Silent Movie Star and Writer
A short biography of the 1920s actress known for her captivating beauty, style, and intelligence.
With her sleek, bobbed hair and gloriously heedless allure, actress Louise Brooks remains one of the most distinctive stars of the 1920s. Mary Louise Brooks, also known as Brooksie, was born in November 1906 in Cherryvale, Kansas. Louise’s father Leonard was a lawyer who would later become Assistant Attorney General of Kansas, while Louise’s mother Myra was a cultured and accomplished woman, not interested in traditional wifely duties.
Though Myra was at times distant and aloof toward her children, she encouraged Louise’s early talents in dance and art and her lifelong passion for reading. As Louise grew older, she came to value her mother’s love of music and literature and her outspoken views on women’s rights. As Louise later wrote to her brother: “What do I care that she was no mother and cared less about her children than an alligator? She taught us the love of beauty and laughter. And I would have been dead years ago having she not put great books at my disposal.”
Louise’s first public debut beyond Kansas was with the Denishawn Dancers, a modern dance company featuring principals Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and Martha Graham. Louise toured with Denishawn but soon came to a parting of the ways; she then found herself in New York, where she took a job as a showgirl in Broadway’s Ziegfeld Follies. The Follies led to a Paramount Pictures contract, and by the age of nineteen, Louise had eased beyond minor roles to costarring in It’s The Old Army Game with W.C. Fields.
Following the film industry’s hub westward, Louise moved to Hollywood and starred in such other films as Rolled Stockings, A Girl in Every Port, and more notably, the 1928 Beggars of Life, based on the acclaimed Jim Tully novel about hobo life. She was featured in numerous magazine interviews with accompanying photos of Louise as the new flapper, not a kewpie doll or madcap girl, but a provocative beauty who knew her own mind and wasn’t afraid to express it.
Despite her popularity and being a frequent guest of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies at their San Simeon castle, Louise was not at ease in Hollywood and found its hypocrisies confining. Never one to act coy or dumb down her intelligence, Louise was unimpressed with the films being made at the time and unwilling to play games with studio executives. When invited to star in German director G.W. Pabst’s latest project, Pandora’s Box, Louise left California for Europe in outright defiance.
Louise Brooks’ portrayal of the temptress Lulu in Pandora’s Box along with another Pabst film, Diary of A Lost Girl, was the most remarkable performance of her career. Pabst’s intense direction combined with the frankly sexual material of both pictures was far ahead of its time, and the films are still screened today as masterworks of the Silent Era. Louise made one other movie in France, Prix de Beauté, also considered a classic performance, before returning to the United States in 1930. Unfortunately, her European sojourn was not looked upon favorably by already disapproving Hollywood power brokers, and she found herself with lackluster opportunities. Her final film was Overland Stage Riders in 1938, more notable for being a picture starring the up-and-coming John Wayne than Louise’s part, which was supportive and hardly recognizable.
In such a downward turn of fortune, Louise was forced to take various salesgirl and clerical positions in Manhattan. An attempt at returning to Wichita and resurrecting her dance career had failed, and with the change of luck, Louise entered a period of semi-exile and alcoholism. She had been married and divorced twice, with neither union proving particularly fulfilling. In 1958, however, James Card, a curator at The George Eastman House, lured Louise out of her reclusive world and urged her to move to Rochester, New York so that she could be closer to Eastman House and its film history collections. Card encouraged Louise to write more about the cinema and her own life, and she began to contribute pieces to various periodicals. A book of essays and memoirs entitled Lulu in Hollywood was published in 1982, with Louise’s perceptive and uncompromising tone winning great praise.
Through her later years, Louise began to find her fame resurging as a new generation discovered her subtle yet powerful style of acting and singular appeal. She attended various retrospectives of her work and continued to write, as always fiercely independent until her death in August 1985. To this day Louise Brooks still inspires fashion designers and artists, filmmakers and authors, and her effect on critic Kenneth Tynan, as noted in his 1979 New Yorker piece The Girl in the Black Helmet, was electric:
“She has run through my life like a magnetic thread – this shameless urchin tomboy, this unbroken, unbreakable porcelain filly…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….”