None of this would have happened if I had not noticed, while lying late in bed on a hot Sunday morning last year in Santa Monica, flipping through the TV guide for the impending week, that the local public-broadcasting channel had decided to show, at 1 pm that very day, a film on which my fantasies had fed ever since I first saw it, a quarter of a century before. Even for Channel 28, it was an eccentric piece of programming.
I got to my set in time to catch the credits. The director: G. W. Pabst, reigning maestro of German cinema in the late 1920s. The script: adapted by Ladislaus Vajda from "Erdgeist" ("Earth Spirit") and "Die Buchse der Pandora" ("Pandora's Box"), two scabrously erotic plays written in the 1890s by Frank Wedekind, of which the second was a revised and expanded version of the first. For his movie, Pabst chose the title of the later work, though the screenplay differed markedly from Wedekind's original text: "Pandora's Box" belongs among the few films that have succeeded in improving on theatrical chefs-d"oeuvre. For his heroine, Lulu, the dominant figure in both plays, Pabst outraged a whole generation of German actresses by choosing a 21-year-old girl from Kansas whom he had never met, who was currently working for Paramount in Hollywood, and who spoke not a word of any language other than English. This was Mary Louise Brooks. She made only 24 films in a movie career that began in 1925 and ended, with enigmatic suddenness, in 1938. Most of them were assembly-line studio products. Two were masterpieces - "Pandora's Box" and its immediate successor, also directed by Pabst, "the Diary of a Lost Girl". Yet around her, with a luxuriance that proliferates every year, a literature has grown up. I append a few excerpts:
An actress who needed no directing, but could move across the screen causing the work of art to be born by her mere presence.
-Lotte H. Eisner, German critic.
An actress of brilliance, a luminescent personality, and a beauty unparalleled in film history.
-Kevin Brownlow, British director and movie historian.
One of the most mysterious and potent figures in the history of the cinema . . . she was one of the first performers to penetrate to the heart of screen acting.
-David Thomson, British critic.
Louise Brooks is the only woman who had the ability to transfigure no matter what film into a masterpiece . . . Louise is the perfect apparition, the dream woman, the being without whom the cinema would be a poor thing. She is much more than a myth, she is a magical presence, a real phantom, the magnetism of the cinema.
-Ado Kyro, French critic.
Those who have seen her can never forget her. She is the modern actress par excellence. . . . As soon as she takes the screen, fiction disappears along with art, and one has the impression of being present at a documentary. The camera seems to have caught her by surprise, without her knowledge. She is the intelligence of the cinematic process. The perfect incarnation of that which is photogenic; she embodies all that the cinema rediscovered in its last years of silence: complete naturalness and complete simplicity. Her art is so pure that it becomes invisible.
-Henri Langlois, Director of the Cinematheque Francaise.
On Channel 28, I stayed with the film to its end, which is also Lulu's. Of the climactic sequence, so decorously understated, Louise Brooks once wrote, "It is Christmas Eve and she is about to receive the gift which has been her dream since childhood. Death by a sexual maniac." When it was over and Jack the Ripper had gone, I switched channels and returned to the real world of game shows and pet-food commercials, relieved to find that the spell she cast was still as powerful as ever.
Most actresses tend to pass moral judgements on the characters they play. Their performances issue tacit commands to the audience: "Love me", "Hate me", "Laugh at me", "Weep with me", and so forth. We get none of this from Brooks, whose presence before the camera merely declares, "Here I am. Make what you will of me." She does not care what we think of her. Indeed, she ignores us. We seem to be spying on unrehearsed reality, glimpsing what the great photographer Henri Cartier Bresson later called "Le moment qui se sauve". In the best of her silent films, Brooks - with no conscious intention of doing so - is reinventing the art of screen acting. I suspect that she was helped rather than hindered by the fact that she never took a formal acting lesson. "When I acted I hadn"t the slightest idea of what I was doing," she said once. "I was simply playing myself, which is the hardest thing in the world to do - if you know that it's hard. I didn't, so it seemed easy. I had nothing to unlearn. When I first worked with Pabst, he was furious, because he approached people intellectually and you couldn"t approach me intellectually, because there was nothing to approach." To watch Brooks is to recall Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell who observes, "Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it, and the bloom is gone."
Rereading the above paragraph, I pause at the sentence "she does not care what we think of her." Query: was it precisely this quality, which contributed so much to her success on the screen, that enabled her, in later years, to throw that success so lightly away?
Early in 1928, after making 12 films for Paramount, she was lent to Fox for a picture that was to change her career - "A Girl in Every Port", written and directed by Howard Hawks, who had made his first film only two years before. It included a scene charged with the subtlest eroticism that convinced Pabst, when the film was shown in Berlin, that he had found the actress he wanted for "Pandora's Box".
After her fling with Fox, Paramount cast its young star (now aged 21) in another downbeat triangle drama, "Beggars of Life", to be directed by another young director, William Wellman. Like Hawks, he was 32 years old. (The cinema is unique among the arts in that there was a time in its history when almost all its practitioners were young. This was that time.) At first, the studio had trouble tracing Brooks's whereabouts. Having just divorced the film director Edward Sutherland after two years, she had fled to Washington with a new lover - George Marshall, a millionaire laundry magnate, who later became the owner of the Redskins football team. When she was found, she promptly returned to the Coast, though her zest for work was somewhat drained by a strong antipathy to one of her co-stars - Richard Arlen - and by overt hostility from Wellman, who regarded her as a dilettante. Despite these malign auguries, "Beggars of Life" turned out to be one of her best films.
