I recognized Anita Loos's name when I came across this book a few months ago, but until I read it I had no idea how successful and famous she was, as a playwright, screenwriter, and author. She wrote scripts for Douglas Fairbanks and Jean Harlow among others, as well as one of my favorite melodramas, 1939's The Women. These two short books (combined in a Penguin edition) were runaway best-sellers in the 1920s, reprinted again and again, and translated into at least 14 languages. Loos later helped adapt Gentlemen Prefer Blondes into a stage musical that would become a big hit for Carol Channing, which became the basis for the 1953 film starring Marilyn Monroe, that quintessential blonde.
I didn't know any of that when I took the book off the shelf, intrigued by its period cover (which you can see here). But I was completely captivated from the first page:
March 16th: A gentleman friend and I were dining at the Ritz last evening and he said that if I took a pencil and a paper and put down all of my thoughts it would make a book. This almost made me smile as what it would really make would be a whole row of encyclopediacs. I mean I seem to be thinking practically all of the time. I mean it is my favorite recreation and sometimes I sit for hours and do not seem to do anything else but think. So this gentleman said a girl with brains ought to do something else with them besides think. And he said he ought to know brains when he sees them, because he is in the senate and he spends a great deal of time in Washington, d.c., and when he comes into contract with brains he always notices it. So it might have all blown over but this morning he sent me a book. And so when my maid brought it to me, I said to her, "Well, Lulu, here is another book and we have not read half the ones we have got yet." But when I opened it and saw that it was all a blank I remembered what my gentleman acquaintance said, and so then I realized it was a diary. So here I am writing a book instead of reading one.(I didn't immediately catch "encyclopediacs," and "when he comes into contract with brains.")
The author of this diary is Lorelei Lee, a young woman who escaped Little Rock, Arkansas for a brief career in Hollywood before settling in New York. She has a "gentleman friend," Gus Eisman the Button King from Chicago, "who is interested in educating me, so of course he is always coming down to New York to see how my brains have improved since the last time." On these visits, "we always seem to have dinner at the Colony and see a show and go to the Trocadero and then Mr. Eisman shows me to my apartment." But in between Mr. Eisman's visits, Lorelei meets other "gentlemen acquaintances," many of whom also show an interest in educating her, in between shows and dances and shopping - Lorelei's favorite activity, as long as someone else is paying. The attentions of one of these gentlemen make Mr. Eisman so nervous that he sends Lorelei off to Europe, with her friend and kindred spirit Dorothy as a chaperone.
The two rampage through London and Paris before setting off for "the Central of Europe" on the "oriental express." Lorelei doesn't think much of London, where "they make a fuss over a tower that is not as tall as the Hickox building in Little Rock..." But Paris is a different matter. Not only do they have the Eyefull Tower there, which is devine, but buildings with "all of the famous historical names, like Coty and Cartier." All along the way Lorelei and Dorothy find gentlemen (including a veecount) more than happy to take them to lunch, to dinner, for drinks, on sight-seeing tours, and sometimes even shopping. But as Lorelei famously remarks,
So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever.I kept thinking what a very different trip this was than the one Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough wrote about in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay - but then they didn't get to the Central of Europe.
I loved Lorelei's diary, but Dorothy is my favorite character, and not just because she is a brunette. Lorelei is constantly lamenting that Dorothy is not as refined and educated as she is, because she spouts slang and one-line zingers.
So when I got through telling Dorothy what I thought up, Dorothy looked at me and looked at me and she really said she thought my brains were a miracle. I mean she said my brains reminded her of a radio because you listen to it for days and days and you get discouradged and just when you are getting ready to smash it, something comes out that is a masterpiece.I can just hear Jean Harlow's voice whenever Lorelei quotes Dorothy. And in fact the second book, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, is Dorothy's story. Narrated by Lorelei in her own misspelled way, it takes Dorothy from her childhood in a traveling carnival to the heights of the Ziegfield Follies in New York. Though I enjoyed it, I don't think this book has quite the life of the first. Even the misspellings start to seem a bit contrived, and I would much rather have had Dorothy tell her own story.
Still, in the end these are both great fun, and laugh-out-loud funny in spots. As Regina Becerra notes in the introduction, Lorelei and Dorothy are con artists: "they dazzle, they confuse, they indulge the willingness of their audience to suspend disbelief." In her books and in her film scripts, Loos brought a new type of female character to life, a combination of "savvy, skill, and shamelessness", not helpless innocents, but not fallen women or whores either. I'll be looking for Loos's memoirs, Kiss Hollywood Good-by and A Girl Like I.