Anita Loos: Big Dames Come in Small Packages

Anita Loos, 1928

In my personal pantheon of dames, Anita Loos pretty much sits at the head of the table.  (Albeit on a phone book or two — the woman was, like, 4’11”.)  Anita was a player in the early days of movies, a “manless Eden” before Hollywood became a chauvinist boy’s club, when women were pervasive in all aspects of movie-making: directing, editing, producing and designing.  Loos was a writer, turning out scenarios, screenplays, intertitles, and magazine articles — one series becoming the cultural Juggernaut, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  She worked on some scripts after the silent era, most notably Jean Harlow’s Red-Headed Woman (she had to take over for F. Scott Fitzgerald) and the 1939 classic, and one of my all-time faves, The Women.  (Sadly, the censorship board took out 80(!) of her lines.)  Anita Loos may not have loomed large in literature, or real life, but the “soubrette of satire” is a dame Hall of Fame-er to me as a chic, talented woman who knew how to tell a story, knew the ropes, knew her onions, and knew practically everyone.

My autographed and inscribed first edition copy of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. I TOLD you I had a major girl crush.

Anita Loos lived in a time when wit and wisdom were not prized in women.  In fact, they were often obstacles, and she famously wrote about men’s attraction for their polar opposites in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  But Anita took matters into her own very small hands.  She became a success in a patriarchy that wanted to pat her on the head and send her on her way.  She made her way her way with talent, tenacity and…pick some other t-word yourself.  Anita outfoxed all the wolves she encountered, and played their game without succumbing to their rules.  Once, pretending to be vexed with “women’s libbers” she said, “They keep getting up on soapboxes and proclaiming that women are brighter than men.  That’s true, but it should be kept very quiet or it ruins the whole racket.”  Not even 5 feet tall, the woman wormed her way into literary, cinema and Broadway success and rubbed elbows with a lot of the bigwigs, wags and wisecrackers of the twentieth century.  How?  Well as her best-known heroine Lorelei Lee would say, “A girl with brains ought to do something with them besides think.”

Born in the 19th century, as a teen Anita became besotted with the antecedent to what would arguably become the 20th century’s most powerful medium.  She loved the nickelodeon*, and when silent movies came on the scene she decided she could do a much better job at writing scenarios she routinely saw at her local theater.  Never one to let facts spoil a good story, the San Diego native said she sent her first script to D.W. Griffith, arguably the most famous and successful silent film director, when she was a young teen.  (She occasionally even claimed to be 12 when she sent the script.)  She may have been forced to use that fib since her birthdate often floated to after 1900; still, she was only 24 in 1912 when she had the moxie send a story to the great man, a bold move that led to one of Mary Pickford’s best shorts, The New York Hat.  (It also features Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish.  Not bad for a first script.)

My Christmas card from Anita and her companion/maid, Gladys.

D.W. Griffith paid Loos $25 for the story, and asked for more.  He used some, but claimed a lot of them weren’t usable for silent movies: “The laughs were all in the lines; there was no way to get them on to the screen.”  Still, Anita Loos became the first female staff scriptwriter in Hollywood when D.W. put her on the payroll at Triangle Film Corporation.  (Her first screen credit was for an adaptation of Macbeth in which her billing came right after Shakespeare’s.)  From 1912 to 1915, Anita wrote 105 scripts, all but four of which were produced, writing over 200 scenarios before having  set foot on a film set.  Anita had a gift for pith and wit, “conveying narrative and character information in the fewest words possible.”  Leaning into her strengths, she got a significant gig writing the intertitles (the parts in silent movies you read) for post-Birth of a Nation 1916 epic Intolerance.  Griffith was impressed enough with Anita to let her handle the text pulling together stories including modern-day gangsters, the fall of Babylon and the Bible.  D.W. appreciated Loos’s way with a one-liner and in an interview in Photoplay magazine pronounced her “The most brilliant woman in the world”, describing her terse verse by saying, “The most important service that Anita Loos has so far rendered the screen is the elevation of the sub-caption, first to sanity then to dignity and brilliance combined.”

