This week is the 107th birthday of the original “It Girl” Louise Brooks. Her style is often copied or emulated or desired, but never improved. She was an original then and an original now. Louise Brooks changed the world without saying a word.
BEST KNOWN FOR: Louise Brooks was a silent-film actress known for bringing a sense of corrupt sensuality to her roles.
Mary Louise Brooks (November 14, 1906 – August 8, 1985), generally known by her stage name Louise Brooks, was an American dancer, model, showgirl and silent film actress, noted for popularizing the bobbed haircut. Brooks is best known for her three feature roles including two G. W. Pabst films: in Pandora’s Box (1929), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), and Prix de Beauté (Miss Europe) (1930). She starred in 17 silent films and, late in life, authored a memoir, Lulu in Hollywood.
French film historians rediscovered her films in the early 1950s, proclaiming her as an actress who surpassed even Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo as a film icon (Henri Langlois: “There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks!”), much to her amusement. It would lead to the still ongoing Louise Brooks film revivals, and rehabilitated her reputation in her home country. James Card, the film curator for the George Eastman House, discovered Louise living as a recluse in New York City about this time, and persuaded her to move to Rochester, New York to be near the George Eastman House film collection. With his help, she became a noted film writer in her own right. A collection of her witty and cogent writings, Lulu in Hollywood, was published in 1982. She was profiled by the film writer Kenneth Tynan in his essay, “The Girl With The Black Helmet”, the title of which was an allusion to her fabulous bob, worn since childhood, a hairstyle claimed as one of the ten most influential in history by beauty magazines the world over.
“I found that the only well-paying career open to me, as an unsuccessful actress of thirty-six, was that of a call girl…and (I) began to flirt with the fancies related to little bottles filled with yellow sleeping pills.”
Brooks had also been a heavy drinker since age 14, but she remained relatively sober to begin writing about film, which became her second career. During this period she began her first major writing project, an autobiographical novel called Naked on My Goat, a title taken from Goethe’s Faust. After working on the novel for a number of years, she destroyed the manuscript by throwing it into an incinerator.
In an interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, Liza Minnelli related her preparation for portraying Sally Bowles in the film Cabaret: “I went to my father, and asked him, what can you tell me about thirties glamor? Should I be emulating Marlene Dietrich or something? And he said no, I should study everything I can about Louise Brooks.”
In 1991 the British new wave group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark released a single named “Pandora’s Box” as a tribute to Brooks. The video for the single used extensive footage of Brooks from the movie and included a text intro which explained who Brooks was. And, for the 1988 Siouxsie and The Banshees album (Peepshow) and tour, singer Siouxsie Sioux sported a hairdo and costumes in Brooks’s style.
An exhibit titled “Louise Brooks and the ‘New Woman’ in Weimar Cinema” ran at the International Center of Photography in New York City in 2007, focusing on Brooks’ iconic screen persona and celebrating the hundredth anniversary of her birth.
On August 8, 1985, Brooks was found dead of a heart attack after suffering from arthritis and emphysema for many years. She was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rochester, New York.