Louise Brooks 1906-1985
by Wayne Hallowell, Historian/Director of the Leatherock Hotel
 

Affectionately known as "Brooksie", Mary Louise Brooks made her debut on November 14, 1906 in a southeastern Kansas community of 7000 named Cherryvale.  Born to prosperous attorney Leonard Brooks, age 40, and Myra (Rude) Brooks, age 23, she was the second of four children. Myra was inclined to neglect her household conventions to pursue her cultural interests. In fact, prior to her marriage to Leonard, she informed him that he was her escape to freedom and the arts, and that any squalling brats she produced could take care of themselves. Myra's reputation became that of "the most cultured and literary woman in Cherryvale." She helped established the Library Club, later lobbied successfully to obtain one of Andrew Carnegie's grants for Cherryvale's Library. She was one of the first to speak out on women's rights. Deprived of genuine maternal affection, Brooksie nevertheless observed and absorbed Myra’s moody responses to her keyboard music of Ravel and Debussy. This brought them a certain mother-daughter rapport. As Louise later remembered, "It was by watching her face that I first recognized the joy of creative effort."


At age 4, she made her first public appearance playing a pint-sized bride in a church benefit production of Tom Thumb's Wedding. Her mother, later recalled how, "She looked quite adorable in the dainty bridal apparel, and though the little bride groom was just about scared out of his poor little wits, Louise walked down the aisle and, much to our amusement, manipulated her shower bouquet and bridal veil with all the ease and assurance of a grown­up bride. The female of the species seem to inherit a natural calmness concerning the marriage pageantry of which the male is quite devoid."

Brooksie was a pretty normal kid. She loved making mud pies, and many a time, while in the throes of her mud pie making, Myra would fetch her for a dance lesson. Her dance teacher, Mrs. Buckpitt, traveled 8-miles by train from Independence to Cherryvale. Most of the time Brooksie didn't want her dancing lessons. Her playmates wished they could take them in her place. "She painted and drew quite well," Myra wrote. "And was constantly making lovely sets of scenery as a background against which her knights and ladies enacted their joys and sorrows. She began teaching her little sister and some of the small girls in the neighborhood. This was naturally real work, but she seemed to regard it as play. Entirely unaided she would select records for the talking machine, arrange the dances and tirelessly drill the children. Many of these dances she costumed as  well, designing and making these herself, and I must admit she did them most cleverly."

At the age of 10, she had become, in her own words, "What amounted to a professional dancer," appearing at fairs, theaters, men's and women's clubs, and various gathering in southeastern Kansas. At 11, she was dancing on a regular basis, performing in recitals and programs at the Cherryvale Opera House, considered one of the finest west of the Mississippi. By her own admission, Louise was already displaying prima-donna symptoms: "I was given to temper tantrums brought on by an unruly costume or a wrong dance tempo, but my mother, who was my costumer and pianist, bore them with professional calm." She went through the skinny little girl stage in grade school and the awkward teen-age state during her first year or two in high school, but the dance lessons she took finally began to pay off in her amazing transformation into a beautiful, confident, talented young lady. Brooksie was a great lover of moving pictures. She and her brother, Theodore, went to silent serials and features of Theda Bars, Tom Mix, Pearl White, and Dustin Farnum at the local movie theater. These films were very worn and scratchy by the time they reached Cherryvale, but Cherryvalians could keep pace with the latest flicker rages. She was especially enthralled by Gloria Swanson, the most exciting face of 1915. At this time, Myra cut the long braids of her talented daughter into a new "look" closely resembling what would become her signature "raven helmet" hairstyle.

In 1919, at the age of 13, the Brooks family moved 10-miles southwest to Independence, Kansas. Brooksie continued to focus on her dancing skills and with her bobbed-hair, captivating looks and a figure that turned many heads in the hallways of Montgomery County High School. No sooner had the flirtatious local boys focused their eyes on Louise Brooks, she vanished to Wichita with her family. In Wichita her father expand his law practice and pursued his dream of becoming a United States District Judge.

