Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

It’s a safe bet in this sexist world of ours that when anyone hears the phrase “Dumb Blonde,” they automatically imagine a woman. Look up any reference to the possible origin of the stereotype and you’ll find that people have developed a surprising number of theories about it. Invariably, you’ll also find a nod to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the first novel by the decidedly dark-haired Anita Loos.

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Image from http://www.todayinliterature.com/biography/anita.loos.asp

What you’ll also find is a reference to the 1953 movie version of the book, directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei Lee, the blonde that gentlemen prefer, and Jane Russell as her earthy sidekick, Dorothy Shaw.

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Image from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045810/

But what’s intriguing to me is the origin of the book itself (which I fear has been unjustly replaced by the movie in most people’s minds). Loos was a screenwriter and in Gentlemen’s preface, “The Biography of a Book,” she describes traveling on a train from a holiday in New York City back to Los Angeles with her husband and a crew of male co-workers from the movie industry. Tagging along with this crew was “a blonde,” being shipped back with them to get her start in pictures. The train had barely left the station before the laser beam of Loos’ curiosity was focused on the fact that the blonde “was being waited on, catered to and cajoled by the entire male assemblage,” while she was left sitting there like lost luggage.

She continues:

Obviously there was some radical difference between that girl and me. But what was it? We were both in the pristine years of early youth; we were of about the same degree of comeliness; as to our mental acumen, there was nothing to discuss; I was the smarter. Then why did that girl so far outdistance me in feminine allure? Could her strength possibly be rooted (like that of Samson) in her hair? She was a natural blonde and I was a brunette.

Intrigued and a bit miffed, Loos then casts back through her personal experiences with blondes, admitting up front that the majority of them made up an exceptional group: “the beauties of the films and the girls of the Ziegfield Follies…” Even her friend, H.L. Mencken, the biting satirist and renowned cultural critic, who in Loos’ own estimation “had one of the keenest minds of our era,” seemed willfully powerless against the charms of blondeness. In fact, he was in thrall to someone Loos had decided was “the dumbest blonde” of all the blondes she knew.

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Image from http://www.menckenhouse.org/txt/about/about_hlm.htm

Virtually invisible in that train full of bumbling, ogling men, Loos eventually picked up a pad of paper and began writing, “not bitterly,” she says, “as I might have done had I been a real novelist, but with an amusement which was, on the whole, rather childish.”

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Born in 1889, Loos began submitting scenarios for silent films to Hollywood studios at the improbable age of thirteen (though the folks reading her work had no clue she was so young). By the time she was twenty-six, the age at which she wrote Gentlemen, she was in the steady employment of the Hollywood film industry – and had no doubt already witnessed her fair share of “blondes” alternately throwing themselves at or being sucked into the gears of the fame machine. That gruesome, sacrificial spectacle must have left a damning impression.

But Gentlemen isn’t simply a satire of Hollywood or the pursuit of fame. Where would be the sport in that? Instead, through the ditzy, grasping, yet strangely innocent character of Lorelei Lee, Loos takes a couple of swings at America itself – its moral hypocrisy, its sexist standards, its casual racism – and she lands every punch squarely and firmly.

Spread out over four months in journal entries, Gentlemen tells the story of Lorelei Lee’s “education” – not to suggest that she actually learns much of anything. The book teams with “gentlemen friends,” who all want a piece of Lorelei. First up is Gus Eisman, a wealthy button wholesaler from Chicago who has claimed an interest in “educating” Lorelei and who is, as she puts it, “always coming down to New York to see how my brains have improved since the last time.”

(This seems a good opportunity to highlight the subtitle of the book: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady. If the word “Professional” here suggests that our heroine Lorelei is actually a prostitute, well, Loos isn’t saying yes or no. But it’s strongly intimated in almost every dealing that Lorelei has with her gentlemen friends, that some kind of exchange is taking place, usually along the lines of sex for jewelry. For as much of a dizzy, hopeless dope as Lorelei seems to be, she’s very clear about what she’s after from all these gentlemen, and why. As she famously puts it, “Kissing your hand may make you feel very good but a diamond bracelet lasts forever.”

