Louise Brooks’ artistry (her acting, dancing, writing, and her personality), is her gift to the world. She led a remarkable life, one filled with as many twists and turns as there were ups and downs. She possessed ravishing good-looks, talent, and smarts — and could have achieved greatness, but due to a penchant for self-defeating behavior, Brooks ended up snatching obscurity from lasting fame.
Known for her bobbed hair (a style she wore much of her life), this small town girl from Kansas became a Denishawn dancer, Broadway showgirl, silent film actress, acclaimed author, fashion icon, and something of a 20th century muse. She danced with Martha Graham, flirted with George Gershwin, and was the one-time paramour of both Charlie Chaplin and CBS founder William S. Paley. Though something of a loner, amid all the ballyhoo of the Jazz Age Brooks came to meet some of the most famous people of her day — among them members of the Algonquin Roundtable, Hollywood icon Rudolph Valentino, “Miss America” Fay Lanphier, and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, as well as explorer Richard Byrd, photographer Edward Steichen, entertainer Josephine Baker, and singer Paul Robeson. In Weimar Berlin, she knew future Nazi filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl (whom she disliked), and played Lulu, an iconic character in one of the greatest silent films ever made.
As an actress, she worked with such film legends as “Fatty” Arbuckle, W.C. Fields, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, Michael Curtiz, and John Wayne. And while still young — just 32 years old, she gave it all up and turned her back on Hollywood. Brooks’ life took her from the heights of world wide celebrity to a down-and-out existence, barely getting by and all but forgotten by her peers.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom she once met, wrote “there are no second acts in American lives.” Brooks proves the exception. After decades of obscurity, she emerged late in life as an author and thoughtful commentator on film. Some, like Pulitzer Prize winners Roger Ebert and John Updike, consider her the finest writer to have come out of Hollywood. Her bestselling book of autobiographical essays, Lulu in Hollywood, stands as her testament.
As the years passed, her legend has grown. This section of the Louise Brooks Society website tells the story of her life and times.
Mary Louise Brooks was born in Cherryvale, Kansas on November 14, 1906. She was the second of four children, the daughter of Leonard Brooks, a 40-year old lawyer busy with his practice, and Myra Rude, a 23-year old artistic-minded mother who determined that any “squalling brats she produced could take care of themselves”. Cherryvale was a small town of only a few thousand residents. Nevertheless, it produced another noted entertainer, the slightly younger Vivian Vance. She was one of Brooks’ childhood friends, and years later went on to play Ethel Mertz, Lucille Ball’s sidekick on the TV sitcom I Love Lucy.
Brooks’ mother was a cultured woman, a participant in Chautauqua (a popular self-improvement and educational movement), as well as a pianist who played Debussy and Ravel for her children. Above everything, Myra inspired in little Louise a love of books and music and the arts. Her upbringing, as well as her father’s large library, had a profound influence on her lifelong love of reading. Louise read voraciously from a young age. As a teen, her favorite magazines were Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair. In each she could envision life beyond Kansas.
Louise also loved the movies, which were then called “flickers”. She and her brother, Theodore, went to the local movie theater to watch serials, westerns, and feature films starring the likes of vamp Theda Bara, cowboy actor Tom Mix, and Pearl White — the star of Perils of Pauline. Louise was especially enthralled by young Gloria Swanson, the most exciting new actress of 1915.
Brooks’ life was profoundly shaped by something else that happened when she was young. When Louise was 9 years old, a neighbor known as “Mr. Flowers” sexually abused her. The assault left its mark on Brooks’ psyche. In later years, she commented that she was incapable of real love and that this man “must have had a great deal to do with forming my attitude toward sexual pleasure”. None of her two marriages or many affairs ever lasted long.
In 1919, at the age of 13, the Brooks family moved 10-miles south to larger Independence, Kansas. With her bobbed-hair, captivating looks, and a personality that turned heads, boys began to focus their eyes on Louise — as they did in Independence. In 1920, the Brooks family moved again, this time to nearby Wichita, Kansas. There, her father expanded his law practice and pursued his ambition of becoming a United States District Judge. Louise pursued her dream of becoming a dancer.
Throughout her childhood, Brooks had performed at events across southeastern Kansas. She made her first public appearance at age four playing a pint-sized bride in a church production of Tom Thumb’s Wedding. At the age of 10, she had become in her own words what “amounted to a professional dancer,” appearing in front of community groups, men’s and women’s clubs, at local fairs, and at various social gatherings in neighboring counties — and sometimes as far away as Missouri. By age 11, she was dancing on a regular basis, performing at recitals and in programs held at local halls and opera house.
Brooks studied dance with local instructors, and choreographed pieces that were performed at her high school in Wichita. Brooks was serious about her art. While a student, she traveled to see the great ballerina Anna Pavlova, who was performing in a nearby town. She also attended a Wichita performance by the famous Denishawn Dance Company, led by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. There, she met its principals backstage. The meeting proved pivotal.
