to the public and offered, to quote from its brochure, "the worlds most important collection of pictures, films, and apparatus showing the development of the art and technology of photography." In 1972, it was imposingly renamed the International Museum of Photography. Its library now contains around five thousand movies, many of them unique copies, and seven of them - a larger number than any other archive can boast - featuring Louise Brooks. Hence I decide to pay a visit to the city, where I check in at a motel in the late spring of 1978. Thanks to the generous cooperation of Dr. John B. Kuyper, the director of the museum's film department, I am to see its hoard of Brooks pictures - six of them new to me - within the space of two days. Screenings will be held in the Dryden Theatre, a handsome auditorium that was added to the main building in 1950 as a gift from Eastman's niece, Ellen Andrus, and her husband, George Dryden.

On the eve of Day One, I mentally recap what I have learned of Brooks's early years. Born in 1906 in Cherryvale, Kansas, she was the second of four children sired by Leonard Brooks, a hardworking lawyer of kindly disposition and diminutive build, for whom she felt nothing approaching love. She herself was never more than five feet two and a half inches tall, but she raised her stature onscreen by wearing heels as high as six inches. Her mother, née Myra Rude, was the eldest of nine children, and she warned Mr. Brooks before their marriage that she had spent her entire life thus far looking after kid brothers and sisters, that she had no intention of repeating the experience with children of her own, and that any progeny she might bear him would, in effect, have to fend for themselves.

The result, because Myra Brooks was a woman of high spirits who took an infectious delight in the arts, was not a cold or neglectful upbringing. Insistent on liberty for herself, she passed on a love of liberty to her offspring. Louise absorbed it greedily. Pirouetting appealed to her; encouraged by her mother, she took dancing lessons, and by the age of ten she was making paid appearances at Kiwanis and Rotary festivities. At fifteen, already a beauty sui generis, as surviving photographs show, with her hair, close-cropped at the nape to expose what Christopher Isherwood has called "that unique imperious neck of hers," cascading in ebony bangs down the high, intelligent forehead, and descending on either side of her eyes in spit curls slicked forward at the cheekbones, like a pair of enameled parentheses - at fifteen, she left high school and went to New York with her dance teacher.

There she successfully auditioned for the Denishawn Dancers, which had been founded in 1915 by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, and was by far the most adventurous dance company in America. She started out as a student, but soon graduated to full membership in the troupe, with which she toured the country from 1922 to 1924. One of her fellow dancers, Martha Graham, became a lifelong friend. "I learned to act while watching Martha Graham dance," she said later, in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, "and I learned to move in film from watching Chaplin."

Suddenly, however, the discipline involved in working for Denishawn grew oppressive. Brooks was fired for lacking a sense of vocation, and the summer of 1924 found her back in New York, dancing in the chorus of George White's Scandals. After three months of this, a whim seized her, and she embarked without warning for London, where she performed the Charleston at the Café de Paris, near Piccadilly Circus. By New York standards, she thought Britain's Bright Young Things a moribund bunch, and when Evelyn Waugh wrote Vile Bodies about them, she said that only a genius could have made a masterpiece out of such glum material.

Early in 1925, with no professional prospects, she sailed for Manhattan on borrowed money, only to be greeted by Florenz Ziegfeld with the offer of a job in a musical comedy called Louie the 14th, starring Leon Errol. She accepted, but the pattern of her subsequent behavior left no doubt that what she meant by liberty and independence was what others defined as irresponsibility and self-indulgence. Of the director of Louie the 14th, she afterward wrote, again for Sight & Sound: "He detested all of Ziegfeld's spoiled beauties, but most of all me because on occasion, when I had other commitments, I would wire my non-appearance to the theatre." In May 1925, she made her movie debut at the Paramount Astoria Studio on Long Island, playing a bit part in The Street of Forgotten Men, of which no print is known to exist. She has written a vivid account of filmmaking in its Long Island days:

The stages were freezing in the winter, steaming hot in the summer. The dressing rooms were windowless cubicles. We rode on the freight elevator, crushed by lights and electricians. But none of that mattered, because the writers, directors, and cast were free from all supervision. Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, and Walter Wanger never left the Paramount office on Fifth Avenue, and the head of production never came on the set. There were writers and directors from Princeton and Yale. Motion pictures did not consume us. When work finished, we dressed in evening clothes, dined at the Colony or "21," and went to the theatre. The difference in Hollywood was that the studio was run by B. P. Schulberg, a coarse exploiter who propositioned every actress and policed every set. To love books was a big laugh. There was no theatre, no opera, no concerts-just those god-damned movies.

Despite Brooks's erratic conduct in Louie the 14th, Ziegfeld hired her to join Will Rogers and W. C. Fields in the 1925 edition of his Follies. It proved to be her last Broadway show. One of her many admirers that year was the atrabilious wit Herman Mankiewicz, then employed as second-string drama critic of the Times. Blithely playing truant from the Follies, she attended the opening of No, No, Nanette on Mankiewicz's arm. As the houselights faded, her escort, who was profoundly drunk, announced his intention of falling asleep and asked Brooks to make notes on the show for use in his review. She obliged, and the Times next day echoed her opinion that No, No, Nanette was "a highly meritorious paradigm of its kind." (Somewhat cryptically, the review added that the score contained "more. familiar quotations from itself... than even Hamlet.")

Escapades like this did nothing to endear Brooks to the other, more dedicated Ziegfeld showgirls, but an abiding intimacy grew up between her and W.C. Fields, in whose dressing room she was always graciously received. Later, in a passage that tells us as much about its author as about her subject, she wrote:

He was an isolated person. As a young man he stretched out his hand to Beauty and Love and they thrust it away. Gradually he reduced reality to exclude all but his work, filling the gaps with alcohol whose dim eyes transformed the world into a distant view of harmless shadows. He was also a solitary person. Years of traveling alone around the world with his juggling act taught him the value of solitude and the release it gave his mind... Most of his life will remain unknown. But the history of no life is a jest.

In September 1925, the Follies left town on a national tour. Brooks stayed behind and sauntered through the role of a bathing beauty in a Paramount movie called The American Venus. Paramount and M-G-M were both pressing her to sign five-year contracts, and she looked for advice to Walter Wanger, one of the former company's top executives, with whom she was having an intermittent affair. "If, at this crucial moment in my career," she said long afterward in London Magazine, "Walter had given me some faith in my screen personality and my acting ability, he might have saved me from further mauling by the beasts who prowled Broadway and Hollywood." Instead, he urged her to take the Metro offer, arguing that if she chose Paramount everyone would assume that she had got the job by sharing his bed and that her major attribute was not talent but sexual accessibility. Incensed by his line of reasoning, she defiantly signed with Paramount.

In course of twelve months (during which Brooks's friend Humphrey Bogart, seven years her senior, was still laboring on Broadway, with four seasons to wait before the dawn of his film career), Brooks made six full-length pictures. The press began to pay court to her. Photoplay, whose reporter she received reclining in bed, said of her, "She is so very Manhattan.Very young. Exquisitely hard-boiled. Her black eyes and sleek black hair are as brilliant as Chinese lacquer. Her skin as white as a camellia. Her legs are lyric."

She worked with several of the bright young directors who gave Paramount its reputation for sophisticated comedy, e.g., Frank Turtle, Malcolm St. Clair, and Edward Sutherland. Chronologically, the list of her credits ran as follows:

American Venus, for Tuttle, who taught her that the way to get laughs was to play perfectly straight; he directed Bebe Daniels in four movies and Clara Bow in six.

A Social Celebrity, for St. Clair, who cast Brooks opposite the immaculately caddish Adolphe Menjou, of whose style she later remarked, "He never felt anything. He used to say, 'Now I do Lubitsch No. 1,' 'Now I do Lubitsch No. 2'. And that's exactly what he did. You felt nothing, working with him, and yet see him on the screen-he was a great actor."

It's the Old Army Game, for Sutherland, who had been Chaplin's directorial assistant on A Woman of Paris, and who made five pictures with W C. Fields, of which this was the first, and of which the third, International House, is regarded by many Fieldsian authorities as the Master's crowning achievement. Brooks married Sutherland, a hard-drinking playboy, in 1926 - an error that was rectified inside two years by divorce.

The Show-Off, for St. Clair, adapted from the Broadway hit by George Kelly.

Just Another Blonde, on loan to First National.

• And, finally, to round off the year's work, Love 'Em and Leave 'Em, for Tuttle, the first Brooks film of which Eastman House has a copy. Here begin my notes on the sustained and solitary Brooks banquet that the museum laid before me.

Day One

Evelyn Brent is the nominal star of Love 'Em and Leave 'Em, a slick and graceful comedy about Manhattan shopgirls, but light-fingered Louise, as Brent's jazz-baby younger sister, steals the picture with bewitching insouciance. She is twenty, and her body is still plump, quite husky enough for work in the fields; but the face, framed in its black proscenium arch of hair, is already Lulu's in the embryo, especially when she dons a white top hat to go to a costume ball (at which she dances a definitive Charleston). The plot calls for her to seduce her sister's boyfriend, a feckless window dresser, and she does so with that fusion of amorality and innocence which was to become her trademark. (During these scenes, I catch myself humming a tune from Pins and Needles: "I used to be the daisy chain, now I'm a chain-store daisy"). Garbo could give us innocence, and Dietrich amorality, on the grandest possible scale; only Brooks could play the simple, unabashed hedonist, whose appetite for pleasure is so radiant that even when it causes suffering to her and others we cannot find it in ourselves to reproach her.

Most actresses tend to pass moral judgments on the characters they play. Their performances issue tacit commands to the audience: "Love me, "Hate me", "Laugh at me", "Weep with me," and so forth. We get none of this from Brooks. whose presence before the camera merely declares, "Here I am. Make what you will of me." She does not care what we think of her. Indeed, she ignores us. We seem to be spying on unrehearsed reality, glimpsing what the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson later called "le moment qui se sauve." In the best of her silent films, Brooks - with no conscious intention of doing so - is reinventing the art of screen acting.

I suspect that she was helped rather than hindered by the fact that she never took a formal acting lesson. "When I acted, I hadn't the slightest idea of what I was doing," she said once to Richard Leacock, the documentary filmmaker. "I was simply playing myself, which is the hardest thing in the world to do - if you know that it's hard. I didn't, so it seemed easy. I had nothing to unlearn. When I first worked with Pabst, he was furious, because he approached people intellectually and you couldn't approach me intellectually, because there was nothing to approach." To watch Brooks is to recall Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell, who observes, "Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone."

