Saturday, December 12, 2015

True Confession: I've Been Stalking Louise Brooks for 20 years

An early VHS copy of Pandora's Box
from a time when this was the only
way to see a Louise Brooks' film
It all started more than 20 years ago on a Friday night at Video Wave in San Francisco. Not having anything in particular to do, I walked over to the local video store to rent a movie. There weren't any new releases that especially interested me. I had already seen most of what was then current. So, I spent a few minutes browsing the classics section. I am a film buff, and had seen much of what was on the shelves. One title, however, caught my eye, Pandora's Box, a German silent film from 1929. I thought the actress on the cover was kind of hot.

I hadn't heard of the film -- nor its star. What peaked my interest was the text on the back of the VHS, "censored because of its explicit sexuality." With it being a Friday night, and with me having nothing in particular to do, an erotic film -- even though it was from more than sixty years old -- seemed ok to me.

I watched that film that night as if in a dream. Who was this Louise Brooks? And how had I never heard of her? The questions ricocheted through me. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. How could such an actress -- such a woman even, be possible? I went to bed that night confused, in a daze. And I got up the next morning and watched Pandora's Box all over again. I had to. The rental tape was due later that day, and, I really, really, really wanted to watch it again. Anyways, I simply had to come to grips with what I had experienced the night before. Like her victims in Pandora's Box, I was in the thrall of Lulu.

Excited by the movie and this actress "I had discovered" -- that was how I felt, I asked everyone I could about Louise Brooks. "She is beautiful. She has short dark hair, like a helmet. She was in this silent film called Pandora's Box. She played Lulu. . . ." Friends, family, people I knew who were into film -- no one really seemed to know much about her until a co-worker recalled there had been a biography. A book. A place to start! 

A first edition copy of the Barry Paris
biography of Louise Brooks
Long before the internet put a world of knowledge at our fingertips, I went to the library in search of information. Looking through the card catalog, I turned up a 1989 title, Louise Brooks, by Barry Paris. I hadn't heard of the book, but it looked substantial, and there was an especially alluring portrait on the cover, and even more tantalizing images inside. I devoured every page of that biography. It is the perfect book -- the perfect match of subject and author. Its intelligence and especially its empathy, as well as its many citations and footnotes, fed my fascination with Louise Brooks. It became my Bible.

Aren't we all smitten with an actor or actress sometime in our life? Don't we all have a secret crush on some cute starlet or some handsome hunk? Don't we want to see every film starring our favorite? Haven't film buffs all saved a picture or magazine clipping for no particular reason known only to ourselves? I figured there must be others out there who appreciated Louise Brooks like I did. I was eager to talk with others about her. But who might they be? How could I find them? Was there a group?

I went back to the library and asked at the reference desk if there was a directory of fan clubs, and much to my surprise, there was. I scoured its many pages of small type. There were thousands of fan clubs: there were groups for Laurel and Hardy, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne and for dozens of other contemporary stars and entertainers I couldn't believe anyone cared about. Disappointed, I didn't find any for Louise Brooks.
All this -- renting Pandora's Box, asking everyone I knew about Louise Brooks, finding the biography of the actress -- was back when the world wide web was just getting started. Up until then, the internet was largely text and made up of places like Prodigy, The Well, UseNet groups, BBS and AOL. I had been online for a few years, and explored each. I even once telnet into the Berkeley Public Library. But now -- around 1994 and 1995, the web was going graphical, and anyone who could figure out HTML could make their own website.

That's when I had an idea. Why not make a webpage about Louise Brooks? Or better yet, why not make a multi-page website, and post some of the material about the actress I had started to gather. I might even "meet" others who shared my interest. That's when I decided to form the Louise Brooks Society, what I called a "virtual fan club in cyberspace." Eventually, I secured the domain pandorasbox.com.

Thanks to my brother, who was a computer engineer and who helped me figure out Hypertext Markup Language, I posted my first web pages. This was in the summer and fall of 1995. The Louise Brooks Society had begun.
LBS director Thomas Gladysz and
Academy Award honoree Kevin Brownlow
I would meet others -- others just as passionate about the actress. Lots of others. They included distant relations of the actress, individuals who worked with her, a couple of rock stars, an Academy Award honoree, a Doctor Who, film historians, artists, poets, novelists, and others from all walks of life. There is a fellow from Rome who is about as devoted to Louise Brooks as me and has his own website. We have exchanged countless emails. There are also new friends -- some I have met, some not -- in Wichita, Kansas and Rochester, New York and elsewhere. Some emailed me. Others I found by exchanging links on film websites, especially those devoted to silent film. It seems individuals interested in the silent era were among the first to colonize the web. There weren't many of us, I guess, and we wanted to find community.
Soon enough, the Louise Brooks Society started to take off. I remember being excited when my hit counter read triple digits. Quickly, visitors were counted in the thousands and then tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands. In 1996, USA Today named the Louise Brooks Society a "Hot Site," noting "Silent-film buffs can get a taste of how a fan club from yesteryear plays on the Web. The Louise Brooks Society site includes interviews, trivia and photos. It also draws an international audience." A few years later, the New York Times described it as an "excellent homage to the art of the silent film as well as one of its most luminous stars."