Which always makes me wonder: do the folks at DeBeers have even the slightest clue that their tagline “A diamond is forever” comes from the fictional mind of a gold-digging prostitute?)

Moving along, at Gus’ urging that she go out there and educate herself now that she’s decided to be an “authoress,” Lorelei quickly surrounds herself with literary types (more gentlemen friends). She decides to have “what the French call a ‘salo’ which means that people all get together in the evening and improve their minds.” It’s at this salo that she meets Gerald Lamson, a married British novelist whose books “all seem to be about middle age English gentlemen who live in the country over in London and seem to ride bicycles, which seems quite different from America, except at Palm Beach.”

Naturally, Lamson falls for her and she for him and, on getting wind of this, Gus protectively swoops in and packs Lorelei and Dorothy off on a grand tour of sorts of Europe, where more wealthy, hot-to-trot gentlemen (and plenty of conniving dowager types) await them.

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Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_%28novel%29

The antic plot, such as it is, is largely irrelevant. Lorelei and Dorothy go to London, Paris, and Vienna, meet all kinds of characters, and eventually return to America, completely unchanged. However, what’s guaranteed Gentlemen’s longevity – it has survived for almost ninety years in print, through eighty-five editions – is not the clever machinations of the story but the genius of Lorelei’s (and Loos’) voice.

The chapter titles alone –

Fate Keeps on Happening

London is Really Nothing

The Central of Europe

Brains are Really Everything

– rival Yogi Berra’s bon mots for their dented ingenuity. Lorelei’s incessant use of the word “quite” throughout the book in the vain hope that it will make her sound intelligent and thoughtful is another painfully perfect detail. There are so many quotable gems in Gentlemen that I’m forced to refrain from putting anything further up here since I’d run the risk of quoting the book wholesale.

As an aside, while I was reading, I kept thinking of this recording, sung by none other than Rose Marie of The Dick Van Dyke Show. If Lorelei were real, I figure she’d have to sound something like this.

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Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_Marie

Ingeniously, Loos avoids psychoanalyzing Lorelei. We know nothing of her parents or her upbringing beyond whatever implications one can arrive at from her having been born in Little Rock, AK. (Though even here, Loos tips her cloche to Mencken in selecting Little Rock, thanks to his scathing essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” that criticized the southern US for being, in his pointed estimation, a cultural wasteland.) Lorelei appears fully formed, sprung from Loos’ exasperated forehead, and she’s the pure product of a rapacious capitalist economy.

Loos also gracefully manages to sidestep any kind of overt moralizing. Yes, she’s critiquing the predatory relations between men and women; yes, she’s positing lust and greed as primary sources of motivation for most people (toss in death and you’ve got the quintessential Freudian trifecta) – but the book isn’t a puppet show filled with villains and victims. In my estimation (and Edith Wharton’s, no less), Gentlemen deserves a place in that nebulous canon known as the Great American Novel.

Liveright Publishing has just reissued a new edition. I suggest you go on out there and educate yourself about this book.

The Exiles Return – a novel by Elisabeth de Waal

This review was originally written for another book review website but it never made it into print.

From all accounts, it would appear that Edmund de Waal, author of 2010’s surprise bestseller, The Hare With Amber Eyes, has a Midas touch. While researching that book and digging deeply into his family’s torturous past, he unearthed five unpublished manuscripts by his grandmother, Elisabeth, written while she was in exile from her home in Austria after the Anschluss of 1938. The Exiles Return, titled posthumously and finally published more than fifty years after it was written, is one of those manuscripts.

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According to Edmund’s concise and insightful foreword, his grandmother Elisabeth was a brilliant polymath raised in a Jewish family of great wealth, with “a scholarly father with a wonderful library, and a socialite mother with an unparalleled dressing-room.” She was fluent in Dutch, French, and English, in addition to her native German, and she pursued courses at the University of Vienna in economics, philosophy, and law. (In 1924, she was one of the first women from the university to receive a doctorate in law.)

