Louise Brooks’ artistry (her acting, her dancing, her 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, plenty of talent, and smarts — and could have achieved so much more… but because of a knack for self-defeating behavior, she would end up snatching obscurity from lasting fame. Brooks was something of a lost soul. She once said, “Somehow I have avoided being found”.
Known for her bobbed hair (a style she wore much of her life), this small town girl from Kansas became a Denishawn dancer, Zeigfeld showgirl, silent film actress, and later, an acclaimed author and even 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, Brooks came to meet some of the most famous people of the Jazz Age — among them members of the Algonquin Roundtable (while she was living at the Algonquin Hotel), Hollywood icon Rudolph Valentino (she attended his funeral), and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (after being invited to Hearst Castle by friend Marion Davies). Brooks also met the explorer Richard Byrd and the singer & actor Paul Robeson, and, she was photographed by Edward Steichen. In Berlin, she was acquainted with future Nazi filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl (whom she disliked), and played Lulu, an iconic character in one of the greatest silent films ever made. The surrealist artist Man Ray was an admirer.
As an actress, Brooks worked with film legends W.C. Fields, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, Michael Curtiz, and John Wayne. And while still young — then just 32 years old, she gave it all up and turned her back on Hollywood. Once the toast of two continents, Brooks went 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, with whom she was also acquainted, 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 the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist John Updike and the Pulitzer Prizing film critic Roger Ebert, consider her the finest writer to have come out of Hollywood. Her bestselling book of autobiographical essays, Lulu in Hollywood, was widely praised. It stands as her testament.
As the years have passed, her legend has grown. This section of the website sketches the story of the life and times of Louise Brooks.
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 with a busy 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 the arts. Her upbringing, as well as her father’s large library, had a profound influence on Brooks’ lifelong love of reading. In fact, 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 a life beyond Kansas.
Louise also loved the movies, which were then called “flickers”. She and her brother went to the local movie theater to watch westerns, serials and melodramas starring the likes of cowboy actor Tom Mix, vamp Theda Bara, and serial star Pearl White — famous for the Perils of Pauline. Young 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 about 9 years old, a neighbor known as “Mr. Flowers” sexually abused her. The assault left its indelible 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 the larger Independence, Kansas. With her bobbed-hair, captivating looks, and a personality that turned heads, boys began to focus their eyes on Louise. In 1920, the Brooks family moved again, this time to nearby Wichita, Kansas, a larger and more metropolitan town. There, her father expanded his law practice and pursued his ambition of becoming a United States District Judge. Meanwhile, 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. By the age of 10, she had become in her own words what “amounted to a professional dancer,” appearing before community groups, men’s and women’s clubs, local fairs, and at various social gatherings in neighboring counties — sometimes as far away as Missouri. By age 11, she was dancing in public on a regular basis, performing at recitals and in programs held in meeting halls and at the local opera house.
Brooks also studied dance with the best 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, backstage, she met its principals. 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, which is the basis for the 2018 film from PBS Masterpiece.] The teen-aged Brooks performed with Denishawn for two seasons, traveling with the company by train and car and dancing in cities and small towns across the United States. Among their hundreds of stops were auditoriums and concert halls in Atlanta, Buffalo, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, as well as the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, Lyric Theatre in Baltimore, Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and Orchestra Hall in Detroit. There was a long stand at the Apollo Theatre in Atlantic City, and repeat performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Boston Opera House, and National Theater in Washington D.C. Again and again, the company received rave reviews wherever they performed, be it the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin or Town Hall in New York City. Denishawn was also applauded in Canada, where they danced at venues in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and elsewhere.
Though just a teen, Brooks performed alongside such future dance greats as Martha Graham and Charles Weideman, as well as Denishawn founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. It must have been a heady time for someone so young. Brooks’ name would sometimes appeared in newspaper reviews, and on one occasion, the company took in a performance by the great Isadora Duncan. During her second year with Denishawn, Brooks advanced in the company to a featured role in a piece opposite Shawn. She was maturing as a dancer, learning and growing…. 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, one of the most renowned artists of her time, dismissed the 17-year old Brooks, telling her in front of the other Denishawn dancers that Brooks 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 bitter, and lasting impression. Years later, when she was drafting an autobiographical novel, Brooks gave the book’s final chapter the title, “The Silver Salver”.
Thanks to new friend Barbara Bennett (sister of Constance and Joan Bennett), Brooks found work as a Broadway chorus girl in the George White’s Scandals, followed by an appearance as a featured dancer in the 1925 edition of the famous Ziegfeld Follies, which then included both Will Rogers and W.C. Fields. Between gigs with the Scandals and Follies, Brooks traveled to England, where she found work at the city’s famed Café de Paris and became the first person to dance the Charleston in London. (Read more about Brooks’ time as a dancer and showgirl.)
Around this time, the up-and-coming dancer was involved in a minor scandal over the publication of a series of risque images taken of Brooks. (Posing for magazine photographers was something Brooks and many other showgirls did in order to earn extra money.) The nature of the images, which by today’s standards are rather tame, as well as the publicity generated by a threatened lawsuit over their continued publication, made news around the country. It was also around this time that Brooks was noticed by famed movie star Charlie Chaplin, who was then in New York City for the premiere of his new film, The Gold Rush. The two enjoyed an affair that lasted the summer.