It should be noted that while Anita was an extraordinary woman, like so many of us, she became attached to a man who ended up cheating on her, taking most of her money and most of the credit for the work the “duo” worked on.  Her husband, John Emerson, was a philandering dimwit whom Anita supported financially for most of his life.  The couple <wink wink> wrote lots of successful screenplays and two books: 1920’s How to Write Photoplays, and then Breaking Into the Movies in 1921.  It’s doubtful Emerson had anything to do with any of these projects save for cashing the checks they brought in.  It was said that “Emerson was one of those guys that lived by the sweat of his frau.”  Luckily, Loos was among the first to join Ruth Hale‘s Lucy Stone League, an organization that fought for women to preserve their maiden names after marriage, so Loos was Loos lifelong.  Eventually she broke free when the two were divorced personally and professionally in the late 30s.  Emerson was committed to a sanitarium where Loos continued his upkeep.  “Sometimes I get enquiries (sic) concerning my marriage to a man who treated me with complete lack of consideration, tried to take credit for my work and appropriated all my earnings”, Loos wrote in one of her memoirs, Cast of Thousands.  “The main reason is that my husband liberated me; granted me full freedom to choose my own companions.”  (BTW, Loos’s first marriage was to a Frank Pallma, Jr, who was so dull that after six months Anita sent him out for hair pins, and quickly packed her bags and left toute de suite.)

One of my memoirs is autographed by Anita AND Helen Hayes!

As I mentioned earlier, my heroine didn’t just write witty title cards for silent movies.  She wrote for talkies — in fact, in 1932 she was offered a weekly salary of $1,000 to write or juice up screenplays for Irving Thalberg at M-G-M.  (To put that in perspective, in today’s money that’s the equivalent of about a kajillion dollars a week.)  Producer Samuel Marx put it this way: “She was a very valuable asset for M-G-M, because the studio had so many femmes fatales – Garbo, Crawford, Shearer, and Harlow – that we were always on the lookout for ‘shady lady’ stories.  But they were problematic because of the censorship code.  Anita, however, could be counted on to supply the delicate double entendre, the telling innuendo.  Whenever we had a Jean Harlow picture on the agenda, we always thought of Anita first.”

When Loos wasn’t writing for magazines like Vanity Fair, or composing witty title cards for Douglas Fairbanks or banter for Harlow, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, Anita hung out with other smart alecks, like members of the Algonquin Roundtable and attendees at director George Cukor’s Sunday brunches, the closest Hollywood had to a literary salon.  Anita loved fashion and friends, and being at the center of things allowed her to write books later in life to describe her relationships with remarkable people like Wilson Mizner (her lifelong crush), Paulette Goddard, Harlow, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Gertrude Stein, Elsie de Wolfe, Tallulah Bankhead, Sherwood Anderson — <take a breath> — Cecil Beaton, Marilyn Miller, Sibyl Colefax, John Gielgud, Adele Astaire, Noel Coward, George Bernard Shaw, BFF Helen Hayes, and silent stars including Marion Davies, Norma and Constance Talmadge.  (She wrote a loving biography of the sisters; I have a signed copy!)

Anita was a good friend of, and had the hots for, H.L. Mencken, but was disappointed to discover that, “High-IQ gentlemen didn’t fall for women with brains, but those with more downstairs”.  On a cross-country train ride with Mencken in 1925 Loos saw H.L.’s pitiful penchant up-close and began writing sketches that would later become Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  (H.L. Mencken told Loos he couldn’t print it in his magazine for fear of offending the readers, saying “Do you realize, young woman, that you’re the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex?”  Loos wasn’t poking fun at sex, she was poking fun at men — and specifically H. L. Mencken!)  According to Wikipedia, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, began as a series of short sketches published in Harper’s Bazaar, and the magazine’s circulation quadrupled overnight.  Published as a book in November 1925, the first printing sold out overnight.  Fans included William Faulkner, James Joyce and Aldous Huxley.  Edith Wharton called it the “great American novel.”