During the shooting several dangerous feats were performed for Brooks by a stunt man named Harvey. One night, attracted by his flamboyant courage, she slept with him. After breakfast next day, she strolled out on to the porch of the hotel in the California village where the location sequences were being shot. Harvey was there, accompanied by a group of hoboes in the cast. He rose and gripped her by the arm. "Just a minute, Miss Brooks," he said loudly. "I've got something to ask you. I guess you know my job depends on my health." He then named a Paramount executive whom Brooks had never met, and continued, "Everybody knows you're his girl and he has syphilis, and what I want to know is: do you have syphilis?" After a long and frozen pause, he added, "Another reason I want to know is that my girl is coming up at noon to drive me back to Hollywood." Brooks somehow withdrew to her room without screaming. Events like these may account for the lack of agonised regret with which she prematurely ended her movie career. Several years later, after she had turned down the part that Jean Harlow eventually played in Wellman's "Public Enemy", she ran into the director in a New York bar. "You always hated making pictures, Louise," he said sagely. She did not bother to reply that it was not pictures she hated but Hollywood.
"the Canary Murder Case" was the third, and last, American movie that Brooks made in 1928. By now, her face was beginning to be internationally known, and the rushes of this film indicated that Paramount would soon have a major star on its hands. At the time, the studio was preparing to take the plunge into talkies. As Brooks afterwards wrote, front offices all over Hollywood saw in this radical change "a splendid opportunity . . . for breaking contracts, cutting salaries, and taming the stars". In the autumn of 1928, when her own contract called for a financial raise, B. P. Schulberg, the head of Paramount, summoned her to his office and said that the promised increase could not be granted in the new situation. "the Canary Murder Case" was being shot silent, but who knew whether Brooks could speak? (A fragile argument, since her voice was of bell-like clarity.) He presented her with a straight choice: either to continue at her present figure (750 dollars a week) or to quit when the current picture was finished. To Schulberg's surprise, she chose to quit. Almost as an afterthought, he revealed when she was rising to leave that he had lately received from G. W. Pabst a bombardment of cabled requests for her services in "Pandora's Box", all of which he had turned down.
Then 43 years old, Pabst had shown an extraordinary flair for picking and moulding actresses whose careers were upward bound; Asta Nielsen, Brigitte Helm, and Greta Garbo headed a remarkable list. Unknown to Schulberg, Brooks had already heard about the Pabst offer - and the weekly salary of a thousand dollars that went with it - from her lover, George Marshall, whose source was a gossipy executive at M-G-M. She coolly told Schulberg to inform Pabst that she would soon be available. "At that very hour in Berlin," she wrote later, "Marlene Dietrich was waiting with Pabst in his office." This was two years before "the Blue Angel" made Dietrich a star. What she crucially lacked, Pabst felt, was the innocence he wanted for his Lulu. In his own words, "Dietrich was too old and two obvious - one sexy look and the picture would become a burlesque. But I gave her a deadline. and the contract was about to be signed when Paramount cabled saying I could have Louise Brooks." The day that shooting ended on The Canary Murder Case", Brooks raced out of Hollywood en route for Berlin, there to work for a man who was one of the four or five leading European directors but of whom a few weeks earlier she had never heard.
"Pandora's Box" could easily have emerged as a cautionary tale about a grande cocotte whose reward is the wages of sin. That seems to have been the impression left by "Earth Spirit", the first of Wedekind's two Lulu plays, which was filmed in 1922 with Asta Nielsen in the lead. Summing up her predecessor's performance, Brooks said, 'she played in the eye-rolling style of European silent acting. Lulu the man-eater devoured her sex victims . . . and then dropped dead in an acute attack of indigestion." The character obsessed many artists of the period. In 1928, Alban Berg began work on his 12-tone opera "Lulu", the heart of which - beneath the stark and stylised sound patterns - was blatantly theatrical, throbbing with romantic agony. Where the Pabst-Brooks version differs from the others is in its moral coolness. It assumes neither the existence of sin nor the necessity for retribution. It presents a series of events in which all the participants are seeking happiness, and it suggests that Lulu, whose notion of happiness is momentary fulfilment through sex, is not less admirable than those whose quest is for wealth or social advancement.
In her second collaboration with Pabst, "Diary of a Lost Girl", made in Berlin in 1929, Brooks is less flamboyant but not less haunting than in "Pandora's Box". The traffic in movie actors traditionally moved westwards, from Europe to Hollywood, where their national characteristics were sedulously exploited. Brooks, who was among the few to make the east-bound trip, became in her films with Pabst completely Europeanised. To be more exact: in the context that Pabst prepared for her, Brooks's American brashness took on an awareness of transience and mortality. The theme of "Lost Girl" is the corruption of a minor - not by sexuality but by an authoritarian society that condemns sexuality. (Pabst must surely have read Wilhelm Reich, the Freudian socialist, whose theories about the relationship between sexual and political repression were hotly debated in Berlin at the time.) It is the same society that condemns Lulu. In fact, "the Education of Lulu" would make an apt alternative title for "Lost Girl", whose heroine emerges from her travails ideally equipped for the leading role in "Pandora's Box". Her name is Thymiane Henning, and she is the 16-year-old daughter of a prosperous pharmacist. In the early sequences, Brooks plays her shy and faunlike, peering wide-eyed at a predatory world. She is seduced and impregnated by her father's libidinous young assistant. As soon as her condition is discovered, the double standard swings into action. The assistant retains his job; but, to save the family from dishonour, Thymiane's baby is farmed out to a wet nurse, and she herself is consigned to a home for delinquent girls, run by a bald and ghoulish superintendent and his sadistic wife.
