Review: Louise Brooks: A Biography

Barry Paris (1989)

I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining and fascinating life story of cinema icon Louise Brooks, whose distinctive look, hairstyle, and tempestuous lifestyle defined the Roaring Twenties. Louise lived through a period of American entertainment history that I find extremely interesting: From the late teens through the early thirties, she was involved in the birth of modern dance, the heyday of Broadway musical reviews, the beginning of film, and the birth of “talkies.” Then, after decades as an alcoholic recluse, this once timeless beauty refashioned herself as a writer, partaking in a then unfamiliar literary genre, film criticism.

At the age of fifteen, Louise Brooks fled Kansas for New York City to study dance. She was a featured member of the influential Denishawn Dance company (along with Martha Graham), and after they fired the head-strong party girl, she became a prized chorus girl on Broadway in the infamous George White’s Scandals and The Ziegfeld Follies. She had an affair with Charlie Chaplin, one of many sexual liaisons in her life.

Hollywood beckoned. She resisted at first, but eventually submitted to the latest rage, and fell into a career in the movies. She was on her way to screen goddess super-stardom as the silent era gave way to sound. But Louise, who was well-read, hard-drinking (straight gin was her poison of choice,) and incredibly independent minded, torpedoed her own career at just about every turn. When Hollywood blackballed her, she went to Europe, and following a brief but extremely important (in hindsight) period of filmmaking in Germany with G.W. Pabst, she disappeared from pictures forever.

At 500+ pages,  Louise Brooks: A Biography is a hefty read, but Paris’ style is incrediblyreadable, and the book is obviously well researched without beingponderous. It’s accompanied by a generous number of photographs throughout. The gorgeous photograph on the book cover caught my eye in the library, and I grabbed it on impulse. Having seen only one of her films years ago (most of them are lost or unavailable) I’m hardly a fan of Louise Brooks, but it didn’t take me long to get caught up in the fascinating life story of this talented, egocentric, and charismatic woman. A woman who was ahead of her time and whose image is timeless.


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