Louise's upbringing also had an enormous influence on her lifelong love affair with books and the arts. Her father’s library was stocked with classic books. Louise read voraciously at a young age, a habit she continued throughout her life. Brooksie set as a goal in her life, the sophisticated grace of the lovely women seen in her favorite magazines, Harper's Bazaar and Vanity Fair. Years later, Louise wrote her brother, Theo, that Myra "was an exquisite person. What do I care that she was no mother and cared less about her children than an alligator? She taught us the love of beauty and laughter. And I would have been dead years ago had she not put great books at my disposal."

The pivotal point in Louise's life was probably when her mother enrolled her and she was accepted as a serious dancer into the famed Ruth Saint-Denis and Ted Shawn's arty Denishawn Dance Company in New York City. This was the leading modern dance company in America at the time. Myra won her point with Brooksie's father in sending her to Denishawn, by sending thirty-six year old Alice Mills to accompany her by train and live with her in New York. So at 15, without a high school education, she left her native Kansas. With her fondness for expressive dance and artistic movement, her cultured upbringing, she was way ahead of other dancers and performers of her generation. In 1923, as the youngest dancer in the troupe, Brooks toured the United States and Canada with Martha Graham and the Denishawn dancers by train and played a different town nearly every night. Just eight years after playing the Cherryvale Opera House, Louise Brooks was becoming the dashing star of the town's elite. At 17, she was humiliating dismissed in front of the Denishawn troupe for having a superior attitude and friary temper. She teamed with Barbara Bennett for a trip to Europe, gained employment at a leading London nightclub and became famous as the first person to dance the Charleston in London. In 1925, the Charleston craze swept this country and gradually made its way around the world. During that year, Louise Brooks returned to New York and joined the Ziegfeld Follies performing in the production, Louie the 14th, as one of the six "Cosmopolitan" female dancers. Also in 1925, Brooks signed a five year contract with one of the major film company, Paramount Studios, and appeared in her first film, The Streets of Forgotten Men. She quickly rose to leading roles in a dozen Hollywood movies. One of her most famous movie was The Canary Murder Case. While making films in Hollywood, “I found myself looked upon as a literary wonder as an actress because I read books." This same year, she had her first appearance on a magazine cover. In 1926, at the age of 20, she was featured as a flapper in A Social Celebrity which launched her film and modeling career and introduced the flapper era. When talkies explored onto the screen and Paramount used her "unproven" voice as an excuse to renege on a raise, she astonished the studio system by walking out on her contract after 21 silent pictures.

Her seemingly effortless incarnation of sensuality attracted the attention of the German director G. W. Pabst, who cast her as Lulu, the amoral, self-destructive temptress in Pandora's Box, 1929. That name would stick to her identity for the remainder of her life and make the gifted Brooks the icon of the 20s cinema. Film critics state that under the sensitive direction of Director Pabst, she gave her most electrifying, legendary performances. Pandora's Box, a film now hailed as a masterpiece of the silent cinema, was universally panned at the time as were her other European pictures. She also appeared in Diary of a Lost Girl, another Pabst-made movie that was considered avant-garde for its  day. In 1930, her return to the Hollywood that she had so haughtily rejected was the first step in her steep decline. Her intellectual independence and outspokenness repeatedly brought her into conflict with studio executives. After appearing in humiliating roles in several "B-Grade" Hollywood films, she permanently abandoned the cinema in 1938. Her running battles with the studio moguls are legendary, and her unfulfilling observation of her fellow movie folks are notorious. "I fled back to Wichita (after ending her film career and two short-lived marriages) where her family had moved in 1919. But that turned out to be another kind of hell. The citizens of Wichita either resented me having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn't exactly enchanted with them. I must confess to a lifelong curse: My own failure as a social creature," she once wrote.