Rereading the above paragraphs, I pause at the sentence "She does not care what we think of her." Query: Was it precisely this quality, which contributed so much to her success on the screen, that enabled her, in later years, to throw that success so lightly away?

To return to Frank Tuttle's film: Tempted by a seedy and lecherous old horse-player who lives in her rooming house, Brooks goes on a betting spree with funds raised her fellow shopgirls in aid of the Women's Welfare League. The aging gambler is played by Osgood Perkins (father of Tony), of whom Brooks said to Kevin Brownlow years afterward, "The best actor I ever worked with was Osgood Perkins ... You know what makes an actor great to work with? Timing. You don't have to feel anything. It's like dancing with a perfect dancing partner. Osgood Perkins would give you a line so that you would react perfectly. It was timing - because emotion means nothing" (emphasis mine). This comment reveals what Brooks has learned about acting in the cinema: emotion per se, however deeply felt, is not enough. It is what the actor shows - the contraband that he or she can smuggle past the camera - that matters to the audience. A variation of this dictum cropped up in the mouth of John Striebel's popular comic-strip heroine Dixie Dugan, who was based on Brooks and first appeared in 1926. Bent on getting a job in "The Zigfold Follies," Dixie reflected, "All there is to this Follies racket is to be cool and look hot." Incidentally, Brooks's comparison of Perkins with a dancing partner reminds me of a remark she once made about Fatty Arbuckle, who, under the assumed name of William Goodrich, apathetically directed her in a 1931 two-reeler called Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood: "He sat in his chair like a man dead. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career ... Oh, I thought he was magnificent in films. He was a wonderful dancer - a wonderful ballroom dancer in his heyday. It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut."

What images do I retain of Brooks in Love 'Em and Leave 'Em? Many comedic details, e.g., the scene in which she fakes tears of contrition by furtively dabbling her cheeks with water from a handily placed goldfish bowl, and our last view of her, with all her sins unpunished, merrily sweeping off in a Rolls-Royce with the owner of the department store. And, throughout, every closeup of that blameless, unblemished face.

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks
 
In 1927, Brooks moved with Paramount to Hollywood and played in four pictures: Evening Clothes (with Menjou), Rolled Stockings, The City Gone Wild, and Now We're in the Air, none of which is in the Eastman vaults. To commemorate that year, I have a publicity photo taken at a house Brooks rented in Laurel Canyon: poised on tiptoe with arms outstretched, she stands on the diving board of her pool, wearing a one-piece black bathing suit with a tight white belt, and looking like a combination of Odette and Odile in some modern-dress version of Swan Lake.

Early in 1928, she was lent to Fox for a picture (happily preserved by the museum) that was to change her career-A Girl in Every Port, written and directed by Howard Hawks, who had made his first film only two years before. Along with Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell, and Lauren Bacall, Brooks thus claims a place among the actresses on David Thomson's list (in his Biographical Dictionary of Film) of performers who were "either discovered or brought to new life by Hawks." As in Love 'Em and Leave 'Em, she plays an amoral pleasure-lover, but this time the mood is much darker. Her victim is Victor McLaglen, a seagoing roughneck engaged in perpetual sexual rivalry with his closest friend (Robert Armstrong); the embattled relationship between the two men brings to mind the skirmishing of Flagg and Quirt in What Price Glory?, which was filmed with McLaglen in 1926. In A Girl in Every Port, McLaglen, on a binge in Marseilles, sees a performance by an open-air circus whose star turn is billed as "Mam'selle Godiva, Neptune's Bride and the Sweetheart of the Sea." The submarine coquette is, of course, Brooks, looking svelter than of old, and clad in tights, spangled panties, tiara, and black velvet cloak. Her act consists of diving off the top of a ladder into a shallow tank of water. Instantly besotted, the bully McLaglen becomes the fawning lapdog of this "dame of class." He proudly introduces her to Armstrong, who, unwilling to wreck his buddy's illusions, refrains from revealing that the lady's true character, as he knows from a previous encounter with her, is that of a small-time gold-digger. In a scene charged with the subtlest eroticism. Brooks sits beside Armstrong on a sofa and coaxes McLaglen to clean her shoes. He readily obeys. As he does so, she begins, softly, reminiscently, but purposefully, to fondle Armstrong's thigh. To these caresses Armstrong does not respond, but neither does he reject them. With one man at her feet and another at her fingertips, she is like a cat idly licking its lips over two bowls of cream. This must surely have been the sequence that convinced Pabst, when the film was shown in Berlin, that he had found the actress he wanted for Pandora's Box. By the end of the picture, Brooks has turned the two friends into mortal enemies, reducing McLaglen to a state of murderous rage mixed with grief which Emil Jannings could hardly have bettered. There is no melodrama in her exercise of sexual power. No effort, either: she is simply following her nature.

After her fling with Fox, Paramount cast its young star (now aged twenty-one) in another downbeat triangle drama, Beggars of Life, to be directed by another young director, William Wellman. Like Hawks, he was thirty-two years old. (The cinema is unique among the arts in that there was a time in its history when almost all its practitioners were young. This was that time.) At first, the studio had trouble tracing Brooks's whereabouts. Having just divorced Edward Sutherland, she had fled to Washington with a new lover - George Marshall, a millionaire laundry magnate, who later became the owner of the Redskins football team. When she was found, she immediately returned to the Coast, though her zest for work was somewhat drained by a strong antipathy to one of her co-stars (Richard Arlen, with whom she had appeared in Rolled Stockings) and by overt hostility from Wellman, who regarded her as a dilettante. Despite these malign auguries, Beggars of Life - available at Eastman House - turned out to be one of her best films.

Adapted from a novel by Jim Tully, it foreshadows the Depression movies of the thirties. Brooks plays the adopted daughter of a penniless old farmer who attempts one sunny morning, to rape her. Seizing a shotgun, she kills him. As she is about to escape, the crime is discovered by a tramp (Arlen) who knocks at the door in search of food. They run away together, with Brooks wearing over-sized masculine clothes, topped off by a large peaked cap. (This was her first serious venture into the rich territory of sexual ambiguity, so prosperously cultivated in later years by Garbo, Dietrich, et al.) Soon they fall in with a gang of hoboes, whose leader - a ferocious but teachable thug, beautifully played by Wallace Beery - forms the third point of the triangle. He sees through Brooks's disguise and proposes that since the police already know about her male imposture, it would be safer to dress her as a girl. He goes in search of female attire, but what he brings back is marginally too young: a gingham dress and a bonnet tied under the chin in which Brooks looks like a woman masquerading as a child, a sort of adult Lolita. She stares at us in her new gear, at once innocent and gravely perverse. The rivalry for her affection comes to its height when Beery pulls a gun and tells Arlen to hand her over. Brooks jumps between them, protecting Arlen, and explains that she would prefer death to life without him. We believe her; and so, to his own befuddled amazement, does Beery. There is really no need for the title in which he says that he has often heard about love but never until now known what it was. He puts his gun away and lets them go.

Footnote: During the transvestite scenes, several dangerous feats were performed for Brooks by a stunt man named Harvey. One night, attracted by his flamboyant courage, she slept with him. After breakfast next day, she strolled out onto the porch of the hotel in the California village where the location sequences were being shot. Harvey was there, accompanied by a group of hoboes in the cast. He rose and gripped her by the arm. "Just a minute, Miss Brooks," he said loudly. "I've got something to ask you. I guess you know my job depends on my health." He then named a Paramount executive whom Brooks had never met, and continued, "Everybody knows you're his girl and he has syphilis, and what I want to know is: Do you have syphilis?" After a long and frozen pause, he added, "Another reason I want to know is that my girl is coming up at noon to drive me back to Hollywood." Brooks somehow withdrew to her room without screaming. Events like these may account for the lack of agonized regret with which she prematurely ended her movie career. Several years later, after she had turned down the part that Jean Harlow eventually played in Wellman's The Public Enemy, she ran into the director in a New York bar. "You always hated making pictures, Louise," he said sagely. She did not bother to reply that it was not pictures she hated but Hollywood.

The Canary Murder Case (directed by Malcolm St. Clair from a script based on S. S. Van Dines detective story, with William Powell as Philo Vance; not in the Eastman collection) was the third, and last, American movie that Brooks made in 1928. By now, her face was beginning to be internationally known, and the rushes of this film indicated that Paramount would soon have a major star on its hands. At the time, the studio was preparing to take the plunge into talkies. As Brooks afterward wrote in Image (a journal sponsored by Eastman House), front offices all over Hollywood saw in this radical change "a splendid opportunity ... for breaking contracts, cutting salaries, and taming the stars." In the autumn of 1928, when her own contract called for a financial raise, B. P. Schulberg, the West Coast head of Paramount, summoned her to his office and said that the promised increase could not be granted in the new situation. The Canary Murder Case was being shot silent, but who knew whether Brooks could speak? (A fragile argument, since her voice was of bell-like clarity.) He presented her with a straight choice: either to continue at her present figure (seven hundred and fifty dollars a week) or to quit when the current picture was finished. To Schulberg's surprise, she chose to quit. Almost as an afterthought, he revealed when she was rising to leave that he had lately received from G. W Pabst a bombardment of cabled requests for her services in Pandora's Box, all of which he had turned down.

Then forty-three years old, Pabst had shown an extraordinary flair for picking and molding actresses whose careers were upward bound; Asta Nielsen, Brigitte Helm and Greta Garbo (in her third film, The Joyless Street, which was also her first outside Sweden) headed a remarkable list. Unknown to Schulberg, Brooks had already heard about the Pabst offer - and the weekly salary of a thousand dollars that went with it - from her lover, George Marshall, whose source was a gossipy director at M-G-M. She coolly told Schulberg to inform Pabst that she would soon be available. "At that very hour in Berlin," she wrote later in Sight & Sound, "Marlene Dietrich was waiting with Pabst in his office." This was two years before The Blue Angel made Dietrich a star. What she crucially lacked, Pabst felt, was the innocence he wanted for his Lulu. In his own words, "Dietrich was too old and too obvious - one sexy look and the picture would become a burlesque. But I gave her a deadline, and the contract was about to be signed when Paramount cabled saying I could have Louise Brooks." The day that shooting ended on The Canary Murder Case, Brooks raced out of Hollywood en route for Berlin, there to work for a man who was one of the four or five leading European directors but of whom a few weeks earlier she had never heard.