Dancer and Showgirl
At age 15, with her parent’s blessing but without completing her high school education, Brooks left for New York City to join Denishawn, then the leading modern dance troupe in America. [Brooks’ move to New York City is depicted in Laura Moriarty’s bestselling novel, The Chaperone.] The teen-aged Brooks was with the company for two seasons, traveling by train and dancing in both large cities and small towns across the United States. Among their hundreds of stops were auditoriums in Atlanta, Denver, and Houston, as well as the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, Orchestra Hall in Chicago and Detroit, Masonic Temple in Cleveland, and the Lyric Theatre in Baltimore. There was a long stand at the Apollo Theatre in Atlantic City, and multiple performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Boston Opera House, Town Hall in New York City, and National Theater in Washington D.C. The company also performed in Canada, including venues in Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa.
Though just a teen, Brooks performed alongside such future greats as Martha Graham and Charles Weideman, as well as company founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. During her second season, the 17-year old Brooks advanced to a featured role in a piece opposite Shawn. She was improving as a dancer…. And then it ended. One day, at the end of her second season, a long-simmering antagonism between Brooks and St. Denis came to a head. St. Denis dismissed the 17-year old Brooks, telling her in front of the other dancers that she possessed a superior attitude, “I am dismissing you from the company because you want life handed to you on a silver salver”. The words left a lasting impression. When she outlined an autobiographical novel years years later, “The Silver Salver” was the title Brooks gave its final chapter.
Thanks to friend Barbara Bennett (sister of Constance and Joan), Brooks found work as a Broadway chorus girl in George White’s Scandals, followed by an appearance as a featured dancer in the 1925 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies. In between the Scandals and Follies, Brooks traveled to England, where she became the first person to dance the Charleston in London at the city’s famed Café de Paris.
While still a member of the Follies, Brooks was involved in minor scandal over the publication of risque images taken of the up-and-coming dancer. The nature of the images (which are rather tame by today’s standards), as well as the publicity generated by a threatened lawsuit, was covered in the press. It was around this time that she was also noticed by movie star Charlie Chaplin, who was in New York for the premiere of his new film, The Gold Rush. The two had an affair that lasted the summer.
Everything, it seemed, was happening at once. As a result of her work on Broadway and her minor celebrity, Brooks came to the attention of producer Walter Wanger, who signed the 18 year old to a five-year contract with Paramount, a leading film studio. (Read more about Brooks’ time as a dancer and showgirl.)
In her day, Brooks was never considered a major star. And her film career, relatively speaking, was brief. The actress appeared in only 24 movies between the years 1925 and 1938. (By comparison, “It” girl Clara Bow appeared in 57 films over 11 years.) Today, Brooks’ reputation rests largely on her role as Lulu in the once derided, now celebrated 1929 German silent, Die Büchse der Pandora, or Pandora’s Box.
Brooks made her screen debut in 1925, playing a moll in an uncredited role in The Street of Forgotten Men. Under contract to Paramount, she was soon elevated to playing the first or second female lead in a string of light comedies like It’s the Old Army Game, The Show-Off, and Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em. Generally speaking, Brooks received good reviews while holding her own alongside such major names as W. C. Fields, Adolphe Menjou, and Wallace Beery.
Brooks was considered a flapper, and her roles in films like Just Another Blonde, Evening Clothes and Rolled Stockings played up that part of her persona. Starting in 1927, however, Brooks was cast in more dramatic roles including The City Gone Wild, an early gangster film directed by James Cruze. Two later works include the Howard Hawks-directed A Girl in Every Port and the William Wellman-directed Beggars of Life. Those two films are widely considered Brooks’ most significant American movies. Her Hollywood career in the twenties ended with the title role in The Canary Murder Case, a murder mystery starring William Powell as detective Philo Vance, based on the celebrated novel by S.S. van Dine.
Today, Brooks is best known for the three films she made in Europe, Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen), and Prix de Beauté. Each is something of a masterpiece. Both Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl were directed by G.W. Pabst, one of the great German directors of the time; he, along with the famous French director René Clair, co-authored the story behind Prix de Beauté, a lesser though still significant film.
Upon her return to Hollywood, Brooks’ career went into decline. Seen as difficult and said to have a voice which didn’t record well, the one-time silent film star was cast in small roles in lesser “talkies.” The best of her sound films is God’s Gift to Women, directed by Michael Curtiz. Brooks is impossible to spot in When You’re in Love, starring Grace Moore and Cary Grant. Her last screen credit was Overland Stage Raiders, a B-Western starring John Wayne. (Read more about Brooks’ films and film career.)
Brooks was married twice. Her first marriage was to Eddie Sutherland, whom she met when he directed her in It’s the Old Army Game in 1926. The two were often apart, working on different coasts, and their marriage broke up when Brooks began an on-again, off-again relationship with George Preston Marshall that lasted into the 1930s. Marshall was a millionaire and the future owner of the Washington Redskins football team.
In 1932, Brooks declared bankruptcy, and fell back on her first love, dancing, to earn a living. In 1933, Brooks married Chicago playboy Deering Davis, with whom she formed a dance team; she abruptly left him after only five months of marriage. Brooks wouldn’t be tied-down — she was also a sexually liberated woman. Throughout her lifetime, her liaisons with fellow actors and actresses (including possibly Greta Garbo) were often gossiped about, although much is speculation.