Life in the reformatory is strictly regimented: the inmates exercise to the beat of a drum and eat to the tapping of a metronome. At length, Thymiane escapes from this archetypal hellhole (precursor of many such institutions in subsequent movies; eg, "Madchen in Uniform") and goes to reclaim her baby, only to find that the child has died. Broke and homeless, she meets a street vendor who guides her to an address where food and shelter will be hers for the asking. Predictably, it turns out to be a brothel; far less predictably, even shockingly, Pabst presents it as a place where Thymiane is not degraded but liberated. In the whorehouse, she blossoms, becoming a fille de joie in the literal sense of the phrase. Unlike almost any other actress in a similar situation, Brooks neither resorts to pathos nor suggests that there is anything immoral in the pleasure she derives from her new profession. As in "Pandora", she lives for the moment, with radiant physical abandon. Present love, even for sale, hath present laughter, and what's to come is not only unsure but irrelevant. I agree with a Swiss critic who said of Brooks's performances with Pabst that they celebrated "the victory of innocence and amour fou [love-madness?] over the debilitating wisdom imposed on society by the Church, the Fatherland, and the Family".
Towards the end, unfortunately, the film begins to shed its effrontery and to pay lip service to conventional values. "Pabst seemed to lose interest," Brooks told an interviewer some years afterwards. "He more or less said, "I'm tired of this picture," and he gave it a soft ending." His first, and much tougher, intention had been to demonstrate that humanitarianism alone could never solve society's problems. He wanted Thymiane to show her contempt for her husband's liberal platitudes by setting herself up as the madam of a whorehouse. The German distributors, however, refused to countenance such a radical denouement, and Pabst was forced to capitulate. The result is a flawed masterpiece, with a shining central performance that even the closing, compromised sequences cannot dim. Brooks has written that during the making of the film she spent all her off-duty hours with rich revellers of whom Pabst disapproved. On the last day of shooting, "he decided to let me have it". Her friends, he said, were preventing her from becoming a serious actress, and sooner or later they would discard her like an old toy. "Your life is exactly like Lulu's, and you will end the same way," he warned her. The passage of time convinced her that Pabst had a valid point. "Lulu's story," she told a journalist, "is as near as you'll get to mine."
At this point, when Brooks was at the height of her beauty, her career began a steep and bumpy decline. In 1930, she returned from Europe to Hollywood, on the strength of a promised contract with Columbia. Harry Cohn, the head of the studio, summoned her to his office for a series of meetings, at each of which he appeared naked from the waist up. Always a plain speaker, he left her in no doubt that good parts would come her way if she responded to his advances. She rebuffed them, and the proffered contract was withdrawn. Elsewhere in Hollywood, she managed to get several jobs. But the word was out that Brooks was difficult and uppity, too independent to suit the system. Admitting defeat, she returned to New York in the summer of 1931. Against her will, but under heavy pressure from George Marshall, her lover and would-be Svengali, she played a small part in "Louder Please", a featherweight comedy by Norman Krasna that began its pre-Broadway run in October. After the opening week in Jackson Heights, she was fired by the director, George Abbott. This was her farewell to the theatre: it took place on the eve of her 25 birthday.
For Brooks, as for millions of her compatriots, a long period of unemployment followed. In 1933, determined to break off her increasingly discordant relationship with Marshall, she married Deering Davis, a rich young Chicagoan, but walked out on him after six months of rapidly waning enthusiasm. With a Hungarian partner named Dario Borzani, she spent a year dancing in night clubs, including the Persian Room of the Plaza, but the monotony of cabaret routine dismayed her, and she quit the act in August 1935. That autumn, Pabst suddenly arrived in New York and invited her to play Helen of Troy in a film version of Goethe's "Faust", with Greta Garbo as Gretchen. Her hopes giddily soared, only to be dashed when Garbo opted out and the project fell through. Once again, she revisited Hollywood, where Republic Studios wanted to test her for a role in a musical called "Dancing Feet". She was rejected in favour a blonde who couldn"t dance. "that about did it for me," Brooks wrote later. "From then on it was straight downhill. And no dough to keep the wolves from the door."
After she played an ingenue in a Western for Universal, and a bit part for Paramount, Harry Cohn - in her own words - "gave me a personally conducted tour of hell with no return ticket". Still wounded by her refusal to steep with him in 1930, Cohn promised her a screen test if she would submit to the humiliation of appearing as an extra in a Grace Moore musical entitled "When you're in Love". To his surprise, Brooks accepted the offer - she was too broke to spurn it - and Cohn made sure that the demotion of an erstwhile star was publicised as widely as possible. Grudgingly, he gave her a perfunctory screen test, which he dismissed in two words: "It stunk." In the summer of 1938, Republic hired Brooks to appear with John Wayne (then a minor figure) in "Overland Stage Raiders". After this low-budget oater, she made no more pictures.
In her entire professional career, Brooks had earned, according to her own calculations, exactly $124,600 - $104,500 from films, $10,100 from theatre, and $10,000 from all other sources. Not a gargantuan sum, one would think, spread over 16 years; yet Brooks said to a friend, "I was astonished that it came to so much. But then I never paid any attention to money." In 1940, she left Hollywood for the last time.
After watching "Pandora's Box" on Channel 28 last year, I went in search of Louise Brooks's other movies to the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, the third largest city in New York state. It contains seven Brooks films - a larger number than any other archive can boast - in its library of more than 10,000 movies, housed in the 50 room house built for himself by George Eastman, creator of the Kodak empire.
