Wednesday, 25 September 2013

What Men Want

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes by Anita Loos
Pp. 123/ 116

Between Becky Sharpe and Bridget Jones, there was Lorelei Lee from Little Rock Arkansas. In her ‘Biography of a book’, Anita Loos explains, “I wanted Lorelei to be a symbol of the lowest possible mentality of our nation. Therefore I chose Little Rock which even today [is] the nadir in short-sighted stupidity.” Lorelei is the original idiot abroad. She decides to keep a diary of all her (to her) fascinating adventures, complete with appalling spelling and grammar, sentences all starting with ‘so’, ‘well’ or ‘I mean’, and pert pen and ink caricatures by Ralph Barton.

Lorelei and her friend Dorothy take on the world of social pretention, baldly reducing everything to money. When offered some shell flowers in London for 25 pounds, because all Americans are assumed to be fools with money, Lorelei asks “how much it was in money and it seems it is 125 dollars.” After her marriage, which concludes Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and her diary, Lorelei (and Loos) wants to keep writing, so she tells Dorothy’s story in But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, with its picaresque elements of a modern Moll Flanders. Although published three years apart, the books are often packaged together, as in this edition.

Lorelei’s main ambition is to marry well (as in wealth) and be accepted into society. She and Dorothy are snubbed by many as being fast, good-time girls from unsavoury backgrounds. In the introduction to the works, Regina Barreca notes that Loos’s heroines “remain on the periphery of social cultural structures. They undermine these structures by their very presence, even when they are the centre of attention.”

Dorothy spent time in a circus and Lorelei could have spent time in prison if she had not managed to seduce the judge. The way she tells it, she went to call on a gentleman called Mr. Jennings, who had picked her out of an office for special attention, and found a girl in his apartment “who is famous all over Little Rock for not being nice. So when I found out that girls like that paid calls on Mr. Jennings I had quite a bad case of histerics and my mind was really a blank and when I came out of it, it seems that I had a revolver in my hand and it seems that the revolver had shot Mr. Jennings.”

She yearns for education, although she is unsure where to seek it and slips through the clutches of many unscrupulous men in an almost charmed existence. Gus Eisman, who has made a fortune out of buttons, wants to ‘educate’ her and, despite being depressed by his birthday gift of “a little thing you could hardly see”, she accepts his offer of a trip to Europe for her and Dorothy. On the boat on her way over, Lorelei flirts with tycoons and, although she attempts to be understanding, is cross with Dorothy for wasting her time on men without means. “So it seems that Gerry has had quite a lot of trouble himself and he can not even get married on account of his wife. He and she have never been in love with each other but she was a suffragette and asked him to marry her, so what could she do?”

Armed with introductions, she sets out in London to experience adventure, but is soon disillusioned. Barreca explains, “Loos masks her satire by having her female protagonist appear to describe faithfully a series of events without, apparently, embellishing any of them. She writes with a wink at the reader, assuming both common ground and comedic camaraderie.” In the later, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Lorelei lampoons the struggle for uniqueness with wide-eyed naivety. “And so I gave Henry a subscription to the Book of the Month Club that tells you the book you have to read every month to make your individuality stand out. And it really is remarkable, because it makes over 50,000 people read the same book every month.”

Lorelei is discouraged that she has to take a train into London: “I mean everything is much better in New York, because the boat comes right up to New York and I am really beginning to think that London is not so educational after all.” Later, when they sail to Paris in “quite a small ship”, she is similarly bewildered. “It does not take nearly so long to come to Paris as it does to come to London. I mean it seems quite unusual to think that it takes 6 days to come to London and only one day to come to Paris.”

Neither is she impressed with the Tower of London. “In London they make a very, very great fuss over nothing at all. For instants, they make a great fuss over a tower that really is not even as tall as the Hickox building in Little Rock, Arkansas and it would only make a chimney on one of our towers in New York.” Rather, she finds pleasure in wining and dining at other people’s expense. “Major Falcon is really quite a delightful gentleman for an Englishman. I mean he really spends quite a lot of money and we had quite a delightful luncheon and dinner in the Ritz.”

She and Dorothy ensconce themselves at “a very very smart new restaurant called the Café de Paris” where they drink champagne cocktails, “that you could not get in New York for neither love nor money and I told Piggie that when you are traveling you really ought to take advantadges of what you cannot do at home.” Lorelei expounds this theme when she asks her benefactor, the Button King to put a down-payment on a diamond tiara, “Because what is the use of traveling if you do not take advantadge of oportunities and it really is quite unusual to get a bargain from an English lady.”

Dismissing Marilyn Monroe’s breathy tones from the mind for an instant, it is worth remembering that Lorelei can be whatever you want her to be, affecting manners and attitudes to suit any occasion. “I often remember papa back in Arkansas and he often used to say that his grandpa came from a place in England called Australia, so really, I mean to say, it is no wonder that the English seems to come out of me sometimes. Because if a girl seems to have an English accent I really think it is quite jolly.”

