Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Notes on Louise Brooks' notebooks

As the three previous blogs note, I recently took the opportunity to visit Rochester, NY and its world famous George Eastman Museum. The purpose of my visit -- a trip five years in the planning -- was to spend time at the museum with which Louise Brooks was closely associated for many years.

Back in October of 2010, I published a piece on examiner.com titled "Louise Brooks Journals to be Revealed, and Perhaps Published". My piece was occasioned by the announcement by the then George Eastman House that it had unsealed Brooks' private notebooks. Before her death, the actress had bequeathed her notebooks to the museum with instructions they remain sealed for 25 years. That was five years ago. This was my first opportunity to check out the notebooks for myself.

As my 2010 article stated, "Brooks kept journals from 1956 until her death in 1985. According to an Eastman House archivist, there are 29 research journals -- which contain her notes and thoughts while she conducted research for her book and other writing projects -- ranging in size from 20 to 120 pages. All together, these working journals approach 2000 pages of hand-written text. Notably, Brooks went back and reworked material in various notebooks over the years. She also added a table of contents to the cover of each volume."

I enlisted the help of Rochester resident Tim Moore, and allotted myself two and one-half days to read / skim / survey the material -- which literally was nearly 2000 pages of mostly handwritten, sometimes difficult to read material. There was also some typewritten material inserted into binders or pasted onto the pages of the notebooks. After I was done, I felt I barely scratched the surface. 
 
Inside the Eastman Museum, where I read Louise Brooks' notebooks
The material in the notebooks is largely just that -- notes. More than anything, Brooks compiled filmographies of many of the leading movie personalities of her time (this was in the day before IMDb, as well as before many of the film books we know were even published -- think the ubiquitous "The Films of ....." series). One almost gets the impression that Brooks had the idea to write some sort of grand history of film as a way of understanding her small part in its history.

Brooks also listed and took notes from the books she was reading. Often times she would transcribe passages out of biographies, memoirs, and film histories. Brooks recorded the titles of many if not most of the films she viewed and where she saw them, either at the Eastman House or on television. (Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, silent films and films from the early 1930's turned up on broadcast TV more often than they do today.) The actress also recorded key information about each film -- year of release, director, actor -- along with her thoughts on what she had seen.

There are passages on the Talmadge sisters, Garbo, Pola Negri, Clara Bow, Marion Davies, Tallulah Bankhead, Leni Riefenstahl, Humphrey Bogart, Grace Moore, Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty, and numerous others -- along with encounters with director Jean Renoir (at a party in Paris in the 1950s) and Roddy McDowell (when the actor came to her apartment to photograph her). In the margin, Brooks' recorded the fact that G.W. Pabst had called her on the telephone while she was living in New York City in 1948.

Brooks watched films by D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim (her opinion on the director changed over time), as well as those starring Marlene Dietrich, like The Blue Angel and I Kiss Your Hand Madame. She also saw Dinner at Eight, William Wellman's The Public Enemy, and G.W. Pabst's Threepenny Opera. On October 29, 1959 she saw Empty Saddles, a 1936 B-western in which she had a supporting role. Brooks wrote "First film I ever heard my voice." Brooks was also taken with John Barrymore's performance in Maytime (1937). There were others, many others.

Brooks watched television programs and listened to the radio. If something stood out, she noted it. On September 28, 1960 she recorded watching Fred Astaire on NBC. Brooks also noted having seen the poet W.H. Auden on television in 1958 (two pages of her commentary on Auden followed), or listening to a local radio program on the critic H.L. Mencken. She also seemed to have a liking for Mitch Miller, and recorded hearing him on the radio at least a couple of times.

On occasion, Brooks was also a list maker. There was one listing the twelve painting she had completed up to that time. There was another listing books she intended to read about the 1920s. There was one noting "geniuses I have known: Chaplin, Gershwin, Graham, Thalberg, Gish, Garbo". There was another from the early 1970's listing where she had lived and for how long:

"18  Kansas
21  New York
9  Hollywood
16  Rochester
1  Europe - Chicago"

The notebooks also contain a number of clipping, which most often were obituaries of individuals she had known, including actor Addison (Jack) Randall, NYMoMA film curator Iris Barry, dancer Ruth St. Denis, and others. Usually, these clipping came from either Variety or TIME magazine, which she seems to have had regular access to. (Brooks also seems to have had access to a run of past issues of Photoplay magazine, as she often cites it.)

Brooks read a book about the composer George Gershwin, someone she first met and flirted with during her brief time with the George White Scandals, and recorded and dated an impressionistic memory: "at Scandals 1924 rehearsals George took off coat -- played in vest -- sometimes with a cigar in his mouth LB 1968". In her notebooks, she took notes on Gershwin's upbringing, on his many compositions, and on his early death on July 11, 1937, adding in parenthesis "[Two weeks before at the Clover Club George asked me to dance and seemed brilliantly healthy.]"

There was a good deal of surprising material. For a while, Brooks was deeply interested in existentialism, which was in vogue in the 1960s. She recorded reading a couple of books on the subject, as well as one or two by Jean Paul Sartre. She disliked Simone de Beauvoir, and said so in the pages of her notebooks. [Curiously, Sartre records in his own journals that one of his very first dates with de Beauvoir was when he took her to see A Girl in Every Port, which co-starred Brooks.]

Brooks also wrote her observations on Elizabeth Taylor and on Marilyn Monroe, thoughts on George Raft, and pasted in a clipping on Andy Warhol. She watched television coverage of Queen Elizabeth's 1957 visit to the United States and Canada, and wrote pages and pages about it. She also wrote many pages of material on Henry Kissinger, the Kennedys, and Zen thinker Alan Watts (which tied into her interest in existentialism). English writers John Ruskin and Lewis Carroll, and American novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are also referenced time and again.


On the outside of the Rochester Public Library, which Brooks visited often.


One of the binders which the Eastman House inherited from Brooks contains even earlier notes, loose leaf pages dating from as early as the 1940s. There are pages and pages of notes on the French philosopher Henri Bergson from 1941, on the English writer George Meredith from 1943, on Lord Byron and the qualities of great poetry from 1948, on Gandhi's Autobiography from 1949, on the letters of Marcel Proust from 1955. There are also scattered notes on art, and on modern painters.

Considering Brooks may never have achieved her high school degree (she left to join Denishawn after her sophomore year in school), these notebooks reflect an intellectually curious mind. Brooks was striving to understand. She was fascinated by authority figures -- either spiritual or political or literary or cinematic or romantic. George Bernard Shaw was a major obsession. It seems to me, Brooks attempted to understand the world and herself through the pages of literature, and in the biographies and histories of great individuals and momentous times. Her notebooks are a record of her striving.

I also came across this recipe: "Brooks' cookies 18 March 1973"

1 stick butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 table spoon milk
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
dates and nuts. lemon rind
350 degrees 45 minutes cut to squares

During my two and a half days reading Brooks' notebooks, I took lots of notes, and transcribed a few passages. That is all researchers may do. (Recording devices like scanners or cameras are not allowed.) The material above represents a summation of my notes.

Cut into the sidewalk in Rochester, not far from Brooks' Goodman
Street apartment and the Eastman Museum

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