Pandora's Box, with which I had my fourth encounter at Eastman House, could easily have emerged as a cautionary tale about a grande cocotte whose reward is the wages of sin. That seems to have been the impression left by Wedekind's two Lulu plays, which were made into a film in 1922 (not by Pabst) with Asta Nielsen in the lead. Summing up her predecessor's performance, Brooks said, "She played in the eye-rolling style of European silent acting. Lulu the man-eater devoured her sex victims ... and then dropped dead in an acute attack of indigestion." The character obsessed many artists of the period. In 1928, Alban Berg began work on his twelve-tone opera Lulu, the heart of which, beneath the stark and stylized sound patterns, was blatantly theatrical, throbbing with romantic agony. Where the Pabst-Brooks version of the Lulu story differs from the others is in its moral coolness. It assumes neither the existence of sin nor the necessity for retribution. It presents a series of events in which all the participants are seeking happiness, and it suggests that Lulu, whose notion of happiness is momentary fulfillment through sex, is not less admirable than those whose quest is for wealth or social advancement.

First sequence: Lulu in the Art Deco apartment in Berlin where she is kept by Peter Schön, a middle-aged newspaper proprietor. (In this role, the great Fritz Kortner, bulky but urbane, effortless in the exercise of power over everyone but his mistress, gives one of the cinema's most accurate and objective portraits of a capitalist potentate.) Dressed in a peignoir, Lulu is casually flirting with a man who has come to read the gas meter when the doorbell rings and Schigolch enters - a squat and shabby old man who was once Lulu's lover but is now down on his luck. She greets him with delight; as the disgruntled gas man departs, she swoops to rest on Schigolch's lap with the grace of a swan. The protective curve of her neck is unforgettable. Producing a mouth organ, Schigolch strikes up a tune, to which she performs a brief, Dionysiac, and authentically improvised little dance. (Until this scene was rehearsed, Pabst had no idea that Brooks was a trained dancer.) Watching her, I recollect something that Schigolch says in Wedekind's original text, though not in the film: "The animal is the only genuine thing in man... . What you have experienced as an animal, no misfortune can ever wrest from you. It remains yours for life." From the window, he points out a burly young man on the sidewalk: this is a friend of his named Rodrigo, a professional athlete who would like to work with her in an adagio act.

Unheralded, Peter Schön lets himself into the apartment, and Lulu has just time to hide Schigolch on the balcony with a bottle of brandy. Schön has come to end his affair with Lulu, having decided to make a socially advantageous match with the daughter of a Cabinet minister. In Lulu's reaction to the news there is no fury. She simply sits on a sofa and extends her arms toward him with something like reassurance. Unmoved at first, Schön eventually responds, and they begin to make love. The drunken Schigolch inadvertently rouses Lulu's pet dog to a barking fit, and this disturbance provokes the hasty exit of Schön. On the stairs, he passes the muscle man Rodrigo, whom Schigolch presents to Lulu. Rodrigo flexes his impressive biceps, on which she gleefully swings, like a schoolgirl gymnast.

A scene in Schön's mansion shows us his son Alwa (Francis Lederer, in his pre-Hollywood days) busily composing songs for his new musical review. Alwa is joined by the Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), a tight-lipped lesbian who is designing the costumes. Lulu dashes in to announce her plans for a double act with Rodrigo, and it is immediately clear that both Alwa and the Countess have eyes for her. She strolls on into Peter Schön's study, where she picks up from the desk a photograph of his bride-to-be. Typically, she studies it with genuine interest; there's no narrowing of eyes or curling of lip. Peter Schön, who has entered the room behind her, snatches the picture from her hands and orders her to leave. Before doing so, she mischievously invents a rendezvous next day with Alwa, whom she kisses, full on the mouth, to the young man's embarrassed bewilderment. With a toss of the patent-leather hair and a glance, half-playful, half-purposeful, at Alwa, she departs. Alwa asks his father why he doesn't marry her. Rather too explosively to carry conviction, Peter replies that one doesn't marry women like that. He proposes that Alwa give her a featured role in the revue, and guarantees that his newspapers will make her a star. Alwa is overjoyed; but when his father warns him at all costs to beware of her, he quits the room in tongue-tied confusion.

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks
 
So much for the exposition; the principal characters and the main thrust of the action have been lucidly established. Note that Lulu, for all her seductiveness, is essentially an exploited creature, not an exploiter; also that we are not (nor shall we ever be) invited to feel sorry for her. I've already referred to her birdlike movements and animal nature; let me add that in the context of the plot as a whole she resembles a glittering tropical fish in a tank full of predators. For the remainder of this synopsis, I'll confine myself to the four great set pieces on which the film's reputation rests.

1. Intermission at the opening night of Alwa's revue. Pabst catches the backstage panic of scene-shifting and costume-changing with a kaleidoscopic brilliance that looks forward to Orson Welles's handling, twelve years later, of the operatic debut of Susan Alexander Kane. Alwa and Geschwitz are there, reveling in what is obviously going to be a hit. Peter Schön escorts Marie, his fiancée, through the pass door to share the frenzy. Lulu, changing in the wings, catches sight of him and smiles. Stricken with embarrassment, he cuts her and leads Marie away. This treatment maddens Lulu, and she refuses to go on with the show: "I'll dance for the whole world, but not in front of that woman". She takes refuge in the property room, whither Peter follows her. Leaning against the wall, she sobs, shaking her head mechanically from side to side, and then flings herself onto a pile of cushions, which she kicks and pummels. Despite her tantrum, she is watching Schön's every move. When he lights a cigarette to calm himself, she snaps, "Smoking's not allowed in here," and gives him a painful hack on the ankle. The mood of the scene swings from high histrionics through sly comedy to voluptuous intimacy. Soon Schön and Lulu are laughing, caressing, wholeheartedly making love. At this point, the door opens, framing Marie and Alwa. Unperturbed, Lulu rises in triumph, gathers up her costume, and sweeps past them to go onstage. Peter Schön's engagement is obviously over.

2. The wedding reception. Lulu is in a snow-white bridal gown, suggesting less a victorious cocotte than a girl celebrating her First Communion. Peter's wealthy friends flock admiringly round her. She dances cheek to cheek with Geschwitz who rabidly adores her. (The Belgian actress Alice Roberts, here playing what may be the first explicit lesbian in movie history, refused point-blank to look at Brooks with the requisite degree of lust. To solve the problem, Pabst stood in her line of vision, told her to regard him with passionate intensity, and photographed her in closeups, which he then intercut with shots of Brooks. Scenes like these presented no difficulty to Brooks herself. She used to say of a young woman I'll call Fritzi LaVerne, one of her best friends in the Follies, "She liked boys when she was sober and girls when she was drunk. I never heard a man or a woman pan her in bed, so she must have been very good." A shocked Catholic priest once asked Brooks how she felt playing a sinner like Lulu. "Feel!" she said gaily. "I felt fine! It all seemed perfectly normal to me." She explained to him that although she herself was not a lesbian, she had many chums of that persuasion in Ziegfeld's chorus line, and added, "I knew two millionaire publishers, much like Schön in the film, who backed shows to keep themselves well supplied with Lulus.")

The action moves to Peter's bedroom, where Schigolch and Rodrigo are drunkenly scattering roses over the nuptial coverlet. Lulu joins them, and something between a romp and an orgy seems imminent. It is halted by the entrance of the bridegroom. Appalled, he gropes for a gun in a nearby desk and chases the two men out of his house. The other guests, shocked and aghast, rapidly depart. When Peter returns to the bedroom, he finds Alwa with his head in Lulu's lap, urging her to run away with him. The elder Schön orders his son to leave. As soon as Alwa has left, there follows, between Kortner and Brooks, a classic demonstration of screen acting as the art of visual ellipsis. With the minimum of overt violence, a struggle for power is fought out to the death. Schön advances on Lulu, presses the gun into her hand, and begs her to commit suicide. As he grips her fingers in his, swearing to shoot her like a dog if she lacks the courage to do it herself, she seems almost hypnotized by the desperation of his grief. You would think them locked in an embrace until Lulu suddenly stiffens, a puff of smoke rises between them, and Schön slumps to the floor. Alwa bursts in and rushes to his father, from whose lips a fat thread of blood slowly trickles. The father warns Alwa that he will be the next victim. Gun in hand, Lulu stares at the body, wide-eyed and transfixed. Brooks wrote afterward that Pabst always used concrete phrases to get the emotional responses he wanted. In this case, the key image he gave her was "das Blut." "Not the murder of my husband," she wrote, "but the sight of the blood determined the expression on my face." What we see is not Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée but a petrified child.

3. Trial and flight. Lulu is sentenced to five years' imprisonment for manslaughter, but as the judge pronounces the sentence, her friends, led by Geschwitz, set off a fire alarm, and in the ensuing courtroom chaos she escapes. With perfect fidelity to her own willful character, Lulu, in defiance of movie cliché, comes straight back to Schön's house, where she acts like a debutante relaxing after a ball - lighting a cigarette, idly thumbing through a fashion magazine, trying out a few dance steps, opening a wardrobe and stroking a new fur coat, running a bath and immersing herself in it. Only Brooks, perhaps, could have carried off this solo sequence - so unlike the behavior expected of criminals on the run - with such ingrained conviction and such lyrical aplomb. Now Alwa arrives and is astounded to find her at the scene of the crime. The two decide to flee together to Paris. No sooner have they caught the train, however, than they are recognized by a titled pimp, who blackmails them into accompanying him aboard a gambling ship. Geschwitz, Schigolch, and the tediously beefy Rodrigo are also afloat, and for a while the film lurches into melodrama - sub-Dostoevski with a touch of ship's Chandler. Rodrigo threatens to expose Lulu unless she sleeps with him; the Countess, gritting her teeth, distracts his attention by making love to him herself - an unlikely coupling - after which she disdainfully kills him. Meanwhile, the pimp is arranging to sell Lulu to an Egyptian brothel-keeper. Anxious to save her from this fate, Alwa frenetically cheats at cards and is caught with a sleeve full of aces. The police arrive just too late to prevent Alwa, Lulu, and Schigolch from escaping in a rowboat. For the shipboard episode, Pabst cajoled Brooks, much against her will, into changing her coiffure. The spit curls disappeared; the black bangs were parted, waved, and combed back to expose her forehead. These cardinal errors of taste defaced the icon. It was as if an Italian master had painted the Virgin and left out the halo.