Everything, it seemed, was happening at once for the young Louise Brooks. As a result of her celebrity, this much talked-about showgirl came to the attention of producer Walter Wanger, who signed the 18 year old to a five-year contract with Paramount, then and now a leading film studio.
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 — a span of thirteen years, three of which she was absent from the screen. She starred in only three films, the three she made in Europe. Today, her popularity rests on her iconic look — while her cinematic renown comes largely from her role as Lulu in the once derided, now acclaimed German silent, Pandora’s Box.
Brooks made her screen debut in 1925, playing a moll (the girlfriend of a gangster) in an uncredited role in The Street of Forgotten Men. She was soon elevated to playing the first or second female lead in a string of light dramas and comedies including It’s the Old Army Game (1926), and The Show-Off (1926). Generally speaking, Brooks received good reviews while holding her own alongside such major stars as Adolphe Menjou, W. C. Fields, Evelyn Brent and Wallace Beery.
Brooks was considered the flapper-type, and her roles in other films like Just Another Blonde (1926), Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em (1926), and Rolled Stockings (1927) played up that part of her image. Starting in 1927, however, Brooks was cast in more dramatic roles including The City Gone Wild, a now lost early gangster film directed by James Cruze. The two films Brooks made in 1928 are the Howard Hawks-directed A Girl in Every Port and the William Wellman-directed Beggars of Life. Each are widely considered her most significant American movies. In 1929, Brooks played the title role in The Canary Murder Case, a murder mystery starring William Powell as detective Philo Vance.
Today, Brooks is best known for the three films she made in Europe, Pandora’s Box (1929), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), and Prix de Beauté (1930). The first two are considered masterpieces of the silent era. 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 significant French film.
Upon her return to Hollywood, Brooks’ career went into decline. Considered 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, one of the leading directors of the 1930s. Brooks is impossible to spot in When You’re in Love, a musical starring Grace Moore and Cary Grant. Her last screen credit was Overland Stage Raiders, a B-Western starring John Wayne. (Read more about Brooks’ 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 finally 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, with her film career in ruins, Brooks declared bankruptcy. She fell back on her first love, dancing, in order to earn a living. In 1933, Brooks married Chicago playboy Deering Davis, with whom she formed a dance team; however, she abruptly left him after only five months. Brooks wouldn’t be tied-down — and, she was also a sexually liberated woman. Throughout her lifetime, her liaisons with fellow actors and actresses (including possibly Greta Garbo) were 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 both the local papers and national trade publications like Variety. Later, Brooks opened a dance studio, first in Los Angeles with a partner, and then after leaving Hollywood, on her own in Wichita. In the early 1940s, she authored a self-published booklet, The Fundamentals of Good Ballroom Dancing.
With Hollywood behind her and her fame fading, Brooks returned home. “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, after a couple of years, Brooks relocated to New York City — the place where she had experienced her greatest success, both professionally and personally. 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.
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.” The Brooks revival began.
Around this time, James Card, curator of film at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York learned that the former film star was living as a recluse in New York City; after an exchange of letters, 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. Once derided as a brainy showgirl, Brooks emerged late in life as an articulate and acerbic writer. Over the next two decades, Brooks’ essays and articles appeared 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.
Brooks rarely gave interviews, but she did have friendly relationships with a few noted film historians like Lotte Eisner, 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 for Kevin Brownlow’s acclaimed documentary series Hollywood (1980); the latter aired on the BBC and PBS, and helped create new interest in the silent era’s surviving personalities, including Brooks. Richard Leacock’s Lulu in Berlin (1984) includes another rare filmed interview; it was released just 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 had lived for many years. Other newspapers around the United States ran articles about the now iconic actress, whlle some obituaries appeared 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 enigmatic beauty and equally enigmatic gaze, Brooks became a cultural icon. Some have described her as a cult figure. In the years after her death, many cinematic, literary, musical, and artistic tributes have been paid to the actress. There are poems, songs, novels, operas and plays devoted to Louise Brooks. 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 biography ever written. Upon publication, critics called it “superb”, “dazzling” and an “unrivaled portrait” of a life. It’s greatness as a book comes from its unrivaled empathy with its subject. 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 highly praised book, Lulu in Hollywood. Published by Knopf, it is also in print today through the University of Minnesota Press. The one outstanding documentary about the actress is the Emmy nominated Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998), which first aired on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and has been released over the years on video and DVD.
— For a bit more background on Brooks’ life growing-up, check-out these Wikipedia entries on the Kansas towns the future actress grew-up in: Cherryvale, Kansas, Independence, Kansas and Wichita, Kansas.
— A small collection of newspaper articles about Brooks can be found on the website of the Kansas Historical Society. Check it out.
— LBS exclusive: this website has created an extensive day-by-day chronology of Brooks’ life. Though an on-going work in progress, it already contains more than 1000 entries.
— Read “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 Find a Grave website for images and additional information.