Her perfect bombshell: Author Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a brunette's revenge
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 August 2004)

Creating Lorelei Lee, that dim-witted, amoral gold digger, was the most vicious insult ever directed against women of the blond persuasion. She was the original blond joke, and blonds haven't yet recovered. Nevertheless, Anita Loos (1888-1981), who made Lorelei the narrator of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, never apologized for this hate crime. Moreover, she remains a much-admired author, as the recent publication of Anita Loos Rediscovered: Film Treatments and Fiction (University of California Press), edited by Cari Beauchamp and Mary Anita Loos, demonstrates.

Anita confessed in her memoirs that she devised Lorelei Lee as revenge, a brunette's satiric reaction to the attention males pay to blonds. Anita adored highbrow men, and nursed thoughts of a romance with H.L. Mencken, the most formidable journalist of the 1920s. But one day she realized Mencken was so enchanted by a certain empty-headed blond that he melted in her presence. On a train trip, Anita noticed that men competed to help a blond starlet with her luggage, leaving Anita to look after her own.

"Obviously there was some radical difference between that girl and me," she wrote, though they were both young and pretty. "Why did that girl so far outdistance me in feminine allure? She was a natural blond and I was a brunette."

That suggested to Anita that blonds, however stupid, belong to a privileged class. She began writing a series of letters in the voice of a witless blond who is perpetually hunting for men and diamonds. "Kissing your hand may make you feel very very good," Lorelei wrote, "but a diamond and safire [sic] bracelet lasts forever." In the Broadway musical, that became an unforgettable line, "A kiss on the hand may be quite Continental, but diamonds are a girl's best friend."

Lorelei's letters ran as a serial in Harper's Bazaar and then became a world-conquering book. They attracted praise from many notables, including James Joyce, Winston Churchill and Mencken. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes became a Broadway play in 1926, a Paramount film in 1928, a Broadway musical in 1950, and in 1953 the movie that certified Marilyn Monroe's stardom.

Loos had been a prosperous scriptwriter for years, but Lorelei made her a fortune. Soon she was touring Europe with 20 suitcases. In the limo she shared with her husband, John Emerson, there were orchids in crystal vases, one on each side of the back seat.

She spanned the eras of show business like no one else. She wrote scenarios for D.W. Griffith's silent shorts and the title cards for his epic Intolerance. She dreamt up swashbuckling silent dramas for Douglas Fairbanks and gags for the Keystone Kops. In the 1930s her smart-aleck dialogue gave Jean Harlow's style its edge, and her script for San Francisco put Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in a melodrama set in the earthquake year of 1906. George Cukor directed Anita's version of Clare Booth Luce's The Women. In 1946, Anita wrote a Broadway show, Happy Birthday, for Helen Hayes, and in 1951 adapted Colette's novel Gigi as the play that made Audrey Hepburn a star.

She also wrote a great deal that was neither filmed nor published. From the archive she left, her niece and Beauchamp, a Hollywood historian, have selected a series of charming but previously unknown pieces, intercutting them with scenes from her biography.

Her private life was as melancholy as Dorothy Parker's, but she seldom showed it. "She put much thought and effort into appearing carefree," Anita Loos Rediscovered tells us. Appearances mattered. She wore exquisite Paris gowns and loved being at once pretty, funny, smart and tiny (an inch short of five feet). She read Voltaire so she wouldn't forget the real meaning of wit, and never looked less than dazzling. She practised at the barre every day; when her weight ballooned to 103, she went off to a European spa and sweated it down to 97. To the end she was coy about her age. In 1973, she celebrated her 80th birthday, which was in truth her 85th. When she died, at 93, various obits estimated her age at anywhere from 76 to 91.

John Emerson was a movie producer when Anita broke into the movie business. He treated her as a protege, then a lover and wife, and finally his meal ticket. Once she started succeeding, he pretty well stopped working, though sometimes he grabbed a half share of the credit for her scripts. One Hollywood saying went, "John Emerson lives off the sweat of his frau." A hypochondriac, he took to his bed with remarkable frequency. As Anita put it, he "enjoyed ill health." He claimed often to be near death and finally proved he was right in 1956 when he expired, at the age of 81.

He seems to have been both a scoundrel and an incompetent. He spent some of Anita's royalties on jewellery and clothes for other women; the rest he lost on faulty investments. He stole her US$100,000 signing bonus from MGM and converted it into an annuity for his personal use.

In 1931, the money made by Lorelei Lee was gone. He announced, "One of us will have to go to work." Anita knew which one he meant. She signed on with Irving Thalberg at MGM. While anxious to hire her, Thalberg declined to give Emerson a job. Anita asked that half of her US$2,000 weekly salary be paid to her husband as if he were an employee. Thalberg agreed. He told her, "You are even more of a masochist than I am."

Anita proved him right. Through the ultimate act of psychological masochism, she accepted responsibility for Emerson's failings. By writing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she said, she had overshadowed him. Bitter disappointment had unhinged his mind. He became violent at times and spent much of his life in a mental hospital. She not only continued to visit him, she directed that she be buried beside him.

When she met Emerson in 1916, he was a handsome, vigorous and virtuous gentleman, and by an effort of will she viewed him in just that way to the end, despite all the evidence. One of Hollywood's expert creators of fantasy, Loos proved she could invent a daydream so convincing that even a cynic like her could live within it.

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