The Eastman house stands in an affluent residential district of Rochester, on an avenue of comparably stately mansions, with broad, elm-shaded lawns. When my second day of s�ances with Brooks came to an end, I zipped up my notes in a briefcase, thanked the curator and his staff for their help, and departed in a taxi. The driver took me a couple of blocks west, then turned right and stopped outside a yellow brick apartment building, six stories high, where I paid him off. I rode up in the elevator to the third floor and pressed a doorbell a few paces along the corridor. After a long pause, there was a loud snapping of locks. The door slowly opened to reveal a petite woman of fragile build, wearing a woollen bed jacket over a pink nightgown, and holding herself defiantly upright by means of a sturdy metal cane with four rubber-tipped prongs. She had salt-and-pepper hair combed back into a pony tail that hung down well below her shoulders, and she was barefoot. One could imagine this gaunt and elderly child as James Tyrone's wife in "Long Day's Journey into Night"; or, noting the touch of authority and panache in her bearing, as the capricious heroine of Jean Giraudoux's "the Madwoman of Chaillot". I stated my name, adding that I had an appointment. She nodded and beckoned me in. I greeted her with a respectful embrace. This was my first contact with Louise Brooks.
She was 71 years old, and until a few months earlier I had thought she was dead. Four decades had passed since her last picture, and it seemed improbable that she had survived such a long period of retirement. Moreover, I did not then know how young she had been at the time of her flowering. Spurred by the TV screening of "Pandora's Box" in January, 1978, I had made some inquiries, and soon discovered that she was living in Rochester, virtually bedridden with degenerative osteo-arthritis of the hip, and that since 1956 she had written 20 vivid and perceptive articles, mainly for specialist film magazines, on such of her colleagues and contemporaries as Garbo, Dietrich, Keaton, Chaplin, Bogart, Fields, Lillian Gish, ZaSu Pitts, and (naturally) Pabst. Armed with this information; I wrote her a belated fan letter, to which she promptly replied. We then struck up a correspondence, conducted on her side in a bold and expressive prose style, which matched her handwriting. Rapport was cemented by telephone calls, which resulted in my visit to Rochester and the date I was now keeping.
She has not left her apartment since 1960, except for a few trips to the dentist and one to a doctor. (She mistrusts the medical profession, and this consultation, which took place in 1976, was her first in 32 years.) "you're doing a terrible thing to me," she said as she ushered me in. "I've been killing myself off for 20 years, and you're going to bring me back to life." She lives in two rooms - modest, spotless, and austerely furnished. From the larger, I remember Venetian blinds, a green sofa, a TV set, a Formica-topped table, a tiny kitchenette alcove, and flesh-pink walls sparsely hung with paintings redolent of the 1920s. The other room was too small to hold more than a bed (single), a built-in cupboard bursting with press clippings and other souvenirs, a chest of drawers surmounted by a crucifix and a statue of the Virgin, and a stool piled high with books, including works by Proust, Schopenhauer, Ruskin, Ortega y Gasset, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Wilson, and many living authors of serious note. "I'm probably one of the best-read idiots in the world," my hostess said as she haltingly showed me round her domain. Although she eats little - she turns the scale at about 88 pounds - she had prepared for us a perfectly mountainous omelette. Nerves, however, had robbed us of our appetites, and we barely disturbed its mighty silhouette. I produced from my briefcase a bottle of expensive red burgundy, which I had brought as a gift. (Brooks, who used to drink quite heftily, nowadays touches alcohol only on special occasions.) Since she cannot sit upright for long without discomfort, we retired with the wine to her bedroom, where she reclined, sipped, and talked, gesturing fluently, her fingers supple and unclenched. I pulled a chair up to the bedside and listened.
Her voice has the range of a dozen birdcalls, from the cry of a peacock to the fluting of a dove. Her articulation, at whatever speed, is impeccable, and her laughter soars like a kite. I cannot understand why, even if she had not been a beauty, Hollywood failed to realise what a treasure it possessed in the sound of Louise Brooks. Like most people who speak memorably, she is highly responsive to vocal nuances in others. She told Kevin Brownlow, the British film historian, that her favourite actress ("the person I would be if I could be anyone") was Margaret Sullavan mainly because of her voice, which Brooks described as "exquisite and far away, almost like an echo", and, again, as "strange, fey, mysterious - like a voice singing in the snow". My conversations with the Ravishing Hermit of Rochester were spread over several days; for the sake of convenience, I have here compressed them into one session.
She began, at my urging, by skimming through the story of her life since she last faced the Hollywood cameras: "Why did I give up the movies? I could give you 700 reasons, all of them true. After I made that picture with John Wayne in 1938, I stayed out on the Coast for two years, but the only people who wanted to see me were men looking for a lay. Then Walter Wanger warned me that if I hung around any longer I'd become a call girl. So I fled to Wichita, Kansas, where my family had moved in 1919. But that turned out to be another kind of hell. The citizens of Wichita either resented me for having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn't exactly enchanted with them. I opened a dance studio for young people, who loved me, because I dramatised everything so much, but it didn't make any money. In 1943 I drifted back to New York and worked for six months in radio soaps. Then I quit, for another hundred reasons, including Wounded Pride of Former Star. [Peal of laughter; here, as throughout our chat, Brooks betrayed not the slightest trace of self-pity.]
