Anita Loos is one of the most accomplished female American writers of the 1900s, author of novels, screenplays (for both silents and talkies), subtitles for silent movies, several memoirs, and Broadway plays. She also personified the flapper in the 1920s with her bobbed hair and wit and was just as much a prominent figure as a movie star, moving not only in Hollywood circles, but literary ones, as well. In fact, it was her friend, H.L. Mencken who inadvertently inspired her to write her most famous work, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Loos got the idea while traveling on a train with some friends, including Douglas Fairbanks, and she noticed that one woman, a blonde, was receiving all the attention. Men were practically bending over backwards to help her, whilst ignoring Loos, who felt she was just as attractive and youthful as the blonde, and a good deal more intelligent. Likewise, she noticed that her brilliant and satiric friend, H.L. Mencken, fell for a whole procession of low-intelligence blondes. In response, Loos wrote the novel that embodies the flapper era better than any novel I’ve ever read. As classic and iconic of the era as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a great deal more fun.
Published in 1926, the book is constructed as a diary, written by Lorelei Lee, who was told by a gentlemen friend that “if I took a pencil and a paper and put down all of my thoughts it would make a book.” The diary lasts from that point until she marries, a period of several months. It’s a satire. Loos skewers everyone in sight. Lorelei Lee is the blonde who is astonishingly ignorant, though with impressive street smarts. Practically every man she encounters is predatory, though their street-smartness is never up to Lorelei’s. Dorothy Shaw is Lorelei’s irrepressible friend, who never does learn how to be refined (Lorelei is striving for refinement, though her notions of what is refined is rather shaky) and constantly dismays her friend by falling in love with poor men. Lorelei would never allow herself to do anything so ill-advised as to fall in love at all, let alone with a man who had no money.
In New York, everybody parties, everybody drinks though it is the height of prohibition (Lorelei is filled with wonder, when she travels to Europe, at how people can go to hotel and order a drink). There are actors, musicians, intellectual gentlemen, movie producers, reformers, rich business men, old money, new money. But all the men seem curiously the same. They all profess to be interested in Lorelei’s brains and they all talk a great deal. One of Lorelei’s greatest assets is not only that she an irresistible blonde, but that she is an excellent listener.
When the story begins, Lorlei is being ‘educated’ by Mr. Eisman, the button king. He is always sending her books and allows her to rack up a truly impressive array of bills. Lorelei chiefly likes him because he knows how to treat ‘we girls,” which is to say, he knows to shower them with presents and jewelry. However, being educated by Mr. Eisman does not prevent her from seeing other gentlemen friends, who all profess to be fascinated by her mind and long to educated her. And when Mr. Eisman sends Lorelei and Dorothy to Europe for more education, she meets Mr. Henry Spofford, whose business is censorship and who goes completely nuts over Lorelei. The question for Lorelei is, can she stand him enough to marry him?
Meanwhile, Lorelei and Dorothy travel through Europe: London and Paris, Central Europe, Germany, Austria. What is so funny is that they are on the trip to broaden their horizons, but Lorelei never ceases to look at the world with her unshakably unique, American perspective. She has little use for London gentlemen since they don’t buy presents. She comes to the conclusion that only American men are worthwhile, since only American men spend so liberally. She does, however, manage to wangle a diamond tiara out of a Sir Francis Beekman, but she has to work at it.
She is unimpressed with Central Europe because all she sees are farms where the women work and the men seem to take it easy, which is an experience that has no bearing on her life. In Germany, all the men eat sausages. She is not so much interested in landmarks as she is in shopping. New York, she decides, is really the place to be. In Vienna she meets Dr. Freud (she spells it Froyd), whose theory that inhibitions are the root cause of neuroses is somewhat upset when he discovers that Lorelei has no inhibitions. She even once acted violently, shooting a man who was two-timing her.
Loos prose is clever and absolutely a hoot. Lorelei cannot spell to save her life. ‘Subject’ becomes subjeck, intrigued is intreeged, negligee is negligay Most hysterically is how the Eiffel Tower is spelled the Eyefull Tower and the Hofbrau becomes the Half Brow. A Frenchman, who’s name I assume is Robert (pronounced ro-bair in French), is spelled Robber. Ironically, he is trying to rob Lorelei.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was extremely successful when it was published, so Anita Loos wrote a sequel in 1927 called But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. The book is still written from the perspective of Lorelei, who is now married and crashing the social register, but she now has literary ambitions and wants to write the life story of her friend, Dorothy Shaw, who grew up on a Carnival, upgraded to working in Ziegfeld’s Follies and still has the unfortunately tendency to fall in love with penniless men.
But Gentlemen Marry Brunette‘s is still fun, but it lacks the irrepressible sparkle of the first novel. Loos is still taking aim at hypocritical, reforming morals, middle class morals, upper class decadence, artistic pretense, etc. However, because Lorelei is no longer recounting her own story, complete with her unintentionally funny and revealing comments, the prose suffers a bit and has a less spontaneous, stream of conscience feel and is more straightforward.
Edith Wharton called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the “great American novel.” It’s certainly one of the most entertaining. But it is also a fantastic examination of an era with cultural references, real people, attitudes, prohibition. I would recommend it over The Great Gatsby any day.