Once derailed as a brainy showgirl, the elder Brooks reemerged in the 1950s-1970s as a respected, articulate historian and acerbic writer, memoirist and film critic when a revival of the silent-film era opened in the cinema industry. In 1982, three years before her death on August 8, 1985, a collection of writings on her career, Lulu In Hollywood, was published. Miss Brooks, a free spirit known for her independence, complete honesty at any cost and open contempt for the American film industry, later stated "her intelligence and seriousness were handicaps in her American film career." She would go to city libraries and correct untrue written information in biographies and autobiographies. Her marginal notes and editing became legendary in the Rochester area.

She was an amazing woman. In the years after her death, many cinematic, literary, musical, cartoon and dramatic homage have been paid to Louise Brooks, the Jazz Age girl with the bewitching look of false innocence, incredible beauty, and the Cherryvale signature "high-brow bob haircut". She was the silver-screen siren cult figure who helped to unfold and personify the image of the "flapper girl" throughout the world, influencing women for years to come. This biography covers mostly her early life in Cherryvale and briefly the career of this fascinating beauty and her accomplishments. For extensive biographies, filmography, and many Brooks photographs by famous photographers, please click on the below listed Favorite Web Links. © 2000-2005 Wayne Hallowell

Click on the thumbnails below to view a larger image and captions.

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Note: All rights are reserved. The presentation of all photos and electronic materials on these pages are the property of other sources and historical societies, and used with their permission.
 

Favorite Web Links:

Louise Brooks Society
www.pandorasbox.com
Excellent resource for anyone with an avid interest in Brooks and the Jazz Age; includes tributes, filmography, portrait gallery, and interviews of America's great silent actress.

Louise Brooks  
http://library.pittstate.edu/spcoll/ndxbrooks.html
Resource on the brunette actress's early career as a showgirl and Denishawn dancer; portrait gallery, vintage articles with interviews.

My Tribute to Louise Brooks
http://www.geocities.com/silentfilmbuff/index.html
The life, work and times of America's actress, dancer and writer who immortalized the flapper look; biography, articles, essays, photos, and links.

Louise Brooks Vertical File
http://www.kshs.org/perspect/louise.htm
Kansas State Historical Society; articles published in the Wichita Eagle-Beacon newspaper during her career.

Silent Ladies and Gents
http://silentladies.com/PBrooks.html
A quick link to 174 top silent star's photo galleries; many great photos of Louise Brooks.

Louise Brooks
http://us.imdb.com/M/person-exact?Brooks%2C%20Louise
Mini biographies, filmography, trivia, and personal quotes.

Books and Videos Available in the Cherryvale Library:

Brooks, Louise. Lulu In Hollywood. Knopf (USA), 1982; paperback by Vintage and Limelight Editions.
--- Illustrated with numerous photographs from Brooks' career, containing essays in which Louise Brooks writes about her life, her career and the people she knew and worked with in Hollywood. Roger Ebert described Lulu in Hollywood as "one of the wittiest and most truthful books ever written about the movies."

Jaccard, Rolland. Louise Brooks: Portrait of an Anti-Star. First published Editions Phebus (France), 1977; English translation by New York Zoetrope, 1986. Currently out-of-print.
--- First book ever published about Louise Brooks. Includes letter and 3 essays by Brooks, 90 black-and-white images, four essays and two poems by others. Slight differences between French and American editions.

Paris, Barry. Louise Brooks. Knopf (USA), 1989.
--- First and only comprehensive Brooks biography; a life charged with passion and vitality of the woman herself who scorned her own career yet left an indelible mark on the history of film, photos. 

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Additional Research: Also available in the library are extensive research files, articles, newspaper stories, and photos.

Video: Neely, Hugh M. Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu. Turner Classic Movies Production, 1998.
--- The true tale of the life, death and resurrection of Louise Brooks and the search for Lulu. A two-hour video narrated by Shirley MacLaine.

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© 1999-2008 Leatherock Hotel.  Web Site created, compiled and maintained by
Wayne Hallowell, Director of the Leatherock Hotel

The above information is part of the heritage of Cherryvale, Kansas and the legacy of the
Leatherock Hotel Center
A Railroad Bed & Breakfast Inn and Museum
420 North Depot Street         Cherryvale, KS 67335
Information and Reservations   620 336-3350
leatherockhotel2@yahoo.com

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