"During 1944 and 1945, I got a couple of jobs in publicity agencies, collecting items for Winchell's column. I was fired from both of them and I had to move from the decent little hotel where I'd been living to a grubby hole on First Avenue at 59th Street. That was when I began to flirt with fancies related to little bottles filled with yellow sleeping pills. However, I changed my mind, and in July, 1946, the proud snooty Louise Brooks started work as a salesgirl at Saks Fifth Avenue. They paid me 30 dollars a week. I had this silly idea of proving myself "an honest woman", but the only effect it had was to disgust all my famous New York friends, who cut me off for ever. From then on, I was regarded as a questionable East Side dame. After two years at Saks, I resigned.
"to earn a little money, I sat down and wrote the usual autobiography. I called it "Naked on My Goat", which is a quote from Goethe's "Faust". In the Walpurgisnacht scene, a young witch is bragging about her looks to an old one. "I sit here naked on my goat," she says, "and show my fine young body." But the old one advises her to wait awhile: "though young and tender now, you'll rot, we know, you'll rot." Then, when I read what I'd written, I threw the whole thing down the incinerator."
Brooks insists that her motive for this act of destruction was pudeur. In 1977, she wrote an article headed "Why I Will Never Write My Memoirs", in which she summed herself up as a prototypical Midwesterner, "born in the Bible Belt of Anglo-Saxon farmers, who prayed in the parlour and practised incest in the barn." Although her sexual education had been conducted by the elite of Paris, London, Berlin, and New York, her pleasure was, she wrote, "restricted by the inbred shackles of sin and guilt". Her conclusion was as follows:
In writing the history of a life I believe absolutely that the reader cannot understand the character and deeds of the subject unless he is given a basic understanding of that person's sexual loves and hates and conflicts. It is the only way the reader can make sense out of innumerable apparently senseless actions. . . . We flatter ourselves when we assume that we have restored the sexual integrity which was expurgated by the Victorians. It is true that many exposes are written to shock, to excite, to make money. But in serious books characters remain as baffling, as unknowable as ever. . . . I too am unwilling to write the sexual truth that would make my life worth reading. 1 cannot unbuckle the Bible Belt.
Accepting a drop more wine, she continued the tale of her wilderness years. "Between 1948 and 1953, I suppose you could call me a kept woman," she said. "three decent rich men looked after me. But then I was always a kept woman. Even when I was making a thousand dollars a week, I would always be paid for by George Marshall or someone like that. But I never had anything to show for it - no cash, no trinkets, nothing. I didn't even like jewellery - can you imagine? Pabst once called me a born whore, but if he was right I was a failure, with no pile of money and no comfortable mansion. I just wasn't equipped to spoil millionaires in a practical, farsighted way. I could live in the present, but otherwise everything has always been a hundred per cent wrong about me. Anyway, the three decent men took care of me. One of them owned a sheet-metal manufacturing company, and the result of that affair is that I am now the owner of the only handmade aluminium wastebasket in the world. He designed it, and it's in the living room, my solitary trophy.
"then a time came, early in 1953. when my three men independently decided that they wanted to marry me. I had to escape, because I wasn't in love with them. As a matter of fact, I've never been in love. And if I had loved a man, could I have been faithful to him? Could he have trusted me beyond a closed door? I doubt it. It was clever of Pabst to know even before he met me that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu."
Brooks hesitated for a moment and then went on in the same tones, lightly self-mocking, "Maybe I should have been a writer's moll, because when we were talking on the phone, a few Sundays ago, some secret compartment inside me burst, and I was suddenly overpowered by the feeling of love - a sensation I'd never experienced with any other man. Are you a variation of Jack the Ripper, who finally brings me love that I'm prevented from accepting - not by the knife but by old age? you're a perfect scoundrel, turning up like this and wrecking my golden years! [I was too stunned to offer any comment on this, but not too stunned to note, with a distinct glow of pride, that Brooks was completely sober.] Anyhow, to get back to my three suitors, I decided that the only way to avoid marriage was to become a Catholic, so that I could tell them that in the eyes of the Church I was still married to Eddie Sutherland. I went to the rectory of St John's, at 55th and First, and everything was fine until my sweet, pure religious instructor fell in love with me. I was the first woman he"d ever known who acted like one and treated him like a man. The other priests were furious. They sent him off to California and replaced him with a stern young missionary. After a while, however, even he began to hint that it would be a good idea if he dropped by my apartment in the evenings to give me special instruction. But I resisted temptation, and in September, 1953, I was baptised a Catholic."
Having paused to light a cigarette, which provoked a mild coughing spasm, Brooks resumed her story. "I almost forgot a strange incident that happened in 1952. Out of the blue, I got a letter from a woman who had been a Cherryvale neighbour of ours. She enclosed some snapshots. One of them showed a nice-looking grey-haired man of about 50 holding the hand of a little girl - me. On the back he"d written, "this is Mr Feathers, an old bachelor who loved kids. He was always taking you to the picture show and buying you toys and candy." I've changed his name, of course, but that picture brought back something I'd blacked out of my mind for - what? - 37 years. When I was nine years old, Mr Feathers molested me sexually. Which forged another link between me and Lulu: when she had her first lover, she was very young, and Schigolch, the man in question, was middle-aged. I've often wandered what effect Mr Feathers had on my life. He must have had a great deal to do with forming my attitude toward sexual pleasure. For me, nice, soft, easy men were never enough - there had to be an element of domination - and I'm sure that's all tied up with Mr Feathers.