In 1998, the popularity of my virtual fan club in cyberspace got noticed by Turner Classic Movies. The cable station devoted to classic films decided to commission a documentary about Louise Brooks. An article on the Wired website, "FanSite Sparks Biopic", quoted a TCM spokesman who said the level of interest in the Louise Brooks Society convinced the network to go ahead with the documentary and an evening of the actress' films. "The Web presence for Louise Brooks was overwhelming. It was definitely a driving force in convincing the network to produce this documentary."

At the San Francisco Public Library exhibit

I have always been the scholarly type, and always thought that I wanted the Louise Brooks Society to be more than just a fan club. I wanted to do something. I see the mission of the society as one of honoring the actress by stimulating interest in her life and films. To that end, I have compiled bibliographies on the actress and her films which if printed out would run hundreds of pages. I have also written a couple of hundred articles and a couple of thousand blogs about Louise Brooks. In 2010, I wrote the introduction and edited the of Diary of a Lost Girl, the once controversial novel that was the basis for the 1929 film. Co-published by the Louise Brooks Society, it was this significant book's first English publication in more than 100 years. Recently, I provided the audio commentary for the new Kino Lorber DVD & Blu-ray of Diary of a Lost Girl.



The Louise Brooks Society also has its own online radio station, RadioLulu, which streams Louise Brooks and silent-film related music of the 1920's, 1930's and today. Musical purists have complained, but I can't help but include some of the contemporary rock and pop songs about the actress by the likes of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), Soul Coughing, Rufus Wainwright, NatalieMerchant, and others. 

Something that the website does is track and promote the many homage to the actress not only in music but in movies, fiction, comic books, the visual arts and popular culture. Did you know there was a street named after Louise Brooks in Paris, as well as a French perfume? The actress shows up in books by Neil Gaiman and Paul Auster and Salman Rushdie, has been mentioned on The Simpsons, and pops up in movies ranging from Hugo to Blue is the Warmest Color. The current staging of Alban Berg's opera, Lulu, at the Met in New York City owes a littlesomething to Louise Brooks.

With bestselling author and Louise Brooks fan Neil Gaiman (center)
Over the years, the Louise Brooks Society has mounted exhibits and sponsored author talks and screenings. One of the group's great accomplishments took place in the year 2000. At the time, both Louise Brooks' own book, Lulu in Hollywood, as well as the Barry Paris biography which I loved had fallen out of print. The LBS mounted a grass roots campaign to bring them back. And it worked. The University of Minnesota Press reissued both books, and acknowledged the LBS in each. At one point, the press told me those two books were among their bestselling titles.

I didn't do it all by myself. The members of the Louise Brooks Society -- which I number at about 1500 from 50 countries on six countries -- have contributed in all manner of ways. Individuals from around the world have sent pictures and clippings and rare pieces of memorabilia, provided translations of non-English materials, and helped in other ways. 

With English fan Meredith Lawrence (left)
Looking back, that chance encounter some 20 years ago with an old film started me off on a kind of journey into the heart of the Jazz Age. These days, I am interested in not only Louise Brooks but also silent film, Weimar Germany, Denishawn, Twenties Jazz, and more. Those interests all started with Louise Brooks. One thing would lead to another.

Louise Brooks was a pretty big star in the late 1920s. She was world famous for about five years. But then it all ended. She went to Europe to make films, including Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, the two for which she is best known today. When she returned, Hollywood didn't want her anymore. Sound came in, and her Jazz Age impertinence and sleek black bob seemed out of place in Depression-era America. She tried to make a comeback, but ended up quitting films, twice. Louise Brooks and her 24 films would be largely forgotten.

Eventually, she returned to New York City where her showbiz career had begun. She lived there anonymously, broke, drinking, living the life of a barfly, a once famous movie star working behind the counter at a department store; and, while she still had her looks, she may or may have not escorted gentlemen on dates. Can you image what they must have thought had they realized who they were with?

All the while, Louise Brooks had begun to write -- observations, memories, articles, essays. Once derided as a brainy showgirl, she emerged late in life as an articulate and acerbic writer and memoirist. F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom she once met, wrote something about there being no second acts in American lives. Brooks proves the exception. After decades of obscurity, she emerged late in life as an acclaimed author and thoughtful commentator on film.

Signing books at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
Though she left her mark on her time, Brooks always thought of herself as a failure. In his biography, Barry Paris quotes a letter the actress wrote to her brother, "I have been taking stock of my 50 years since I left Wichita in 1922 at the age of 15 to become a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. How I have existed fills me with horror. For I have failed in everything—spelling, arithmetic, riding, swimming, tennis, golf, dancing, singing, acting, wife, mistress, whore, friend. Even cooking. And I do not excuse myself with the usual escape of 'not trying.' I tried with all my heart." 

There is a mystery at the heart of Louise Brooks and her story that goes a long-way toward explaining why she thought herself a failure and why others find her so fascinating. 

I have wondered, and others have asked me, why I am so obsessed with Louise Brooks. I don't know. I think it is because I want others to know she wasn't a failure. Deep down, I suspect I somehow want to save her, to rescue her. But to save her from what I am not sure. Perhaps it is from being forgotten. She often played imperiled women, and that can bring out the rescue impulse in fans and admirers. If that is the case with me, all I can do is try. 

Barry Paris inscribed this copy of his biography: "For Thomas --
who resurrected me & LB the way Tynan did in The New Yorker!"

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