Smart men may be dumb in this arena, but Loos’s satire ended up being smart and lucrative.  In 1949, she successfully adapted Gentlemen Prefer Blondes into a Broadway musical production starring Carol Channing, and Marilyn Monroe made a perfect Lorelei Lee in the movie version also starring  Jane Russell as Dorothy.  Look, it’s here I need to confess I’m completely uninterested in Lorelei Lee and Marilyn Monroe, neither of whom I consider dames.  But I’ve always loved the character of Lorelei’s non-gold-digging pal, Dorothy Shaw.  A forthright, world-wise, often snarky gal who loves men the way Lorelei loves diamonds, Dorothy is a quintessential dame.  I’d also like to add that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the book is a laugh-out-loud classic.  It’s right up there with P.G. Wodehouse and it’s a brilliant satire that sums up the age with a unique voice that makes it much more enjoyable than wading through The Sun Also Rises or The Great Gatsby (which I don’t find all that great, to be honest.)  I feel certain that if the book had been penned by a man it would make all the high school and college reading lists that inevitably feature those other works.  I wholly echo James Joyce’s opinion that it’s one of the great American novels and that Dorothy is one of literature’s most loveable characters.  (Supposedly Shaw was modeled after Loos herself and her pal Constance Talmadge.  Anita loved Constance, especially her “humor and her irresponsible way of life”.)

After the Broadway success of Gentlemen Prefer B’s, in 1951 Anita had another Great White Way sensation when she adapted Colette‘s novella Gigi for the stage.  (The eponymous role is responsible for bringing a very young Audrey Hepburn** to the public’s attention.)

Anita Loos continued writing for magazines (The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, etc.) and her stock in trade was turning her IRL memories into stories, and probably most of them really happened.  (After all, she was definitely there.)  I have her GPB-like novel A Mouse is Born and a GPB follow-up called Fate Keeps on Happening. I have all of her memoirs, including 1966’s A Girl Like I and 1972’s, Twice Over Lightly: New York Then and Now, co-written with her bud Helen Hayes.  (I have a copy signed by both of them!) Only two years later comes Kiss Hollywood Good-by which has great stories from her M-G-M days (though I really prefer ‘good-bye’ to have an ‘e’ at the end).  I actually remember the day in 1976 when I bought the outsized Cast of Thousands and pubescent-me gobbled up her last entertaining and fairly reliable memoir.  All these books are great because the Hollywood memoirs, “while not always to be trusted, are among the most entertaining ever written, because Loos remains great company, and because her story proves how far a young woman in a young industry could get on brains and high spirits alone.”

Though she wasn’t, as she’s suggested, pubescent-Anita when she sent in her scenario for The New York Hat to D.W. Griffith in 1912, being not in her 20s during the Roaring Twenties makes her all-the-better narrator for the Jazz Age.  In her 30s and 40s it’s been said of Loos,  “That’s a grand age for a wit… old enough to make fun of the naivete of youth, and young enough to be aghast at the staidness of the older generation.”

Before passing away at 93, Anita was still making the rounds and telling her stories at parties, fashion shows, balls, galas…attending “the opening of an envelope” as the saying goes.  Yes, unlike her some of these tales may have been on the tall side, but who cares?  The girl knew how to enthrall.

While not as well-known today, her legacy lives on… and gentlemen still prefer blondes.  But before women could vote, Anita Loos had the talent, wit and gumption to begin working on living the kind of life that made her a living legend.  That’s one reason she’s an idol of mine.  And also, to paraphrase Churchill’s naughty daughter, if you’re a gossipy, gutsy wit who’s hung with all the cool people of the 20th century, come sit by me!

 

*

*Fun-ish fact: Loos is portrayed in a thinly disguised manner by Tatum O’Neal in Peter Bogdanovich’s look back at early silent filmmaking in the film Nickelodeon.

**I’m told Colette spied the young Audrey Hepburnn walking across a hotel lobby in Monte Carlo and is supposed to have pointed and exclaimed, “That’s my Gigi!”

2 Comments

  1. Susanu

    Who knew?! So interesting. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Dixie Laite

      Right?! There’s so much about Hollywood, literature, culture, STUFF that we don’t know because women did it.

      Reply

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