Described as “the most seductive, sexual image of Woman ever committed to celluloid” by her biographer Kenneth Tynan, Louise Brooks inspired a cult following largely based on a single film—Ger-man filmmaker G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1928). On November 14, 1906, she was born Mary Louise Brooks in Cherryvale, Kansas. Her interest in dance led her parents to enroll her in the Wichita College of Music, which expelled her at 15 for bad behavior.
To further her career, Brooks moved to New York, where she joined RUTH ST. DENIS’s Denishawn dance troupe. A petite beauty, she attracted many wealthy suitors and began living extravagantly on her boyfriends’ incomes. Dismissed from Denishawn for her poor work habits, Brooks performed as a chorus girl on Broadway and a nightclub performer in London before making her screen debut in 1925. Under contract to Paramount, she began acting in a series of American films, including Howard Hawks’s A Girl in Every Port (1928) and William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928). During this period, she briefly married director Edward Sutherland but resumed her fiamboyant lifestyle after their divorce in 1928. Unhappy with the Hollywood system, Brooks asked for a raise from Paramount.
When her request was refused, she impulsively headed off for Germany to work with director G. W. Pabst. Pabst desperately wanted Brooks to play the lead in Pandora’s Box (1928), a silent film adaptation of two plays by German writer Frank Wedekind. Brooks’s character, Lulu, was a new type of femme fataleone who radiated an unbridled and unapologetic sexuality that brought ruin to those attracted to her and to herself. Condemned as decadent, both Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), Brooks’s second movie with Pabst, were box office failures. After making Prix de Beauté (1930), a French film, she returned to Hollywood in 1930. Assuming she could pick up her American film career where she had left it, Brooks was shocked to find that no one was willing to hire her. Paramount may have blackballed her in the industry in retaliation for Brooks’s breaking of her contract. But Brooks’s outspoken scorn for Hollywood no doubt also contributed to her situation. Although her friends continued to find her occasional bit parts, a discouraged Brooks retired from films in 1938.
Brooks tried running a dance studio in Wichita in the 1940s but soon moved back to New York City. Aside from a six-month stint on a radio soap opera, she found few acting jobs. Reduced to working as salesclerk at Saks Fifth Avenue, Brooks moved to Rochester, New York, in 1956. Exceedingly well-read and intelligent, she began a second career as a writer. Her witty articles about the silent film era and her own experiences in Hollywood appeared in numerous serious film magazines, including Film Culture and Sight and Sound. Brooks’s writings found a ready audience among film enthusiasts, who were just beginning to rediscover the films she made with Pabst. Particularly infiuential to the reevaluation of Brooks’s work was the 1955 “Sixty Years of Cinema” show at Paris’s Musée National d’Art Moderne. In the exhibit, film archivist Henri Langlois memorably declared, “There is no GARBO! There is no DIETRICH! There is only Louise Brooks!” Her legend was furthered by critic Kenneth Tynan with the publication of his evaluation of Brooks in the New Yorker magazine in 1979. Titled “The Girl in the Black Helmet”—a reference to Brooks’ bobbed flapper haircut—the piece was largely written with her cooperation, though Brooks and Tynan later had a falling-out. In 1982, Brooks chose to tell her own story in Lulu in Hollywood, a compilation of her magazine articles augmented with some new material. With the image of the exuberant, pleasure-seeking Lulu permanently etched into the American imagination, Brooks died of a heart attack at her home on August 8, 1985.
Brooks, Louise. Lulu in Hollywood. Expanded Edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Paris, Barry. Louise Brooks: A Biography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Tynan, Kenneth. Show People: Profiles in Entertainment. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.
Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box (1928) (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998). Image Entertainment, VHS, 1999.
Pandora’s Box (1928). Home Vision Cinema, VHS, 1993.