4. London and catastrophe. The East End, icy and fogbound, on Christmas Eve. The Salvation Army is out in force, playing carols and distributing food to the poor. A sallow, mournfully handsome young man moves aimlessly through the crowds. He gives cash for the needy to an attractive Army girl, and gets in return a candle and a sprig of mistletoe. Posters on the walls warn the women of London against going out unescorted at night: there is a mass murderer at large. In a garret close by, its broken skylight covered by a flapping rag, Lulu lives in squalor with Alwa and Schigolch. The room is unfurnished except for a camp bed, an armchair, and a kitchen table with an oil lamp, a few pieces of chipped crockery, and a bread knife. Lulu's curls and bangs have been restored, but her clothes are threadbare: all three exiles are on the verge of starvation. Reduced by now to prostitution, Lulu ventures down into the street, where she accosts the young wanderer we have already met. He follows her up the stairs but stops halfway, as if reluctant to go farther. We see that he is holding behind his back a switchblade knife, open. Lulu proffers her hand and leans encouragingly toward him. Her smile is lambent and beckoning. Hesitantly, he explains that he has no money. With transparent candor, she replies that it doesn't matter: she likes him. Unseen by Lulu, he releases his grip on the knife and lets it fall into the stairwell. She leads him into the attic, which Alwa and Schigolch have tactfully vacated.

The scene that follows is tender, even buoyant, but unsoftened by sentimentality. The cold climax, when it comes, is necessary and inevitable. Ripper and victim relax like familiar lovers. He leans back in the armchair and stretches out his hand; she leaps onto his lap, landing with both knees bent, as weightless as a chamois. Her beauty has never looked more ripe. While they happily flirt, he allows her to pry into his pockets, from which she extracts the gifts he received from the Salvation Army. She lights the candle and places it ceremonially on the table, with the mistletoe beside it. In a deep and peaceful embrace, they survey the tableau. The Ripper then raises the mistletoe over Lulu's head and requests the traditional kiss. As she shuts her eyes and presents her lips, the candle flares up. Its gleam reflected in the bread knife on the table holds the Ripper's gaze. He can look at nothing but the shining blade. Long seconds pass as he wrestles, motionless, with his obsession. Finally, leaning forward to consummate the kiss, he grasps the handle of the knife. In the culminating shot, he is facing away from the camera. All we see of Lulu is her right hand, open on his shoulder, pressing him toward her. Suddenly, it clenches hard, then falls, limply dangling, behind his back. We fade to darkness. Nowhere in the cinema has the destruction of beauty been conveyed with more eloquent restraint. As with the killing of Peter Schön, extreme violence is implied, not shown. To paraphrase what Freddy Buache, a Swiss critic, wrote many years later, Lulu's death is in no sense God's judgment on a sinner; she has lived her life in accordance with the high moral imperatives of liberty,and stands in no need of redemption.

After the murder, the Ripper emerges from the building and hurries off into the fog. It is here, in my view, that the film should end. Instead, Pabst moves on to the forlorn figure of Alwa, who stares up at the garret before turning away to follow the Salvation Army procession out of sight. A glib anticlimax indeed, but I'm not sure that the alternative proposed by Brooks, who has said, with characteristic forthrightness, "The movie should have ended with the knife in my vagina." It may be worth adding that Gustav Diessl, who played the Ripper, was the only man in the cast whom she found sexually appealing. "We just adored each other," she has said in an interview with Richard Leacock, "and I think the final scene was the happiest in the picture. Here he is with a knife he's going to stick up into my interior, and we'd be singing and I'd be doing the Charleston.You wouldn't have known it was a tragic ending. It was more like a Christmas party." At Brooks's request, Pabst had hired a jazz pianist to play between takes, and during these syncopated interludes Brooks and Diessl would often disappear beneath the table to engage in intimate festivities of their own.

The Berlin critics, expecting Lulu to be portrayed as a monster of active depravity, had mixed feelings about Brooks. One reviewer wrote, "Louise Brooks cannot act. She does not suffer. She does nothing." Wedekind himself, however, had said of his protagonist, "Lulu is not a real character but the personification of primitive sexuality, who inspires evil unawares. She plays a purely passive role." Brooks afterwards stated her own opinion of what she had achieved. "I played Pabst's Lulu," she said, "and she isn't a destroyer of men, like Wedekind's. She's just the same kind of nitwit that I am. Like me, she'd have been an impossible wife, sitting in bed all day reading and drinking gin." Modern critics have elected Brooks's Lulu to a secure place in the movie pantheon. David Thomson describes it as "one of the major female performances in the cinema," to be measured beside such other pinnacles as "Dietrich in the von Sternberg films, Bacall with Hawks, Karina in Pierrot le Fou." It is true that in the same list Thomson included Kim Novak in Vertigo. It is also true that we are none of us perfect.

Day Two

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks
 
My first view of the second Pabst-Brooks collaboration, The Diary of a Lost Girl, based on Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, a novel by Margarethe Boehme, and shot in the summer of 1929. After finishing Pandora, Brooks had returned to New York and resumed her affair with the millionaire George Marshall. He told her that a new movie company, called RKO and masterminded by Joseph P. Kennedy, was anxious to sign her up for five hundred dollars a week. She replied, "I hate California and I'm not going back." Then Paramount called, ordering her to report for duty on the Coast; it was turning The Canary Murder Case into a talkie and required her presence for retakes and dubbing. She refused to go. Under the impression that this was a haggling posture, the studio offered ever vaster sums of money. Brooks's determination remained undented. Goaded to fury, Paramount planted in the columns a petty but damaging little story to the effect that it had been compelled to replace Brooks because her voice was unusable in talkies.

At this point (April 1929), she received a cable from Pabst. It said that he intended to coproduce a French film entitled Prix de Beauté, which René Clair would direct, and that they both wanted her for the lead - would she therefore cross the Atlantic as soon as possible? Such was her faith in Pabst that within two weeks she and Clair ("a very small, demure, rather fragile man" is how she afterward described him) were posing together for publicity shots in Paris. When the photographic session was over, Clair escorted her back to her hotel, where he damped her enthusiasm by revealing that he proposed to pull out of the picture forthwith. He advised her to do the same; the production money, he said, simply wasn't there, and might never be. A few days later, he officially retired from the project. (Its place in his schedule was taken by Sous les Toits de Paris, which, together with its immediate successors,Le Million and À Nous la Liberté, established his international reputation.) With nothing to do, and a guaranteed salary of a thousand dollars a week to do it on, Brooks entrained for a spree in Antibes, accompanied by a swarm of rich admirers. When she got back to Paris, Pabst called her from Berlin. Prix de Beauté, he said, was postponed; instead, she would star under his direction in The Diary of a Lost Girl, at precisely half her present salary. As submissive as ever to her tutor, she arrived in Berlin aboard the next train.

Lovingly photographed by Sepp Allgeier, Brooks in Lost Girl is less flamboyant but not less haunting than she is in Pandora's Box. The traffic in movie actors traditionally moved westward, from Europe to Hollywood, where their national characteristics were sedulously exploited. Brooks, who was among the few to make the eastbound trip, became in her films with Pabst completely Europeanized. To be more exact: in the context that Pabst prepared for her, Brooks's American brashness took on an awareness of transience and mortality. The Theme of Lost Girl is the corruption of a minor - not by sexuality but by an authoritarian society that condemns sexuality. (Pabst must surely have read Wilhelm Reich, the Freudian Marxist, whose theories about the relationship between sexual and political repression were hotly debated in Berlin at the time.) It is the same society that condemns Lulu. In fact, "The Education of Lulu" would make an apt alternative title for Lost Girl, whose heroine emerges from her travails ideally equipped for the leading role in Pandora's Box. Her name is Thymiane Henning, and she is the sixteen-year-old daughter of a prosperous pharmacist. In the early sequences, Brooks plays her shy and faunlike, peering wide-eyed at a predatory world. She is seduced and impregnated by her father's libidinous assistant. As soon as her condition is discovered, the double standard swings into action. The assistant retains his job, but, to save the family from dishonor, Thymiane's baby is farmed out to a wet nurse, and she herself is consigned to a home for delinquent girls, run by a bald and ghoulish superintendent and his sadistic wife.

Life in the reformatory is strictly regimented: the inmates exercise to the beat of a drum and eat to the tapping of a metronome. At length, Thymiane escapes from this archetypal hellhole (precursor of many such institutions in subsequent movies, e.g., Mädchen in Uniform) and goes to reclaim her baby, only to find that the child has died. Broke and homeless, she meets a street vendor who guides her to an address where food and shelter will be hers for the asking. Predictably, it turns out to be a brothel; far less predictably, even shockingly, Pabst presents it as a place where Thymiane is not degraded but liberated. In the whorehouse, she blossoms, becoming a fille de joie in the literal sense of the phrase. Unlike almost any other actress in a similar situation, Brooks neither resorts to pathos nor suggests there is anything immoral in the pleasure she derives from her new profession. As in Pandora, she lives for the moment, with radiant physical abandon. Present love, even for sale, hath present laughter, and what's to come is not only unsure but irrelevant. I agree with Freddy Buache when he says of Brooks's performances with Pabst that they celebrated "the victory of innocence and amour-fou over the debilitating wisdom imposed on society by the Church, the Fatherland, and the Family." One of her more outré clients can achieve orgasm only by watching her beat a drum. This ironic echo of life in the reform school is used by Pabst to imply that sexual prohibition breeds sexual aberration. (Even more ironically, the sequence has been censored out of most of the existing prints of the movie.) Brooks is at her best - a happy animal in skintight satin - in a party scene at a night club, where she offers herself as first prize in a raffle. "Pabst wanted realism, so we all had to drink real drinks," she said later. "I played the whole scene stewed on hot, sweet German champagne."