"the pleasure of kissing and being kissed comes from somewhere entirely different, psychologically as well as physically. Incidentally, I told my mother about Mr Feathers, and - would you believe it? [Peal of laughter.] She blamed me! She said I must have led him on. It's always the same, isn"t it?" And Brooks ran on in this vein, discussing her sex life openly and jauntily, unbuckling one more notch of the Bible Belt with every sentence she uttered.
The year 1954 was Brooks's nadir. "I was too proud to be a call girl. There was no point in throwing myself into the East River, because I could swim; and I couldn"t afford the alternative, which was sleeping pills." In 1955, just perceptibly, things began to look up, and life became once more a tolerable option. Henri Langlois, the exuberant ruler of the Cin�math�que Fran�aise, organised in Paris a huge exhibition entitled 'sixty Years of Cinema". Dominating the entrance hall of the Mus�e d"Art Moderne were two gigantic blowups, one of the Italian actress Falconetti in Carl Dreyer's 1920 classic, "La Passion de Jeanne d"Arc", and the other of Brooks, in "Pandora's Box". When a critic demanded why he had preferred this nonentity to authentic stars like Garbo and Dietrich, Langlois exploded, "there is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!" In the same year, a group of her friends from the 1920s clubbed together to provide a small annuity that would keep her from outright destitution; and she was visited in her Manhattan retreat by .James Card, then the curator of the International Museum of Photography, in the Eastman house. He had long admired her movies, and he persuaded her to come to Rochester, where so much of her best work was preserved. It was at his suggestion that, in 1956, she settled there.
"Rochester seemed a good a place as any," she told me. "It was cheaper than New York, and I didn't run the risk of meeting people from my past. Up to that time, I had never seen any of my films. And I still haven't - not right through, that is. Jimmy Card screened some of them for me, but that was during my drinking period. I would watch through glazed eyes for about five minutes and sleep through the rest. I haven't even seen "Pandora". I've been present on two occasions when it was being run, but I was drunk both times. By that I mean I was navigating but not seeing." When she watched other people's movies, however, she felt no need for alcoholic sedation. As a working actress, she had never taken films seriously; under Card's tuition, she recognised that the cinema was a valid form of art, and began to develop her own theories about it. In 1956, drawing on her powers of near-total recall, she wrote a study of Pabst for Image, a journal sponsored by the International Museum. This was the first of a sheaf of articles, sharp-eyed and idiosyncratic, that she has contributed over the years to such magazines as Sight & Sound (London), Objectif (Montreal), Film Culture (New York), and Positif (Paris).
The Brooks cult burgeoned in 1957, when Henri Langlois crossed the Atlantic to meet her. A year later, he presented �Hommage � Louise Brooks" - a season of movies that filled the Cin�math�que for almost two months. The star herself flew to Paris, all expenses paid, and was greeted with acclaim at a reception after the Cin�math�que's first showing of "Pandora's Box". (Among those present was Jean-Luc Godard, who paid his own tribute to Brooks in 1962, when he directed "Vivre Sa Vie", the heroine of which - a prostitute - was played by Anna Karina in an exact replica of the Brooks hair-do. Godard described the character as "a young and pretty Parisian shop-girl who gives her body, but retains her soul".) In January, 1960, Brooks went to New York and attend a screening of the Pabst film, "Prix de Beaut�", where she made a hilarious little speech that delighted the packed audience. The next day, she returned to Rochester, from which she has never since emerged.
Interviewers and fans occasionally call on her, but for the most part, as she put it to me, "I have lived in virtual isolation, with an audience consisting of the milkman and a cleaning woman." She continued. "Once a week, I would drink a pint of gin, become what Dickens called "gincoherent", go to sleep, and drowse for four days. That left days to read, write a bit, and see the odd visitor. No priests, by the way - I said goodbye to the Church in 1964. During the 1960s, arthritis started to get a grip, and in 1972 I had to buy a medical cane in order to move around. Then, five years ago, the disease really walloped me. My pioneer blood did not pulse through my veins, rousing me to fight it. I collapsed. I took a terrible fall and nearly smashed my hip. That was the end of the booze or any other kind of escape for me. I knew I was in for a bad time, with nothing to face but the absolute meaninglessness of my life. All I've done since then is try to hold the pieces together. And to keep my little squirrel-cage brain distracted."
As an emblematic figure of the 1920s, epitomising the flappers, jazz babies, and dancing daughters of the boom years, Brooks has few rivals, living or dead. Moreover, she is unique in that her career took her to all the places - New York, London, Hollywood, Paris, and Berlin - where the action was at its height, where experiments in pleasure were conducted with the same zeal, (and often by the same people) as experiments in the arts. From her bedroom cupboard Brooks produced an avalanche of manila envelopes, each bulging with mementoes of her halcyon decade. This solitary auto-didact, her perceptions deepened by years of immersion in books, looked back for my benefit on the green, gregarious girl she once was, and found much to amuse her. For every photograph she supplied a spoken caption. As she reminisced, I often thought of those Max Beerbohm cartoons that depict an artist's Elder Self conversing with his Younger Self.
"Here I am in 1922, when I first hit New York, and the label of "beautiful but dumb" was slapped on me for ever. Most beautiful-but-dumb girls think they are smart, and get away with it, because other people, on the whole, aren't much smarter. You can see modern equivalents of those girls on any TV talk show. But there's also a very small group of beautiful women who know they"re dumb, and this makes them defenceless and vulnerable. They become the Big Joke. I didn't know Marilyn Monroe, but I'm sure that her agonising awareness of her own stupidity was one of the things that killed her. I became the Big Joke, first on Broadway and then in Hollywood.
