Seven years before she dazzled international audiences as the amoral Lulu in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 German masterpiece “Pandora’s Box,” Louise Brooks was a willful, intelligent and beautiful 15-year-old girl living in Wichita, Kan.
Summer 1922 changed Brooks’ life. She left home accompanied by a provincial 36-year-old housewife named Alice Mills and traveled by train to New York City so she could attend the Denishawn school of modern dance run by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn.
Mills returned that summer to Wichita and vanished from the life of Brooks, who would shortly become one of the icons of the silent screen. With her dark eyes, bobbed haircut, short dresses and freewheeling attitude, Brooks was the very model of the rebellious modern women of the flapper era.
That fateful trip to New York is the subject of the new historical novel “The Chaperone” by Laura Moriarty, who teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas.
Moriarty was reading a book about Brooks, who drifted into obscurity and alcoholism until she was rediscovered by the young French film critics of the 1950s, when she was struck by mention of the chaperon. “I thought this could be a story — these women came of age with such different morals.”
Moriarty changed Mills’ name to Cora Carlisle in “The Chaperone.” In the novel she’s a housewife and mother of twin teen sons whose seemingly happy life in Wichita was a facade because of a secret she harbored about her husband. Cora sees the trip with Brooks that summer as a chance to break away from the confines of her life and to discover information about her own troubled childhood in New York City.
The novel is a window into the remarkable, often painful life of Brooks, whose mother, Myra Rude, didn’t want children; she once said that any “squalling brats” she had could raise themselves. In fact, when Brooks told her mother years later that she had been sexually abused as a young girl by a neighbor, Rude indicated that perhaps it wasn’t the man’s fault because maybe her daughter led him on.
“She made her own decisions from a very early age and continued to do that throughout her life, for better or for worse,” said Cari Beauchamp, author of “Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Hollywood.”
Beauchamp said Brooks stood out from the beginning of her career, not only because of her unique look and beauty but because her characters were so contemporary. Though she was trapped in such trifles as “Evening Clothes” and “Rolled Stockings,” she got to go deeper in a few films such as William Wellman’s 1928 “Beggars of Life,” in which she played a young woman who murders her vile stepfather and then disguises herself as a boy to go on the lam.
After 21 films in Hollywood, she went to Germany to star in “Pandora’s Box,” followed by Pabst’s “Diary of a Lost Girl” and the 1930 French film “Prix de beaute.” Her relationship with Pabst, said Beauchamp, was similar to that of actress Marlene Dietrich and Josef Von Sternberg.
“The camera loved Louise Brooks, but it was the way she was lit, the way she moved, the way Pabst moves around Louise in ‘Pandora’s Box’ just as Von Sternberg did with Dietrich,” noted Beauchamp. “To watch those moves now, both women pop off the screen.”
But upon her return to Hollywood, Brooks made one bad career choice after another, including turning down the role of a moll that eventually went to Jean Harlow in 1931’s “The Public Enemy,” opposite James Cagney. With two failed marriages, countless love affairs and drinking problems, Brooks bid her film career adieu with the 1938 low-budget western “Overland Stage Riders,” costarring a young John Wayne.
She eventually landed in New York, where she worked as a shop clerk, radio actor and even a call girl. But French cinema enthusiasts rediscovered Brooks in the 1950s, which revived her fame. Then George Eastman House curator James Card invited Brooks to live in Rochester, N.Y., where she became a successful writer, publishing her autobiography in 1972, “Lulu in Hollywood.” She died in 1985 at age 78.
“I think one of the things that is exciting is how many of her films survive,” said Beauchamp. “She was very much her own woman.”
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