For a few years in the mid-1930s, Brooks toured the country as a professional ballroom dancer. As part of the acts Brooks & Davis and Brooks & Dario, she performed in nightclubs, roadhouses, and theaters in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Louisville, and Miami, receiving good notices in local papers and national trade publications. Later, after Brooks quite the movies, she opened a dance studio, first in Los Angeles with a partner, and then after leaving Hollywood, on her own in Wichita, Kansas. In the late 1930s, she authored a self-published booklet, The Fundamentals of Ballroom Dancing.
With Hollywood behind her and her fame fading, Brooks returned to Wichita. “But that turned out to be another kind of hell,” she wrote, “The citizens of Wichita either resented me having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn’t exactly enchanted with them. I must confess to a lifelong curse: My own failure as a social creature.” Eventually, Brooks returned to New York City and where she had experienced her greatest success. After brief stints in radio and working for gossip columnist Walter Winchell, she got a job as a salesgirl in a department store in New York City. It was a humble existence, one which afforded the former celebrity time to think about everything that hadn’t gone right in her life.
Once derided as a brainy showgirl, Brooks emerged late in life as an articulate commentator and acerbic writer and memoirist. Italian and French cinephiles led the rediscovery of Brooks in the years after the second World War. In 1955, French archivist Henri Langlois mounted a major exhibit celebrating the 60th anniversary of film. Outside the Cinémathèque Française, Langlois hung two large banners, one depicting the French actress Falconetti (in Joan of Arc) and the other depicting Brooks. When asked why another more prominent actress like Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich had not been depicted instead of Brooks (who was then little remembered), Langlois famously responded, “There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks.” A revival was begun.
Around this time, James Card, curator of film at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York discovered that Brooks was living as a recluse in New York City; he persuaded her to move to Rochester to be near the Eastman House and its world famous film collection. With his encouragement, she began watching films (including some of her own for the first time), and she began write. Over the next couple of decades, Brooks’ essays and articles would appear in leading film journals such as Sight and Sound, Film Culture, Cahiers du Cinema, and Focus on Film. In 1979, the British critic Kenneth Tynan famously profiled Brooks in the New Yorker in an essay titled, “The Girl With The Black Helmet”. And in 1982, a collection of her autobiographical writings on film, Lulu In Hollywood, was published. The book was widely reviewed and highly praised.
In later years, Brooks rarely gave interviews, but she did have friendly relationships with a few noted film historians like William Everson, John Kobal, and Kevin Brownlow. In the 1970s, she was interviewed on film for Memories of Berlin: The Twilight of Weimar Culture (1976), as well as the documentary series Hollywood (1980); the latter aired on the BBC and PBS. Richard Leacock’s Lulu in Berlin (1984) includes another rare filmed interview; it was released a year before Brooks’ passing though filmed a decade earlier.
Louise Brooks died of a heart attack on August 8, 1985. She was 78 years old, and had suffered from arthritis and emphysema for some time. Brooks’ death was headline news in Rochester, where she lived for many years. Other newspapers around the United States ran articles about the now iconic actress, with some obituaries even appearing on the front pages of newspapers from around the world.
Though she left her mark on her time and accomplished a great deal, Brooks always thought of herself as a failure. Late in life, in a letter to her brother, she wrote “I have been taking stock of my 50 years since I left Wichita in 1922 at the age of 15 to become a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. How I have existed fills me with horror. For I have failed in everything — spelling, arithmetic, riding, swimming, tennis, golf, dancing, singing, acting, wife, mistress, whore, friend. Even cooking. And I do not excuse myself with the usual escape of ‘not trying.’ I tried with all my heart”.
With her beauty and enigmatic gaze, Brooks has become movie icon. In the years after her death, many cinematic, literary, musical, and artistic tributes have been paid to the actress. And, as the years have passed, her legend has grown. (Read more about the various tributes to Brooks.)
To Learn More
Brooks’ letter to her brother comes from Barry Paris’ outstanding biography of the actress, Louise Brooks. First published by Knopf/Random House in 1989, and in print today through the University of Minnesota Press, Paris’ book is widely considered the finest film star biography ever written. Upon publication, critics called it “superb”, “dazzling” and an “unrivaled portrait” of a life. This biographical sketch, and indeed this website, owe it a great deal. The LBS cannot recommend it highly enough. Also well worth checking out is Brooks’ own book, Lulu in Hollywood. Published by Knopf, it is also in print today through the University of Minnesota Press. An outstanding documentary is the Emmy nominated Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998), which first aired on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and has been released on video and DVD.
— A small collection of newspaper articles from the Kansas Historical Society.
— “Louise Brooks, Proud Star of Silent Screen, Dead at 78“, by Herbert Mitgang, an obituary published in the New York Times on August 10, 1985.
— Brooks is buried in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rochester, New York. Visit the Louise Brooks page on the Find a Grave website.