Hereabouts, unfortunately, the film begins to shed its effrontery and to pay lip service to conventional values. Thymiane catches sight of her father across the dance floor; instead of reacting with defiance - after all, he threw her out of his house - she looks stricken with guilt, like the outcast daughter of sentimental fiction. In her absence, Papa has married his housekeeper, by whom he has two children. When he dies, shortly after the nightclub confrontation, he leaves his considerable wealth to Thymiane. Nobly, she gives it all to his penniless widow, so that the latter's offspring "won't have to live the same kind of life as I have." Thereby redeemed, the former whore soon becomes the wife of an elderly aristocrat. Revisiting the reform school, of which she has now been appointed a trustee, she excoriates the staff for its self-righteous cruelties. "A little more kindness," her husband adds, "and no one in the world would ever be lost." Thus lamely, the movie ends.

"Pabst seemed to lose interest," Brooks told an interviewer some years afterward. "He more or less said, 'I'm tired of this picture,' and he gave it a soft ending." His first, and much tougher, intention had been to demonstrate that humanitarianism alone could never solve society's problems. He wanted Thymiane to show her contempt for her husband's liberal platitudes by setting herself up as the madam of a whorehouse. The German distributors, however, refused to countenance such a radical denouement, and Pabst was forced to capitulate. The result is a flawed masterpiece, with a shining central performance that even the closing, compromised sequences cannot dim. Brooks has written that during the making of the film she spent all her off-duty hours with rich revelers of whom Pabst disapproved. On the last day of shooting, "he decided to let me have it." Her friends, he said, were preventing her from becoming a serious actress, and sooner or later they would discard her like an old toy. "Your life is exactly like Lulu's, and you will end the same way," he warned her. The passage of time convinced her that Pabst had a valid point. "Lulu's story," she told a journalist, "is as near as you'll get to mine."

In August 1929, she returned to Paris, where backing had unexpectedly been found for Prix de Beauté, her last European movie and her first talkie - although, since she spoke no French, her voice was dubbed. The director, briefly surfacing from obscurity was Augusto Genina, and René Clair received a credit for the original idea. Like so much of French cinema in the thirties, Prix de Beauté is a film noir, with wanly tinny music, about a shabby suburban crime of passion. Brooks plays Lucienne, a typist who enters a newspaper beauty contest. It's the kind of role which one associates Simone Simon, though the rapture that Brooks diplays when she wins, twirling with glee as she shows off her presents and trophies, goes well beyond the emotional range accessible to Mlle. Simon. Lucienne-Brooks is triumphantly unliberated; she rejoices in being a beloved, fleshy bauble, and she makes it clear to her husband, a compositor employed by the prize-giving newspaper, that she wants a grander, more snobbish reward for her victory than a visit to a back-street fairground, which is all he has to offer. She leaves him and accepts a part in a film. Consumed by jealousy, he follows her one night to a projection theater in which a rough cut of her movie is being shown. He bursts in and shoots her. As she dies, the French infatuation with irony is fearsomely indulged: her image on the screen behind her is singing the movie's theme "Ne Sois Pas Jaloux." In Prix de Beaute, Brooks lends her inimitable flair and distinction to a cliche, but it is a cliche nonetheless.

At this point, when Brooks was at the height of her beauty, her career began a steep and bumpy decline. In 1930, she went back to Hollywood, on the strength of a promised contract with Columbia. Harry Cohn, the head of the studio, summoned her to his office for a series of meetings, at each of which he appeared naked from the waist up. Always a plain speaker, he left her in no doubt that good parts would come her way if she responded to his advances. She rebuffed them, and the proffered contract was withdrawn. Elsewhere in Hollywood, she managed to get a job in a feeble two-reel comedy pseudonymously directed by the disgraced Fatty Arbuckle; her old friend Frank Tuttle gave her a supporting role in It Pays To Advertise (starring Carole Lombard); and she turned up fleetingly in a Michael Curtiz picture called God's Gift to Women. But the word was out that Brooks was difficult and uppity, too independent to suit the system. Admitting defeat, she returned to New York in May 1931. Against her will, but under heavy pressure from George Marshall, her lover and would-be Svengali, she played a small part in Louder, Please, a featherweight comedy by Norman Krasna that began its pre-Broadway run in October. After the opening week in Jackson Heights, she was fired by the director, George Abbott. This was her farewell to the theater; it took place on the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday.

For Brooks, as for millions of her compatriots, a long period of unemployment followed. In 1933, determined to break off her increasingly discordant relationship with Marshall, she married Deering Davis, a rich young Chicagoan, but walked out on him after six months of rapidly waning enthusiasm. With a Hungarian partner named Dario Borzani, she spent a year dancing in night clubs, including the Persian Room of the Plaza, but the monotony of cabaret routine dismayed her, and she quit the act in August 1935. That autumn, Pabst suddenly arrived in New York and invited her to play Helen of Troy in a film version of Goethe's Faust, with Greta Garbo as Gretchen. Her hopes giddily soared, only to be dashed when Garbo opted out and the project fell through. Once again, she revisited Hollywood, where Republic Pictures wanted to test her for a role in a musical called Dancing Feet. She was rejected in favor of a blonde who couldn't dance. "That about did it for me," Brooks wrote later. "From then on, it was straight downhill. And no dough to keep the wolves from the door." In 1936, Universal cast her as the ingenue (Boots Boone) in Empty Saddles, a Buck Jones Western, which is the last Brooks movie in the Eastman collection. She looks perplexed, discouraged, and lacking in verve; and her coiffure, with the hair swept back from her forehead, reveals disquieting lines of worry. (Neither she nor Jones is helped by the fact that many of the major sequences of an incredibly complex plot take place at night.) The following year brought her a bit part at Paramount in something called King of Gamblers, after which, in her own words, "Harry Cohn gave me a personally conducted tour of hell with no return ticket." Still wounded by her refusal to sleep with him in 1930, Cohn promised her a screen test if she would submit to the humiliation of appearing in the corps de ballet of a Grace Moore musical entitled When You're in Love. To his surprise, Brooks accepted the offer - she was too broke to spurn it - and Cohn made sure that the demotion of an erstwhile star was publicized as widely as possible. Grudgingly, he gave her a perfunctory screen test, which he dismissed in two words: "It stunk." In the summer of 1938, Republic hired Brooks to appear with John Wayne (then a minor figure) in Overland Stage Raiders. After this low-budget oater, she made no more pictures.

In her entire professional career, Brooks had earned, according to her own calculations, exactly $124,600: $104,500 from films, $10,100 from theater, and $10,000 from all other sources. Not a gargantuan sum, one would think, spread over sixteen years; yet Brooks said to a friend, "I was astonished that it came to so much. But then I never paid any attention to money." In 1940, she left Hollywood for the last time.

Eastman House stands in an affluent residential district of Rochester, on an avenue of comparably stately mansions, with broad, tree-shaded lawns. When my second day of séances with Brooks came to an end, I zipped up my notes in a briefcase, thanked the staff of the film department for their help, and departed in a taxi. The driver took me to an apartment building only a few blocks away, where I paid him off. I rode up in the elevator to the third floor and pressed a doorbell a few paces along the corridor. After a long pause, there was a loud snapping of locks. The door slowly opened to reveal a petite woman of fragile build, wearing a woollen bed jacket over a pink nightgown, and holding herself defiantly upright by means of a sturdy metal cane with four rubber-tipped prongs. She had salt-and-pepper hair combed back into a ponytail that hung down well below her shoulders, and she was barefoot. One could imagine this gaunt and elderly child as James Tyrone's wife in Long Day's Journey into Night, or, noting the touch of authority and panache in her bearing, as the capricious heroine of Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot. I stated my name, adding that I had an appointment. She nodded and beckoned me in. I greeted her with a respectful embrace. This was my first physical contact with Louise Brooks.

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks
 
She was seventy-one years old, and until a few months earlier I had thought she was dead. Four decades had passed since her last picture, and it seemed improbable that she had survived such a long period of retirement. Moreover, I did not then know how young she had been at the time of her flowering. Spurred by the TV screening of Pandora's Box in January 1978, I had made some inquiries, and soon discovered that she was living in Rochester, virtually bedridden with degenerative osteoarthritis of the hip, and that since 1956 she had written twenty vivid and perceptive articles, mainly for specialist film magazines, on such of her colleagues and contemporaries as Garbo, Dietrich, Keaton, Chaplin, Bogart, Fields, Lillian Gish, ZaSu Pitts, and (naturally) Pabst. Armed with this information, I wrote her a belated fan letter, to which she promptly replied. We then struck up a correspondence, conducted on her side in a bold and expressive prose style. (It matched her handwriting.) Rapport was cemented by telephone calls, which resulted in my visit to Rochester and the date I was now keeping.

She has not left her apartment since 1960, except for a few trips to the dentist and one to a doctor. (She mistrusts the medical profession, and this consultation, which took place in 1976, was her first in thirty-two years.) "You're doing a terrible thing to me," she said as she ushered me in. "I've been killing myself off for twenty years, and you're going to bring me back to life." She lives in two rooms - modest, spotless, and austerely furnished. From the larger, I remember Venetian blinds, a green sofa, a TV set, a Formica-topped table, a tiny kitchenette alcove, and fleshpink walls sparsely hung with paintings redolent of the twenties. The other room was too small to hold more than a bed (single), a built-in cupboard bursting with press clippings and other souvenirs, a chest of drawers surmounted by a crucifix and a statue of the Virgin, and a stool piled high with books, including works by Proust, Schopenhauer, Ruskin, Ortega y Gasset, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Wilson, and many living authors of serious note. "I'm probably one of the best-read idiots in the world," my hostess said as she haltingly showed me round her domain. Although she eats little (she turns the scale at about eighty-eight pounds), she had prepared for us a perfectly mountainous omelette. Nerves, however, had robbed us of our appetites, and we barely disturbed its mighty silhouette. I produced from my briefcase a bottle of expensive red Burgundy that I had brought as a gift. (Brooks, who used to drink quite heftily, nowadays touches alcohol only on special occasions.) Since she cannot sit upright for long without discomfort, we retired with the wine to her bedroom, where she reclined, sipped, and talked, gesturing fluently, her fingers supple and unclenched. I pulled a chair up to the bedside and listened.

Her voice has the range of a dozen birdcalls, from the cry of a peacock to the fluting of a dove. Her articulation, at whatever speed, is impeccable, and her laughter soars like a kite. I cannot understand why, even if she had not been a beauty, Hollywood failed to realize what a treasure it possessed in the sound of Louise Brooks. Like most people who speak memorably, she is highly responsive to vocal nuances in others. She told Kevin Brownlow that her favorite actress ("the person I would be if I could be anyone") was Margaret Sullavan, mainly because of her voice, which Brooks described as "exquisite and far away, almost like an echo," and, again, as "strange, fey, mysterious-like a voice singing in the snow."

