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By Hilton Als
For years, I had assumed Louise Brooks to be dead. That iconic face staring out of posters for Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl seemed, like some fly in amber, a prisoner of the vanished 1920s. When my friend Peter Graham suggested that we use her image for the front cover of his A Dictionary of the Cinema, which I published at Tantivy Press in 1964, I grew intrigued. Soon afterward, after reading in Cahiers du cinéma that she had been rediscovered by James Card, the film curator at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, I plucked up my courage and sent her a copy of the little book.
Almost instantly, she typed a letter to me: “Becoming a star thirty-five years after I was pronounced nothing is very heady stuff. It was a great honor to be your cover girl. Your book is evidently a huge success. I have received five copies from all over and could have had ten more from admiring friends.” These remarks disguised the fact that Louise was by then a loner. True friends were thin on the ground, although Kevin Brownlow was about to become one, after he tracked her down for an interview for his book The Parade’s Gone By.
Six years later, I was invited to “consult” on a new festival in Rochester, an event purportedly supported by the Xerox Corporation. It had been arranged without Card’s involvement and proved a near disaster, as I may recall in a future flashback, but the highlight of the week was a pilgrimage to Louise’s modest apartment on North Goodman Street. I was accompanied by Murray Grigor, then galvanizing the Edinburgh International Film Festival. We had been told by a local film buff that we should take half a pint of gin as an offering, and Louise was thrilled. “I always drink it in a tooth glass, with milk on the side,” she explained with relish. She drew us into her bedroom, and as we sat on the bed beside her, she showed us a file of production stills from her work in the silent era. Two days later, Murray and I were killing time in one of those ineffable shopping malls when Louise materialized, gliding toward us in a long skirt, her even longer hair descending gaily to her waist. She was petite, like so many great stars, and her features had weathered the years well, while her voice, rarely noted, had an authority that broke continually into peals of laughter.
More than forty years later, Kevin sent me a letter he had received from Louise in the wake of our visit. “I liked Peter at once, although he didn’t like me [sic!]. He thought I was being grand not going to lunch or to dinner or to the film festival. But then by accident on the day he was leaving we met in the Midtown Plaza, and he glowed at me like a porcelain stove which is so cold-looking from a distance.” Ah, the Englishman abroad! Indeed, in October of 1970, Louise had scribbled a note to me, saying, “You must know that I don’t [not] go out because I think I am somebody, that is not true—it’s because I know that I am nobody.”
During the 1970s, Louise and I corresponded pretty much every three weeks. She delighted in dishing the dirt on silent Hollywood, with Garbo the actress she most loved to hate: “She was always positive about not wanting to play whores kicked around by men, but her absolute lack of intellectual discipline prevented her from being positive about what she wanted to play.” In another letter, she noted that, where Garbo was concerned, “genius seems to balance the pressures put upon it. Here was a big husky dyke who found in Hollywood her escape into the most feminine of women. Her enemy, Louis Mayer, thought to kill her off with Queen Christina, so obviously lesbian, but he had to wait till Two-Faced Woman, with the help of the whole staff, exposing that cruel lesbian face, blotting out her genius.”
In her senior years, Louise wrote several sharp and witty articles about the silent period. They were published in magazines like Sight & Sound, Film Culture, and Focus on Film. Louise had a flair for limpid prose that she should perhaps have indulged from the outset of her career. “My purpose in writing,” she said in a letter in 1972, “is to search out those often unnoted incidents which shape life.” She read books, magazines, and newspapers with omnivorous zest. When she had her apartment repainted, she had “a wonderful time in reshaping the shelves, throwing out fifty books. To every book I said, ‘Will I ever need you for reference?’ When the answer was ‘No,’ out went Father’s Homer, Carlyle’s letters, bang, thump, dust—I love getting rid of things.”
She adored provocation, telling me that “of course, Mr. Pabst directed the opening sequence of Pandora to direct the audience’s attention to the penis-in-erection—showing me swinging on the wrestler’s flexed arm.” And yet it was only with the advancing years that Louise started to swear like a trooper. She wrote to me once, “Whatever shock value ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ retain for the dainty, they have no value at all in revealing character. My articles have lost nothing by rejecting them.” When she worked with the likes of William Wellman and W. C. Fields, she maintained, “Louise Brooks did not swear. It is part of the obscenity of old age.”
Louise gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received. “You are the only person I know who speaks the truth to me,” she wrote in January 1975. “And the truth makes me laugh. It isn’t that other people would not like to speak the truth, but they have grown up in families in which speaking the truth brings punishment. I did not. And I must say this: in childhood is established truth or lies.”
The last I heard from Louise was a card in which she thanked me for my review of Lulu in Hollywood (a compilation of her writing), which had appeared to acclaim from Knopf in 1982. Of course, the Louise I knew in the 1970s was light-years away from “Brooksie,” the flapper girl who had seduced Chaplin in the summer of 1925. Her antic, often brilliant mind surfaced only in middle age, and the iconic “girl in the black helmet,” as Kenneth Tynan had called her, remained tantalizingly beyond reach for my generation. She did not live to see my book entitled Louise Brooks, Lulu Forever, published by Rizzoli in 2006. She would probably have made some scabrous comment about its being too kind!
Peter Cowie has written more than thirty books on film and was the founding editor of the annual International Film Guide. He was international publishing director of Variety throughout the 1990s and now consults for the Berlin and Venice festivals, and he is a longtime contributor of commentaries, supplements, and essays to the Criterion Collection.
This is the second in a series of pieces devoted to film figures Cowie has gotten to know in the course of his career. Read his introduction to the series here.