"Here's Fritzi LaVerne, smothered in osprey feathers. I roomed with her for a while when we were in the Follies together, and she seduced more Follies girls than Ziegfeld and William Randolph Hearst combined. That's how I got the reputation of being a lesbian. I had nothing against it in principle, and for years I thought it was fun to encourage the idea. I used to hold hands with Fritzi in public. She had a little Bulgarian boyfriend who was just our height, and we would get into his suits and "camp" all over New York. Even when I moved out to Yahos City, California, I could never stop by a lesbian household without being asked to strip and join the happy group baring their operation scars in the sun. But although I went through a couple of mild sexual auditions with women, I very soon found that I only loved men's bodies. What maddens me is that because of the lesbian scenes with Alice Roberts in "Pandora" I shall probably go down in film history as one of the gloomy dikes. A friend of mine once said to me, "Louise Brooks, you're not a lesbian, you're a pansy." Would you care to decipher that? By the way, are you getting tired of hearing my name? I'm thinking of changing it. I noticed that there were five people called Brooks in last week's Variety. How about June Caprice? Or Louise Lovely?"
I shook my head.
Brooks continued rifling through her collection. "this, of course, is Martha Graham, whose genius I absorbed to the bone during the years we danced together on tour. She had rages, you know, that struck like lightning out of nowhere. One evening when we were waiting to go on stage - I was 16 - she grabbed me, shook me ferociously, and shouted, "Why do you ruin your feet by wearing those tight shoes?" Another time, she was sitting sweetly at the make-up shelf pinning flowers in her hair when she suddenly seized a bottle of body make-up and exploded it against the mirror. She looked at the shattered remains for a spell, then moved her make-up along to an unbroken mirror and went on quietly pinning flowers in her hair. Reminds me of the night when Buster Keaton drove me in his roadster out to Culver City, where he had a bungalow on the back lot of M-G-M. The walls of the living room were covered with great glass bookcases. Buster, who wasn't drunk, opened the door, turned on the lights, and picked up a baseball bat. Then, walking calmly round the room, he smashed every pane of glass in every bookcase. Such frustration in that little body! . . .
"Here, inevitably, are Scott and Zelda. I met them in January, 1927, at the Ambassador Hotel in LA. They were sitting close together on a sofa, like a comedy team, and the first thing that struck me was how small they were. I had come to see the genius writer, but what dominated the room was the blazing intelligence of Zelda's profile. It shocked me. It was the profile of a witch. Incidentally, I've been reading Scott's letters, and I've spotted a curious thing about them. In the early days, before Hemingway was famous, Scott always spelled his name wrong, with two "mm's. And when did he start to spell it right? At the precise moment when Hemingway became a bigger star than he was. .
"this is a pool party at somebody's house in Malibu. I know I knock the studio system, but if you were to ask me what it was like to live in Hollywood in the 1920s I'd have to say that we were all - oh! - marvellously degenerate and happy. We were a world of our own, and outsiders didn't intrude. People tell you that the reason a lot of actors left Hollywood when sound came in was that their voices were wrong for talkies. That's the official story. The truth is that the coming of sound meant the end of the all-night parties. With talkies, you couldn"t stay out till sunrise any more. You had to rush back from the studios and start learning your lines, ready for the next day's shooting at 8 am. That was when the studio machine really took over. It controlled you, mind and body, from the moment you were yanked out of bed at dawn until the publicity department put you back to bed at night."
Of all the names that spilled out of Brooks's memories of America in the 1920s, there was one for which she reserved a special veneration: that of Chaplin. In a magazine article, she had described his performances at private parties:
He recalled his youth with comic pantomimes. He acted out countless scenes for countless films. And he did imitations of everybody. Isadora Duncan danced in a storm of toilet paper. John Barrymore picked his nose and brooded over Hamlet's soliloquy. A Follies girl swished across the room: and I began to cry while Charlie denied absolutely that he was imitating me. Nevertheless . . . I determined to abandon that silly walk forthwith.
For me, she filled out the picture. "I was 18 in 1925, when Chaplin came to New York for the opening of "the Gold Rush". He was just twice my age, and I had an affair with him for two happy summer months. Ever since he died, my mind has gone back 50 years, trying to define that lovely being from another world. He was not only the creator of the Little Fellow, though that was miracle enough. He was a self-made aristocrat. He taught himself to speak cultivated English, and he kept a dictionary in the bathroom at his hotel so that he could learn a new word every morning. While he dressed, he prepared his script for the day, which was intended to adorn his private portrait of himself as a perfect English gentleman. He was also a sophisticated lover, who had affairs with Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Marion Davies and Pola Negri, and a brilliant businessman, who owned his films and got 50 per cent of the gross - which drove Nick Schenck wild, along with all the other people who were plotting to rob him.
"Do you know, I can't once remember him still? He was always standing up as he sat down, and going out as he came in. Except when he turned off the lights and went to sleep, without liquor or pills, like a child. Meaning to be bitchy, Herman Mankiewicz said, "People never sat at his feet. He went to where people were sitting and stood in front of them." But how we paid attention! We were hypnotised by the beauty and inexhaustible originality of this glistening creature. He's the only genius I ever knew who spread himself equally over his art and his life. He loved showing off in fine clothes and elegant phrases - even in the witness box.