My conversations with the Ravishing Hermit of Rochester were spread over several days; for the sake of convenience, I have here compressed them into one session.

She began, at my urging, by skimming through the story of her life since she last faced the Hollywood cameras: "Why did I give up the movies? I could give you seven hundred reasons, all of them true. After I made that picture with John Wayne in 1938, I stayed out on the Coast for two years, but the only people who wanted to see me were men who wanted to sleep with me. Then Walter Wanger warned me that if I hung around any longer I'd become a call girl. So I fled to Wichita, Kansas, where my family had moved in 1919. But that turned out to be another kind of hell. The citizens of Wichita either resented me for having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn't exactly enchanted with them. I opened a dance studio for young people, who loved me, because I dramatized everything so much, but it didn't make any money. In 1943,1 drifted back to New York and worked for six months in radio soaps. Then I quit, for another hundred reasons, including Wounded Pride of Former Star. [Peal of laughter. Here, as throughout our chat, Brooks betrayed not the slightest trace of self-pity.] During '44 and '45, I got a couple of jobs in publicity agencies, collecting items for Winchell's column. I was fired from both of them, and I had to move from the decent little hotel where I'd been living to a grubby hole on First Avenue at Fifty-ninth Street. That was when I began to flirt with fancies related to little bottles filled with yellow sleeping pills. However, I changed my mind, and in July 1946, the proud, snooty Louise Brooks started work as a salesgirl at Saks Fifth Avenue. They paid me forty dollars a week. I had this silly idea of proving myself 'an honest woman,' but the only effect it had was to disgust all my famous New York friends, who cut me off forever. From then on, I was regarded as a questionable East Side dame. After two years at Saks, I resigned. To earn a little money, I sat down and wrote the usual autobiography. I called it 'Naked on My Goat,' which is a quote from Goethe's Faust. In one of the Walpurgisnacht scenes, a young witch is bragging about her looks to an old one. 'I sit here naked on my goat,' she says, 'and show my fine young body.' But the old one advises her to wait awhile: 'Though young and tender now, you'll rot, we know, you'll rot.' Then, when I read what I'd written, I threw the whole thing down the incinerator."

Brooks insists that her motive for this act of destruction was pudeur. In 1977, she wrote an article for Focus on Film headed "Why I Will Never Write My Memoirs," in which she summed herself up as a prototypical Midwesterner, "born in the Bible Belt of Anglo-Saxon farmers, who prayed in the parlor and practiced incest in the barn." Although her sexual education had been conducted in Paris, London, Berlin, and New York, her pleasure was, she wrote, "restricted by the inbred shackles of sin and guilt." Her conclusion was as follows:

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... . We flatter ourselves when we assume that we have restored the sexual integrity which was expurgated by the Victorians. It is true that many exposes are written to shock, to excite, to make money. But in serious books characters remain as baffling, as unknowable as ever. ... I too am unwilling to write the sexual truth that would make my life worth reading. I cannot unbuckle the Bible Belt.

Accepting a drop more wine, she continued the tale of her wilderness years. "Between 1948 and 1953, I suppose you could call me a kept woman," she said. "Three decent rich men looked after me. But then I was always a kept woman. Even when I was making a thousand dollars a week, I would always be paid for by George Marshall or someone like that. But I never had anything to show for it - no cash, no trinkets, nothing. I didn't even like jewelry - can you imagine? Pabst once called me a born whore, but if he was right I was a failure, with no pile of money and no comfortable mansion. I just wasn't equipped to spoil millionaires in a practical, farsighted way. I could live in the present, but otherwise everything has always been a hundred percent wrong about me. Anyway, the three decent men took care of me. One of them owned a sheet-metal manufacturing company, and the result of that affair is that I am now the owner of the only handmade aluminum wastebasket in the world. He designed it, and it's in the living room, my solitary trophy. Then a time came, early in 1953, when my three men independently decided that they wanted to marry me. I had to escape, because I wasn't in love with them. 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. It was clever of Pabst to know even before he met me that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu."

Brooks hesitated for a moment and then went on in the same tone, lightly self-mocking, "Maybe I should have been a writer's moll. Because when we were talking on the phone, a few Sundays ago, some secret compartment inside me burst, and I was suddenly overpowered by the feeling of love - a sensation I'd never experienced with any other man. Are you a variation of Jack the Ripper, who finally brings me love that I'm prevented from accepting - not by the knife but by old age? You're a perfect scoundrel, turning up like this and wrecking my golden years! [I was too stunned to offer any comment on this, but not too stunned to note, with a distinct glow of pride, that Brooks was completely sober.] Anyhow, to get back to my three suitors, I decided that the only way to avoid marriage was to become a Catholic, so that I could tell them that in the eyes of the church I was still married to Eddie Sutherland. I went to the rectory of a Catholic church on the East Side, and everything was fine until my sweet, pure religious instructor fell in love with me. I was the first woman he'd ever known who acted like one and treated him like a man. The other priests were furious. They sent him off to California and replaced him with a stern young missionary. After a while, however, even he began to hint that it would be a good idea if he dropped by my apartment in the evenings to give me special instruction. But I resisted temptation, and in September 1953, I was baptized a Catholic."

Having paused to light a cigarette, which provoked a mild coughing spasm, Brooks resumed her story. "I almost forgot a strange incident that happened in 1952. Out of the blue, I got a letter from a woman who had been a Cherryvale neighbor of ours. She enclosed some snapshots. One of them showed a nice-looking gray-haired man of about fifty, holding the hand of a little girl - me. On the back she'd written, 'This is Mr. Feathers, an old bachelor who loved kids. He was always taking you to the picture show and buying you toys and candy.' That picture brought back something I'd blacked out of my mind for - what? - thirty-seven years. When I was nine years old, Mr. Feathers molested me sexually. Which forged another link between me and Lulu: when she had her first lover, she was very young, and Schigolch, the man in question, was middle-aged. I've often wondered what effect Mr. Feathers had on my life. He 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 - and I'm sure that's all tied up with Mr. Feathers. The pleasure of kissing and being kissed comes from somewhere entirely different, psychologically as well as physically. Incidentally, I told my mother about Mr. Feathers, and - would you believe it? [Peal of laughter.] She blamed me! She said I must have led him on. It's always the same, isn't it?" And Brooks ran on in this vein, discussing her sex life openly and jauntily, unbuckling one more notch of the Bible Belt with every sentence she uttered.

The year 1954 was Brooks's nadir. "I was too proud to be a call girl. There was no point in throwing myself into the East River, because I could swim; and I couldn't afford the alternative, which was sleeping pills." In 1955, just perceptibly, things began to look up, and life became once more a tolerable option. Henri Langlois, the exuberant ruler of the Cinémathèque Francaise, organized in Paris a huge exhibition entitled Sixty Years of Cinema. Dominating the entrance hall of the Musée d'Art Moderne were two gigantic blowups, one of the French actress Falconetti in Carl Dreyer's 1928 classic La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, and the other of Brooks in Pandora's Box. When a critic demanded to know why he had preferred this nonentity to authentic stars like Garbo and Dietrich, Langlois exploded, "There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!" In the same year, a group of her friends from the twenties clubbed together to provide a small annuity that would keep her from outright destitution; and she was visited in her Manhattan retreat by James Card, then the curator of film at Eastman House. He had long admired her movies, and he persuaded her to come to Rochester, where so much of her best work was preserved. It was at his suggestion that, in 1956, she settled there.

"Rochester seemed as good a place as any," she told me. "It was cheaper than New York, and I didn't run the risk of meeting people from my past. Up to that time, I had never seen any of my films. And I still haven't - not right through, that is. Jimmy Card screened some of them for me, but that was during my drinking period. I would watch through glazed eyes for about five minutes and sleep through the rest. I haven't even seen Pandora. I've been present on two occasions when it was being run, but I was drunk both times. By that I mean I was navigating but not seeing." When she watched other people's movies, however, she felt no need for alcoholic sedation. As a working actress, she had never taken films seriously; under Card's tuition, she recognized that the cinema was a valid form of art, and began to develop her own theories about it. In 1956, drawing on her powers of near-total recall, she wrote a study of Pabst for Image. This was the first of a sheaf of articles, sharp-eyed and idiosyncratic, that she has contributed over the years to such magazines as Sight & Sound (London), Objectif (Montreal), Film Culture (New York), and Positif (Paris).

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks
 
The Brooks cult burgeoned in 1957, when Henri Langlois crossed the Atlantic to meet her. A year later, he presented "Hommage à Louise Brooks," a festival of her movies that filled the Cinémathèque. The star herself flew to Paris, all expenses paid, and was greeted with wild acclaim at a reception after the Cinémathèque's showing of Pandora's Box. (Among those present was Jean-Luc Godard, who paid his own tribute to Brooks in 1962, when he directed Vivre Sa Vie, the heroine of which - a prostitute - was played by Anna Karina in an exact replica of the Brooks hairdo. Godard described the character as "a young and pretty Parisian shopgirl who gives her body but retains her soul.") In January 1960, Brooks went to New York and attended a screening of Prix de Beauté in the Kaufmann Concert Hall of the 92nd Street Y, where she made a hilarious little speech that delighted the packed audience. The next day, she returned to Rochester, from which she has never since emerged.

Interviewers and fans occasionally call on her, but for the most part, as she put it to me, "I have lived in virtual isolation, with an audience consisting of the milkman and a cleaning woman." She continued, "Once a week, I would drink a pint of gin, and would become what Dickens called 'gincoherent,' go to sleep, and drowse for four days. That left three days to read, write a bit, and see the odd visitor. No priests, by the way - I said goodbye to the church in 1964. Now and then, there would be a letter to answer. In 1965, for instance, an Italian artist named Guido Crepax started a very sexy and tremendously popular comic strip about a girl called Valentina, who looked exactly like me as Lulu. In fact, she identified herself with me. Crepax wrote to thank me for the inspiration and said he regarded me as a twentieth-century myth. I appreciated the tribute and told him that at last I felt I could disintegrate happily in bed with my books, gin, cigarettes, coffee, bread, cheese, and apricot jam. During the sixties, arthritis started to get a grip, and in 1972 I had to buy a medical cane in order to move around. Then, five years ago, the disease really walloped me. My pioneer blood did not pulse through my veins, rousing me to fight it. I collapsed. I took a terrible fall and nearly smashed my hip. That was the end of the booze or any other kind of escape for me. I knew I was in for a bad time, with nothing to face but the absolute meaninglessness of my life. All I've done since then is try to hold the pieces together. And to keep my little squirrel-cage brain distracted."

