Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Our Miss Brooks, Dept.

So, I finished Barry Paris' biography of Louise Brooks, my dinner companion for the last three months, on and off.  And it's difficult to know what to say about Louise Brooks.

In some ways, she reminds me of Al Jolson--not someone with whom she's regularly compared, I would think--in that it seems that the effect of each in person is irreproducible in any medium.  I mean, yes, we see Pandora's Box or The Jazz Singer or read Lulu in Hollywood or hear "Toot Toot Tootsie" and understand some, maybe much, of his or her appeal.  But the number of times I read in this book about the spell that Brooksie, as she was sometimes known, could, and regularly did, cast on those around her, either through her beauty, her sexuality, her intelligence, her manner, convince me that watching her in the dumbshow that is silent film only captures the glint and not the essence of this woman.

Otherwise, it'd be extremely hard to understand or explain how this woman, beset from her teen years through middle age by a tremendous thirst for alcohol, unable and unwilling to do anything she didn't want to do even at ruinous cost to herself, possessed of a violent and mercurial temper, could have been the toast of two continents, not once but twice.

Louise Brooks summed up her rejection by Hollywood with the sentence "I like to fuck and drink too much."  But that can only be part of the story, for, reading this book, one is alternately amazed and horrified at the opportunities she squandered out of whim, ill-temper, apathy or just plain orneriness.  Thanks to her bad attitude, which one might charitably describe as "fierce independence," she left or was asked to leave plum positions in one of the premier modern dance troupes in the United States, George White's Scandals revue, the Ziegfeld Follies, Hollywood and radio.

After years of destitution, charity and occasional prostitution, unable to hold a job thanks to the aforementioned "bad attitude," she moved to Rochester, N.Y., at the age of 49 and lived there in increasingly eremitical solitude until her death at 78.  During this period, she learned to write and became celebrated as an astute and incisive film historian and essayist.  Further, her film work was rediscovered during this self-imposed exile, and the cult of Louise Brooks grew to its full flower even as its object grew increasingly less able and willing to leave the confines of her apartment.  The girl who had Charlestoned through Manhattan, London and Berlin; who, at 18, had had a summer-long affair with Chaplin; who inspired comic strips' Dixie Dugan; and who had been a favored guest at Hearst's San Simeon mansion cloistered herself in a sparsely furnished apartment (save for the hundreds of books she meticulously annotated) and drank herself through middle age into a final enforced abstemiousness and slow deterioration at the hands of emphysema and arthritis.

She was, by all accounts, an extremely difficult person.  Some anecdotes, even those set in her salad days, give the impression of someone who's just a little deranged.  Yet.  When she was not, she was apparently the most desirable, impressive and charming woman in North America.  She knew everyone, at least before her fall from Hollywood's graces, and everyone seemed to want to know her.  In fact, I would substitute Six Degrees of Louise Brooks as the gold standard, at least for the entertainment world before 1960.

So, I recommend this book without reservation for anyone interested in the worlds of modern dance, revue, spectacle and silent film in the first third of the 20th century as well as for those interested in the ways that a human life can unwind and develop in adversity, both external and self-imposed.  Louise Brooks was, more often than not inadvertently, at the center of several fascinating periods and scenes in pre-war cultural life, and the author takes frequent breaks in the book's first two-thirds to describe these, be they whores in Weimar Berlin or the early films of W.C. Fields.  But through it all, it's Brooksie and her charisma, her bangs, her legs, her brains, her moods and her look--that Look that launched a thousand thousand pale imitations--that piques one's interest even as one peeks through one's fingers at the multiple train wrecks and triumphs of her life.

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