Anita Loos: A Very Big Life
2004 by Sarah Baker. All rights reserved.
The woman who penned the famous line, “Kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever,” received her first diamond from her uncle Horace when she was seven years old. She never accepted another, for unlike her alter ego Lorelei Lee, Anita Loos was a self-described cerebrale: “therein lay my tragedy…I was a girl who would always pass up a diamond for a laugh.”[i]
Anita Loos. Photograph originally published in A Girl Like I, 1966.
Anita Loos’ career was nothing short of remarkable—embracing almost every medium including film, stage, magazine serials, fiction, and memoir. She had the good fortune of always working with the best, starting with D.W. Griffith at the very outset of her career. Born in San Diego in 1888, Loos and her family led a semi-itinerant existence, following her “scamp” of a father from various newspaper and showbiz management gigs across California.[ii] Loos fattened the family income working as an actress in stock companies her father managed. Her diminutive stature made her ideal for playing many roles, but her heart was not on the stage. Loos admitted that she preferred to watch the one-reel moving pictures shown between acts and one day decided she could write scenarios as good or better than the ones currently being filmed by the Biograph Company. She dashed off a script, Road to Plaindale, and mailed it to Biograph; a check for $25 and a request for more scenarios followed.[iii]
Loos sold 150 scenarios between 1912 and 1915 and only received four rejections.[iv] In 1914 she journeyed to Los Angeles, where she met with the great D.W. Griffith on the set of Judith of Bethulia. Griffith hired Loos as a staff writer at a salary of $50 a week. Griffith enjoyed Loos’ writing but found many of her scripts unfilmable: “All [her] laughs are in the lines; there’s no way to get them onto the screen. People don’t go to the movies to read, they go to look at the pictures.”[v] Her most famous Biograph short is The New York Hat (1912), starring Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore. In many ways, Mary Pickford’s character in this film is a proto-Lorelei Lee, wishing for the finer things in life and receiving them under the care and protection of an older man. The New York Hat is totally devoid of the heavy moralizing tone of the other Griffith Biographs of this period. It is a gem, sparkling with wit, and Pickford was never more enchanting.
Mary Pickford in The New York Hat (1912). Photograph originally published in A Girl Like I, 1966.
Griffith often called her in as a script doctor, and depended upon her to title his masterwork Intolerance (1916). But Loos’s talent went largely uncultivated until director John Emerson picked one of her scripts for a young actor named Douglas Fairbanks. The result was the highly successful His Picture in the Papers.[vi] The Loos-Emerson-Fairbanks trio was a smash, and Loos’s long, happy career was officially launched. Stars like Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, the Talmadge Sisters, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable sought her scripts. Loos always regretted she was unable to write for her two favorite stars, James Cagney and Bette Davis, as she was under contract to MGM while they were under contract to Warner Brothers. Her classic scripts include Red-Headed Woman (1932), Hold Your Man (1933), The Girl from Missouri (1934), San Francisco (1936), Saratoga (1937), and The Women (1939). But Loos’s most enduring contribution to both film and literature was her 1925 classic, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The genesis for Blondes occurred during a train trip to Chicago, when Loos noticed actress Mae Davis lapping up the attention of every man, including Loos’ favorite cerebrale crush, H.L. Mencken. Loos was fascinated:
I watched her disorganize the behavior of every male passenger on board. I tried to puzzle out the reasons why. Obviously there was some radical difference between that girl and me, but what was it? We were both in the pristine years of youth. She was not outstanding as a beauty; we were, in fact, of about the same degree of comeliness; as to our mental acumen, there was nothing to discuss: I was smarter. Then why did that girl so outdistance me in allure? Why had she attracted one of the keenest minds of our era? Mencken liked me very much indeed, but in the matter of sex he preferred a witless blonde. The situation was palpably unjust but, as I thought it over, a light began to break through my subconscious; possibly the girl’s strength (like Samson’s) was rooted in her hair.[vii]
Loos roughed out a character sketch of a woman based on Davis, Lorelei Lee, and sent it to Mencken as a joke. Mencken was delighted, telling Loos, “Do you realize, young woman, that you have made fun of sex, which has never been done in this grand and glorious nation of ours?”[viii] Mencken insisted that Loos submit the sketch for publication, and Henry Sell of Harper’s Bazaar snatched it up, with the provision that Loos write more about Lorelei. The result was a series of sketches told by Lorelei in diary form, complete with grammatical and spelling errors, describing her gold digging adventures with her pal, Dorothy Shaw. The diary entries were collected and published as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in November 1925. The first printing sold out in two weeks; by May 1926 the volume was in its ninth edition.[ix]
Original illustration from the first edition of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1925, by Ralph Barton.