As an emblematic figure of the twenties, epitomizing the flappers, jazz babies, and dancing daughters of the boom years, Brooks has few rivals, living or dead. Moreover, she is unique among such figures in that her career took her to all the places - New York, London, Hollywood, Paris, and Berlin - where the action was at its height, where experiments in pleasure were conducted with the same zeal (and often by the same people) as experiments in the arts. From her bedroom cupboard Brooks produced an avalanche of manila envelopes, each bulging with mementoes of her halcyon decade. This solitary autodidact, her perceptions deepened by years of immersion in books, looked back for my benefit on the green, gregarious girl she once was, and found much to amuse her. For every photograph she supplied a spoken caption. As she reminisced, I often thought of those Max Beerbohm cartoons that depict the Old Self conversing with the Young Self.

"Here I am in 1922, when I first hit New York, and the label of 'beautiful but dumb' was slapped on me forever. Most beautiful-but-dumb girls think they are smart, and get away with it, because other people, on the whole, aren't much smarter. You can see modern equivalents of those girls on any TV talk show. But there's also a very small group of beautiful women who know they're dumb, and this makes them defenseless and vulnerable. They become the Big Joke. I didn't know Marilyn Monroe, but I'm sure that her agonizing awareness of her own stupidity was one of the things that killed her. I became the Big Joke, first on Broadway and then in Hollywood... . That's Herman Mankiewicz - an ideal talk-show guest, don't you think, born before his time? In 1925, Herman was trying to educate me, and he invented the Louise Brooks Literary Society. A girl named Dorothy Knapp and I were Ziegfeld's two prize beauties. We had a big dressing room on the fifth floor of the New Amsterdam Theatre building, and people like Walter Wanger and Gilbert Miller would meet there, ostensibly to hear my reviews of books that Herman gave me to read. What they actually came for was to watch Dorothy doing a striptease in front of a full-length mirror. I get some consolation from the fact that, as an idiot, I have provided delight in my time to a very select group of intellectuals... . That must be Joseph Schenck. Acting on behalf of his brother Nick, who controlled M-G-M, Joe offered me a contract in 1925 at three hundred a week. Instead, I went to Paramount for two hundred and fifty. Maybe I should have signed with M-G-M and joined what I called the Joe Schenck Mink Club. You could recognize the members at '21' because they never removed their mink coats at lunch... . Here's Fritzi La Verne, smothered in osprey feathers. I roomed with her briefly when we were in the Follies together, and she seduced more Follies girls than Ziegfeld and William Randolph Hearst combined. That's how I got the reputation of being a lesbian. I had nothing against it in principle, and for years I thought it was fun to encourage the idea. I used to hold hands with Fritzi in public. She had a little Bulgarian boyfriend who was just our height, and we would get into his suits and camp all over New York. Even when I moved out to Yahoo City, California, I could never stop by a lesbian household without being asked to strip and join the happy group baring their operation scars in the sun. But I only loved men's bodies. What maddens me is that because of the lesbian scenes with Alice Roberts in Pandora I shall probably go down in history as one of the gloomy dykes. A friend of mine once said to me, 'Louise Brooks, you're not a lesbian, you're a pansy.' Would you care to decipher that? By the way, are you getting tired of hearing my name? I'm thinking of changing it. I noticed that there were five people called Brooks in last week's Variety. How about June Caprice? Or Louise Lovely?"

I shook my head.

Brooks continued riffling through her collection. "This, of course, is Martha Graham, whose genius I absorbed to the bone during the years we danced together on tour. She had rages, you know, that struck like lightning out of nowhere. One evening when we were waiting to go onstage - I was sixteen - she grabbed me, shook me ferociously, and shouted, 'Why do you ruin your feet by wearing those tight shoes?' Another time, she was sitting sweetly at the makeup shelf pinning flowers in her hair when she suddenly seized a bottle of body makeup and exploded it against the mirror. She looked at the shattered remains for a spell, then moved her makeup along to an unbroken mirror and went on quietly pinning flowers in her hair. Reminds me of the night when Buster Keaton drove me in his roadster out to Culver City, where he had a bungalow on the back lot of M-G-M. The walls of the living room were covered with great glass bookcases. Buster, who wasn't drunk, opened the door, turned on the lights, and picked up a baseball bat. Then, walking calmly round the room, he smashed every pane of glass in every bookcase. Such frustration in that little body!'... . Here, inevitably, are Scott and Zelda. I met them in January 1927, at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. They were sitting close together on a sofa, like a comedy team, and the first thing that struck me was how small they were. 1 had come to see the genius writer, but what dominated the room was the blazing intelligence of Zelda's profile. It shocked me. It was the profile of a witch. Incidentally, I've been reading Scott's letters, and I've spotted a curious thing about them. In the early days, before Hemingway was famous, Scott always spelled his name wrong, with two 'm's. And when did he start to spell it right? At the precise moment when Hemingway became a bigger star than he was... . This is a pool party at somebody's house in Malibu. I know I knock the studio system, but if you were to ask me what it was like to live in Hollywood in the twenties I'd have to say that we were all - oh! - marvelously degenerate and happy. We were a world of our own, and outsiders didn't intrude. People tell you that the reason a lot of actors left Hollywood when sound came in was that their voices were wrong for talkies. That's the official story. The truth is that the coming of sound meant the end of the all-night parties. With talkies, you couldn't stay out till sunrise anymore. You had to rush back from the studios and start learning your lines, ready for the next day's shooting at 8 A.M. That was when the studio machine really took over. It controlled you, mind and body, from the moment you were yanked out of bed at dawn until the publicity department put you back to bed at night."

Brooks paused, silently contemplating revels that ended half a century ago, and then went on. "Talking about bed, here's Tallulah - although I always guessed that she wasn't as keen on bed as everyone thought. And my record for guessing things like that was pretty good. I watched her getting ready for a meeting with a plutocratic boyfriend of hers at the Elysée Hotel. She forgot to wear the emerald ring he'd given her a few days before, but she didn't forget the script of the play she wanted him to produce for her. Her preparations weren't scheming or whorish. Just businesslike... This is a bunch of the guests at Mr. Hearst's ranch, sometime in 1928. The girl with the dark hair and the big smile is Pepi Lederer, one of my dearest friends. She was Marion Davies's niece and the sister of Charlie Lederer, the screenwriter, and she was only seventeen when that picture was taken. My first husband, Eddie Sutherland, used to say that for people who didn't worship opulence, weren't crazy about meeting celebrities, or didn't need money or advancement from Mr. Hearst, San Simeon was a deadly dull place. I suppose he was right. But when Pepi was there it was always fun. She created a world of excitement and inspiration wherever she went. And I never entered that great dining hall without a shiver of delight. There were medieval banners from Siena floating overhead and a vast Gothic fireplace, and a long refectory table seating forty. Marion and Mr. Hearst sat with the important guests at the middle of the table. Down at the bottom, Pepi ruled over a group - including me - that she called the Younger Degenerates, and that's where the laughter was. Although Mr. Hearst disapproved of booze, Pepi had made friends with one of the waiters, and we got all the champagne we wanted. She could have been a gifted writer, and for a while she worked for Mr. Hearst's deluxe quarterly The Connoisseur, but, it was only a courtesy job. Nobody took her seriously, she never learned discipline, and drink and drugs got her in the end. In 1935, she died by jumping out of a window in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Los Angeles. She was twenty-five years old. Not long ago, I came across her name in the index of a book on Marion Davies, and it broke my heart. Then I remembered a quotation from Goethe that I'd once typed out. I've written it under the photo: 'For a person remains of consequence not so far as he leaves something behind him but so far as he acts and enjoys, and rouses others to action and enjoyment.' That was Pepi."

Of all the names that spilled out of Brooks's memories of America in the twenties, there was one for which she reserved a special veneration: that of Chaplin. In an article for the magazine Film Culture, she had described his performances at private parties:

He recalled his youth with comic pantomimes. He acted out countless scenes for countless films. And he did imitations of everybody. Isadora Duncan danced in a storm of toilet paper. John Barrymore picked his nose and brooded over Hamlet's soliloquy. A Follies girl swished across the room and I began to cry while Charlie denied absolutely that he was imitating me. Nevertheless ... I determined to abandon that silly walk forthwith.

For me, she filled out the picture. "I was eighteen in 1925, when Chaplin came to New York for the opening of The Gold Rush. He was just twice my age, and I had an affair with him for two happy summer months. Ever since he died, my mind has gone back fifty years, trying to define that lovely being from another world. He was not only the creator of the Little Fellow, though that was miracle enough. He was a self-made aristocrat. He taught himself to speak cultivated English, and he kept a dictionary in the bathroom at his hotel so that he could learn a new word every morning. While he dressed, he prepared his script for the day, which was intended to adorn his private portrait of himself as a perfect English gentleman. He was also a sophisticated lover, who had affairs with Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Marion Davies and Pola Negri, and he was a brilliant businessman, who owned his films and demanded fifty percent of the gross - which drove Joe Schenck wild, along with all the other people who were plotting to rob him. Do you know, I can't once remember him still? He was always standing up as he sat down, and going out as he came in. Except when he turned off the lights and went to sleep, without liquor or pills, like a child. Meaning to be bitchy, Herman Mankiewicz said, 'People never sat at his feet. He went to where people were sitting and stood in front of them.' But how we paid attention! We were hypnotized by the beauty and inexhaustible originality of this glistening creature. He's the only genius I ever knew who spread himself equally over his art and his life. He loved showing off in fine clothes and elegant phrases - even in the witness box. When Lita Grey divorced him, she put about vile rumors that he had a depraved passion for little girls. He didn't give a damn, even though people said his career would be wrecked. It still infuriates me that he never defended himself against any of those ugly lies, but the truth is that he existed on a plane above pride, jealousy, or hate. I never heard him say a snide thing about anyone. He lived totally without fear. He knew that Lita Grey and her family were living in his house in Beverly Hills, planning to ruin him, yet he was radiantly carefree - happy with the success of The Gold Rush and with the admirers who swarmed around him. Not that he exacted adoration. Even during our affair, he knew that I didn't adore him in the romantic sense, and he didn't mind at all. Which brings me to one of the dirtiest lies he allowed to be told about him: that he was mean with money. People forget that Chaplin was the only star ever to keep his ex-leading lady [Edna Purviance] on his payroll for life, and the only producer to pay his employees their full salaries even when he wasn't in production. When our joyful summer ended, he didn't give me a fur from Jaeckel or a bangle from Cartier, so that I could flash them around, saying, 'Look what I got from Chaplin.' The day after he left town, I got a nice check in the mail, signed Charlie. And then I didn't even write him a thank-you note. Damn me."