Paris fares a little better in Lorelei’s estimation because of its famous history. “Because when Dorothy and I went on a walk, we only walked a few blocks but in only a few blocks we read all of the famous historical names like Coty and Cartier and I knew we were seeing something educational at last and our whole trip was not a failure.” She does learn something about Parisian bureaucracy although, as with everything else in the novels, she doesn’t express this opinion directly. Rather, in But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, she makes in-house references to a Mr Goldmark who attempts to renovate a theatre but soon finds they don’t do business the American way and he ends up paying people who have seemingly nothing to do with it. “A Parisian theatre is Sacred, and you can not put in ventilation until you have gone up before a Governmental Committee of Architecks who want to know the reason why? Because in the old historical days of Paris, Dorothy says that people who went to the theatre did not care what they smelled. And the French love to keep up all of the old traditions.”

People try to look after the girls in Paris and show them the sights, but Lorelei insists, “I really think we ought to do more shopping because shopping really seems to be what Paris is principaly for.” Of course the pair are gold-diggers or material girls, as many critics and admirers have asserted. The words made famous by Marilyn are explained by Lorelei; “I mean a girl has to look out in Paris, or she would have such a good time that she would never get anywheres. So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever.”

It is apt that Lorelei is a mythological siren who combs her golden hair and unwittingly distracts men with her looks and her song, luring them to their death. The key is in that lack of intent. In a 1995 essay, ‘Taking Blondes Seriously’, Susan Hegeman asks, “is she a sexual predator, or is she an innocent party; does she coax men into recklessness, or is she the passive object of their dangerous passions?” Edith Wharton was concerned with the fortunes of young women searching for a position and meaning in society, and she called Gentlmen Prefer Blondes, “the great American novel (at last!)”

The girls have remarkable looks, boundless energy, and even great intelligence, albeit unpolished. The men wish to use them for decorative boasting, but the women know what they want as well, or as Beyoncé would say, “If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Lorelei is happy to share her wisdom, suggesting that “spending money is only just a habit and if you get a gentleman started on buying one dozen orchids at a time he really gets very good habits.” Further advice is offered in the form of going for long evening carriage rides to prompt a marriage proposal, “and he may say something definite, because nothing makes gentlemen get so definite as looking at nature when it is moonlight.”

Lorelei confounds “a famous doctor in Vienna called Dr Froyd” who likes to know what people dream because their subconscious tells them the things they would like to do. He is, therefore, astonished to find that Lorelei doesn’t dream because she hasn’t got any inhibitions and always does exactly what she wants. “So then Dr. Froyd said that all I needed was to cultivate a few inhibitions and get some sleep.”

Dorothy also grudgingly admires Lorelei’s sangfroid. “I mean she said my brains reminded her of a radio because you listen to it for days and days and you get discouradged and just when you are getting ready to smash it, something comes out that is a masterpiece.” The two may both be showgirls with romantic notions, and they are great friends (which is the highlight of the novel) but they frequently argue and criticise each other. These quips and disagreements also translated into cinematic gold. In his 1985 essay, ‘Film Comment’, Richard Corliss wrote, “Loos developed the style of wisecracking dialogue that has been the American cinema’s most bracing contribution to the English language… The effect was revolutionary.”

Feeling well-travelled, experienced, and educated Lorelei and Dorothy return to New York. Lorelei is particularly enamoured by the members of the Algonquin Club who travel the world telling people about the Algonquin Club but prefer it at home because “every time they met somebody new, they had to stop and explain all of their personal illusions before their jokes could be laughed at, and it only wasted everybody’s time.” Lorelei suggests an affinity with this spirit. “I think it’s wonderful to have so many internal resources that you never have to bother to go outside of yourself to see anything.”

At the end of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Lorelei marries the immensely wealthy Henry Spoffard, but it is far from the happy ever after that these stories often were. Indeed, Henry is a film censor and Lorelei is bored with his morals. She decides to write Dorothy’s story, in which endeavour she is encouraged by her husband. “I mean, Henry is quite broad minded like all great Reformers have to be in order to look at both sides of the same thing at once. And he really does not mind what a girl has been through as long as she does not enjoy herself at the finish.”

Dorothy’s marriage to a saxophone player isn’t the answer to her dreams either, as she discovers that she doesn’t really like him and they have “nothing that is common”. They eventually divorce, but not before they have been through some tense situations. “Although he constantly conversed, he really said so little that Dorothy would finally have to tell him to save his breath for his saxaphone. And then words would pass between them. And finally other objects would pass between them, like heavy iron ornaments and crockery ash trays for instants, and Dorothy really began to wonder if marriage was a failure?”

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was first published in 1925, the same year as The Great Gatsby. Loos writes that Lorelei’s story in the hands of a “real novelist (Dreiser, Faulkner, Hemingway)” would have been grim and moralistic, and “curdled his readers’ blood with massive indignation.” Indeed the plot was dismantled in Russia where Soviet authorities saw it as evidence of “the exploitation of helpless female blondes by predatory magnates of the Capitalistic System.” It is almost impossible to separate the great talents of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Howard Hawks’ musical screen adaptation, but this original comic novel packs its own punch and deserves equal credit for its incisive insight into the Jazz Age.

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