To say that Blondes was a phenomenon would be putting it lightly. Blondes was as popular overseas as it was in America and it turned Anita Loos into an international celebrity. It also earned her a fortune: “The money my heroine made me and still continues to make never seemed more legitimate than the loot she collected herself inside the covers of my book. What with hardcover and paperback royalties, serializations, translations, a play, a musical, two films, and all the other rights to which a bestseller falls heir, Lorelei’s diary turned into an annuity.”[x] Over the years, Loos spent much of this annuity in the salons of Mainbocher and Balenciaga.
At the height of her fame, Loos was in great demand for publicity. Cutex advertisement circa 1927. Sarah Baker Collection.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes captured the zeitgeist of the Jazz Age perfectly, as well as any Fitzgerald novel. In fact, Blondes could be interpreted as the light, comic opera inverse of The Great Gatsby: Lorelei’s desire for material possessions echoes Daisy Buchanan’s desire for the same things; and both women seek material security from men. Lorelei finds hers in Henry Spoffard; Daisy finds hers in Tom Buchanan after giving up Jay Gatsby when he is too poor to satisfy her needs. Lorelei goes into ecstasies over a diamond tiara: “I mean I think a diamond tiara is delightful because it is a place I where I never thought of wearing diamonds before, and I thought I had almost one of everything until I saw a diamond tiara.”[xi] Daisy is in raptures over Jay Gatsby’s newfound material wealth, symbolized in the gorgeous array of shirts he shows her when she comes to his mansion for the first time: “They’re such beautiful shirts. It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”[xii] Both authors perfectly capture the desire and greed for material possessions, security, and flamboyance that characterized the 1920s and came to an abrupt end with the onset of the Depression. Gatsby was hailed as a classic and incorporated into the literary canon, while Blondes lives on as a comedy classic, regularly quoted and published in fresh editions as current superstars like Madonna adopt Lorelei’s credo as their own.
While Blondes was a professional success it was also, in some ways, a personal liability. John Emerson, whom Loos had married in 1920, was intensely jealous of Loos’ fame and became an invalid—some would say out of spite— for the rest of his life. Despite this, Loos remained married to Emerson until his death in 1956.[xiii]
Loos continued writing, both fiction and nonfiction, throughout her long career. A sequel to Blondes, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, was published in 1927 and dealt with the career of Lorelei’s longtime sidekick, Dorothy Shaw. A flood of other books, screenplays, and scripts followed, including the Broadway adaptation of Colette’s Gigi, which launched Audrey Hepburn’s career. Loos regularly appeared on talk shows and lent her perspective on the silent film era to many historians, including an appearance in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood series. Loos passed away in 1981, leaving behind a legacy of classic Hollywood films and memorable books. At her memorial service, longtime friend Helen Hayes quipped, “I hope that she finds heaven to be chic. If it isn’t chic, it will be hell to Anita.”[xiv]
Loos. Photograph originally published in A Girl Like I, 1966.
To get the dope on Anita Loos, click here.
[i] Loos, Anita. A Girl Like I. New York: Viking Press, 1966, page 68.
[ii] Carey, Gary. Anita Loos. New York: Knopf, 1988, page 9.
[iii] Ibid., page 22.
[iv] Loos, page 71.
[v] Ibid., page 98.
[vi] Carey, page 43.
[vii] Loos, page 265.
[viii] Ibid., page 267.
[ix] Carey, pages 93-95.
[x] Loos, page 272.
[xi] Loos, Anita. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925, page 68.
[xii] Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, page 72.
[xiii] Carey, page 253.
[xiv] Loos, Mary Anita. Anita Loos Rediscovered. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, page 269.