Brooks's souvenirs of Europe, later in the twenties, began with pictures of a burly, handsome, dark-haired man, usually alighting from a train: George Preston Marshall, the millionaire who was her frequent bedfellow and constant adviser between 1927 and 1933. "If you care about Pandora's Box, you should be grateful to George Marshall," she told me. "I'd never heard of Mr. Pabst when he offered me the part. It was George who insisted that I should accept it. He was passionately fond of the theater and films, and he slept with every pretty show-business girl he could find, including all my best friends. George took me to Berlin with his English valet, who stepped off the train blind drunk and fell flat on his face at Mr. Pabst's feet."

The Brooks collection contains no keepsakes of the actress whom she pipped at the post in the race to play Lulu, and of whom, when I raised the subject, she spoke less than charitably. "Dietrich? That contraption! She was one of the beautiful-but-dumb girls, like me, but she belonged to the category of those who thought they were smart and fooled other people into believing it. But I guess I'm just being insanely jealous, because I know she's a friend of yours - isn't she?" By way of making amends, she praised Dietrich's performance as Lola in The Blue Angel, and then, struck by a sudden thought, interrupted herself: "Hey! Why don't I ask Marlene to come over from Paris? We could work on our memoirs together. Better still, she could write mine, and I hers - 'Lulu' by Lola, and 'Lola' by Lulu."

To put it politely, however, Dietrich does not correspond to Brooks's ideal image of a movie goddess. But who does - apart from Margaret Sullavan, whose voice, as we know, she reveres? A few months after our Rochester encounter, she sent me a letter that disclosed another, unexpected object of her admiration. In it she said:

I've just been listening to Toronto radio. There was a press conference with Ava Gardner, who is making a movie in Montreal. Her beauty has never excited me, and I have seen only one of her films, The Night of the Iguana, in which she played a passive role that revealed her power of stillness but little else. On radio, sitting in a hotel room, triggered by all the old stock questions, she said nothing new or stirring - just "Sinatra could be very nice or very rotten - get me another drink, baby - I made fifty-four pictures and the only part I understood was in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. ..." In her conversation, there was nothing about great acting or beauty or sex, and no trace of philosophical or intellectual concern. Yet for the first time in my life I was proud of being a movie actress, unmixed with theater art. Ava is in essence what I think a movie star should be: a beautiful person with a unique, mysterious personality unpolluted by Hollywood. And she is so strong. She did not have to run away (like Garbo) to keep from being turned into a product of the machine... . What I should like to know is whether, as I sometimes fancy, I ever had a glimmer of that quality of integrity which makes Ava shine with her own light.

The next picture out of the manila envelopes showed Brooks, inscrutable and somewhat forlorn in a sequined evening gown, sitting at a table surrounded by men with pencil-thin mustaches who were wearing tuxedos, black ties, and wing collars. These men were all jabbering into telephones and laughing maniacally. None of them were looking at Brooks. Behind them I could make out oak-paneled walls and an out-of-focus waiter with a fish-eyed stare and a strong resemblance to Louis Jouvet. "You know where that was taken, of course," Brooks said.

I was sorry, but I didn't.

"That's Joe Zelli's!" she cried. "Zelli's was the most famous nightclub in Paris. I can't remember all the men's names, but the one on the extreme right used to drink ether. The one on my left was half Swedish and half English. I lived with him in several hotels. Although he was very young, he had snow-white hair, so we always called him the Eskimo. The fellow next to him, poor guy, was killed the very next day. He was cut to pieces by a speedboat propeller at Cannes."

Whenever I think of the twenties, I shall see that flashlit hysterical tableau at Zelli's and the unsmiling seraph at the center of it.

From the fattest of all her files, Brooks now pulled out a two-shot. Beaming in a cloche hat, she stands arm in arm with a stocky, self-possessed man in a homburg. He also wears steel-rimmed glasses, a bow tie, and a well-cut business suit; you would guess he was in his early forties. "Mr. Pabst," she said simply. "That was 1928, in Berlin, while we were making Pandora's Box. As I told you, I arrived with George Marshall, and Mr. Pabst hated him, because he kept me up all night, going round the clubs. A few weeks later, George went back to the States, and after that Mr. Pabst locked me up in my hotel when the day's shooting was finished. Everyone thought he was in love with me. On the rare evenings when I went to his apartment for dinner, his wife, Trudi, would walk out and bang the door. Mr. Pabst was a highly respectable man, but he had the most extraordinary collection of obscene stills in the world. He even had one of Sarah Bernhardt nude with a black-lace fan. Did you know that in the twenties it was the custom for European actresses to send naked pictures of themselves to movie directors? He had all of them. Anyway, I didn't have an affair with him in Berlin. In 1929, though, when he was in Paris trying to set up Prix de Beauté, we went out to dinner at a restaurant and I behaved rather outrageously. For some reason, I slapped a close friend of mine across the face with a bouquet of roses. Mr. Pabst was horrified. He hustled me out of the place and took me back to my hotel, where - what do I do? I'm in a terrific mood, so I decide to banish his disgust by giving the best sexual performance of my career. I jump into the hay and deliver myself to him body and soul. [Her voice is jubilant.] He acted as if he'd never experienced such a thing in his life. You know how men want to pin medals on themselves when they excite you? They get positively radiant. Next morning, Mr. Pabst was so pleased he couldn't see straight. That was why he postponed Prix de Beauté and arranged to make The Diary of a Lost Girl first. He wanted the affair to continue. But I didn't, and when I got to Berlin it was like Pandora's Box all over again, except that this time the man I brought with me was the Eskimo - my white-headed boy from Zelli's."

Brooks laughed softly, recalling the scene. "Mr. Pabst was there at the station to meet me. He was appalled when I got off the train with the Eskimo. On top of that, I had a wart on my neck, and Esky had just slammed the compartment door on my finger. Mr. Pabst took one stark look at me, told me I had to start work the next morning, and dragged me away to a doctor, who burned off the wart. If you study the early sequences of Lost Girl, you can see the sticking plaster on my neck. I hated to hurt Mr. Pabst's feelings with the Eskimo, but I simply could not bring myself to repeat that one and only night. The irony, which Mr. Pabst never knew, was that although Esky and I shared a hotel suite in Berlin, we didn't sleep together until much later, when Lost Girl was finished and we were spending a few days in Paris. 'Eskimo,' I said to him the evening before we parted, 'this is the night.' And it was - another first and last for Brooks."

Louise Brooks
Louise Brooks

More fragments of Brooksiana:

I:   Do you think there are countries that produce particularly good lovers?

BROOKS:   Englishmen are the best. And priest-ridden Irishmen are the worst.

I:   What are your favorite films?

BROOKS:   An American in Paris, Pygmalion, and The Wizard of Oz. Please don't be disappointed.

I:   They're all visions of wish fulfillment. An American at large with a gamine young dancer in a fantasy playground called Paris. A Cockney flower girl who becomes the toast of upper-class London. And a child from your home state who discovers, at the end of a trip to a magic world, that happiness was where she started out.

BROOKS:   You are disappointed.

I:   Not a bit. They're first-rate movies, and they're all aspects of you.

Postscript from a letter Brooks wrote to me before we met: "Can you give me a reason for sitting here in this bed, going crazy, with not one god-damned excuse for living?" I came up with more than one reason; viz., (a) to receive the homage of those who cherish the images she has left on celluloid; (b) to bestow the pleasure of her conversation on those who seek her company; (c) to appease her hunger for gleaning wisdom from books; and (d) to test the truth of a remark she had made to a friend: "The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset once said, 'We are all lost creatures.' It is only when we admit this that we have a chance of finding ourselves."

Despite the numerous men who have crossed the trajectory of her life, Brooks has pursued her own course. She has flown solo. The price to be paid for such individual autonomy is, inevitably, loneliness, and her loneliness is prefigured in one of the most penetrating comments she has ever committed to print: "The great art of films does not consist in descriptive movement of face and body, but in the movements of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation."

As I rose to leave her apartment, she gave me a present: a large and handsome volume entitled Louise Brooks - Portrait d'une Anti-Star. Published in Paris in 1977, it contained a full pictorial survey of her career, together with essays, critiques, and poems devoted to her beauty and talent. She inscribed it to me, and copied out, beneath her signature, the epitaph she has composed for herself: "I never gave away anything without wishing I had kept it; nor kept anything without wishing I had given it away." The book included an account by Brooks of her family background, which I paused to read. It ended with this paragraph, here reproduced from her original English text:

Over the years I suffered poverty and rejection and came to believe that my mother had formed me for a freedom that was unattainable, a delusion. Then ... I was ... confined to this small apartment in this alien city of Rochester... . Looking about, I saw millions of old people in my situation, wailing like lost puppies because they were alone and had no one to talk to. But they had become enslaved by habits which bound their lives to warm bodies that talked. I was free! Although my mother had ceased to be a warm body in 1944, she had not forsaken me. She comforts me with every book I read. Once again I am five, leaning on her shoulder, learning the words as she reads aloud Alice in Wonderland.

She insisted on getting out of bed to escort me to the door. We had been talking earlier of Proust, and she had mentioned his maxim that the future could never be predicted from the past. Out of her past, I thought, in all its bizarre variety, who knows what future she may invent? "Another thing about Proust," she said, resting on her cane in the doorway. "No matter how he dresses his characters up in their social disguises, we always know how they look naked." As we know it, I reflected, in Brooks's performances. I kissed her goodbye, buttoned up my social disguise-for it was a chilly evening-and joined the other dressed-up people on the streets of Rochester.

The New Yorker





 


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