"Nineteen-twenty-five was the year when Lita Grey was divorcing him and putting about vile rumours that he had a depraved passion for little girls. He didn't give a damn, even though people said his career would be wrecked. It still infuriates me that he never defended himself against any of those ugly lies, but the truth is that he existed on a plane above pride, jealousy, or hate. I never heard him say a snide thing about anyone. He lived totally with out fear. He knew that Lita Grey's family were living in his house in Beverley Hills, planning to ruin him, yet he was radiantly carefree - happy with the success of "the Gold Rush" and with the admirers who swarmed around him. Not that he exacted adoration. Even during our affair, he knew that I didn't adore him in the romantic sense, and he didn't mind at all. Which brings me to one of the dirtiest lies he allowed to be told about him - that he was mean with money. People forget that Chaplin was the only star ever to keep his ex-leading lady [Edna Purviance] on his payroll for life, and the only producer to pay his employees their full salaries even when he wasn't in production. When our joyful summer ended, he didn't give me a fur from Jackel or a bangle from Cartier, so that I could flash them around, saying, "Look, what I got from Chaplin." The day after he left town, I had a cheque in the mail. Five hundred dollars, signed Charlie. That was a lot of money then, and I didn't even write him a thank-you note. Damn me."
Brooks's souvenirs of Europe, later in the 1920s, began with pictures of a burly, handsome, dark-haired man, usually alighting from a train: George Preston Marshall, the millionaire who was her frequent bedfellow and constant adviser between 1927 and 1933. "If you care about "Pandora's Box", you should be grateful to George Marshall," she told me. "I'd never heard of Mr Pabst when he offered me the part. It was George who insisted that I should accept it. He was passionately fond of the theatre and films, and he slept with every pretty showbusiness girl he could find, including all my best friends. George took me to Berlin with his English valet, who stepped off the train blind drunk and felt flat on his face at Mr Pabst's feet."
The Brooks collection contains no keepsakes of the actress whom she pipped at the post in the race to play Lulu, and of whom, when I raised the subject, she spoke less than charitably. "Dietrich? That contraption! She was one of the beautiful-but-dumb girls, like me, but she belonged to the category of those who thought they were smart and fooled other people into believing it. But I guess I'm just being insanely jealous, because I know she's a friend of yours - isn"t she?" By way of making amends, she praised Dietrich's performance as Lola in `The Blue Angel", and then, struck by a sudden thought, interrupted herself: "Hey! Why don't I ask Marlene to come over from Paris? We could work on our memoirs together. Better still, she could write mine, and I hers - "Lulu" by Lola, and "Lola" by Lulu." To put it politely, however, Dietrich does not correspond to Brooks's ideal image of a movie goddess. But who does -apart from Margaret Sullavan, whose voice, as we know, she reveres? A few months after our Rochester encounter, she sent me a letter that disclosed another, unexpected object of her admiration. It said:
I've just been listening to Toronto radio. There was a press conference with Ava Gardner. who is making a movie in Montreal. Her beauty has never excited me, and I have seen only one of her films, "the Night of the Iguana", in which she played a passive role that revealed her power of stillness but little else. On radio, sitting in a hotel room, triggered by all the old stock questions, she said nothing new or stirring - just 'sinatra could be very nice or very rotten - get me another drink. baby - I made 54 pictures and the only part I understood was in "the Snows of Kilimanjaro" . . ."In her conversation. there was nothing about great acting or beauty or sex, and no trace of philosophical or intellectual concern. Yet for the first time in my life I was proud of being a movie actress, unmixed with theatre art. Ava is in essence what I think a movie star should be - a beautiful person with a unique, mysterious personality unpolluted by Hollywood. And she is so strong. She did not have to run away (like Garbo) to keep from being turned into a product of the machine. . . . What I should like to know is whether, as I sometimes fancy, I ever had a glimmer of that quality of integrity which makes Ava shine with her own light.
Despite the numerous men who have crossed the trajectory of her life, Brooks has pursued her own course. She has flown solo. The price to be paid for such individual autonomy is, inevitably, loneliness, and her loneliness is prefigured in one of the most penetrating comments she had ever committed to print: "the great art of films does not consist of descriptive movement of face and body but in the movements of thought and soul, transmitted in a kind of intense isolation."
* * *
As I rose to leave her apartment, she gave me a present: a large and handsome volume entitled "Louise Brooks - Portrait d"une Anti-Star". Published in Paris in 1977, it contained a full pictorial survey of her career, together with essays, critiques, and poems devoted to her beauty and talent. She inscribed it to me, and copied out, beneath her signature, the epitaph she has composed for herself: "I never gave away anything without wishing I had kept it; nor kept anything without wishing I had given it away." The book included an account by Brooks of her family background, which I paused to read. It ended with this paragraph, here reproduced from her original English text:
"Over the years I suffered poverty and rejection and came to believe that my mother had formed me for a freedom that was unattainable, a delusion. Then . . . I was confined to this small apartment in this alien city of Rochester. . . . Looking about, I saw millions of old people in my situation, wailing like lost puppies because they were alone and had no one to talk to. But they had become enslaved by habits which bound their lives to warm bodies that talked. I was free! Although my mother had ceased to be a warm body in 1944, she had not forsaken me. She comforts me with every book I read. Once again I am five, leaning on her shoulder, learning the words as she reads aloud "Alice in Wonderland".
She insisted on getting out of bed to escort me to the door. We had been talking earlier of Proust, and she had mentioned his maxim that the future could never be predicted from the past. Out of her past, I thought, in all its bizarre variety, who knows what future she may invent? "Another thing about Proust," she said, resting on her cane in the doorway. "No matter how he dresses his characters up in their social disguises, we always know how they look naked." As we know it (I reflected) in Brooks's performances.
I kissed her goodbye, buttoned up my social disguise - for it was a chilly evening - and joined the other dressed-up people on the streets of Rochester.