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Photo from illustrated edition of The Hare With Amber Eyes

She also wrote poetry and, after being introduced to Rilke through an uncle, maintained a steady correspondence with him and was regularly offered his critique of her work. Elisabeth’s was a charmed life to be sure, but it was all to be lost when the Nazis rose to power and her family was scattered into exile.

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Photo from illustrated edition of The Hare With Amber Eyes

Set in mid-1950s Vienna on the eve of the restoration of Austria’s post-war independence, The Exiles Return opens with a prelude in which a reporter and a cab driver debate the rumors clustering around the death of a young American girl found in the country house of a millionaire, Theophil Kanakis. Switching gears, de Waal then introduces the first of her many exiles. Fifty-year-old chemist Kuno Adler is returning to Vienna alone after an unsatisfactory attempt at living in New York City with his family. While his wife and daughters were able to quickly and successfully adapt to their new surroundings, Kuno was never able to find his footing. Leaving his wife without getting divorced, he returns to see what’s left of Vienna and what he can reestablish for himself in the time remaining to him.

Meanwhile, Theophil Kanakis, part of a “small and distinguished community of Greeks whose wealth had helped to finance Vienna’s expansion,” has returned to Vienna from America, where he added to his fortune by dealing in real estate. Kanakis is not only looking to put down new roots, but also to buy his way to the top of the social ladder, to surround himself with the fabulous and the beautiful, the influential and the titled. While shopping for precious collectibles for his soon-to-be new home, Kanakis crosses paths with a different sort of collectible: Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach, aka “Bimbo.” And Kanakis, who is gay, is instantly smitten with this charming and cruelly manipulative young man.

In the characters of Adler and Kanakis, de Waal paints compelling portraits of the psychology of loss and the condition of exile as a profound existential crisis. The complex drama of Adler’s plight – driven from his home by the Nazis to a new “home” that he can’t adapt to, only to return to find his original home and his place in it irreparably altered – is movingly captured in de Waal’s probing, polished prose. And the double exile of Kanakis, as both an Austrian and a Greek (and, perhaps, as a gay man) is handled with a similar insight and sensitivity, albeit with a different intent. For where Adler might serve as a stand-in of sorts for de Waal – as well as a harbinger of hard-won hope – Kanakis brings the story to that tragic denouement alluded to in the book’s prelude.

Enter the young American girl from the prelude, preternaturally beautiful eighteen-year- old Marie-Theres “Resi” Larsen. Resi’s parents, Valery and Peter, have also been driven out of Vienna by the Nazis, and they’ve settled somewhat comfortably in an East Coast suburb (though Valery, of noble birth, finds the upbeat, “class-free” culture around her completely vacuous.) As Resi’s mounting boredom, indifference to her surroundings, and apparent lack of interest in boys lead to troubling speculation about her future, Resi’s parents pack her off to Austria to spend time with relatives. Soon enough, she’s being courted by a number of men, all of whom she forcibly rebuffs until she’s introduced to Bimbo who is now firmly ensconced in Kanakis’s social world both as a conduit to the upper-class echelons and, it’s later inferred, as a private sexual delicacy.

Perhaps because of de Waal’s intricate plotting and masterful stacking of incident up to that point, or because Resi is so young and inexperienced in comparison to the book’s other main characters, the sections concerning Resi and her relatives and suitors feel a bit flat and uncharacteristically obvious. Kuno Adler’s story, which evolves into a moving, redemptive love affair with a younger co-worker at the old laboratory where he’s resumed his job, builds to a breakthrough but then suddenly drops off, adding to a rushed feeling as the book charges toward its conclusion. Knowing from the outset the general direction in which the story is heading, thanks to the prelude, doesn’t exactly help either. While it initially piques the reader’s interest, it saps a bit of the surprise from what should be a shocking ending.

But none of this ultimately dampens the experience of reading The Exile’s Return. It is a diamond in the rough – but a diamond all the same. Edmund de Waal has done a great service to his grandmother’s memory – and her unjustly neglected talent – by bringing this book to light. One wonders expectantly at what those four other manuscripts of hers might have in store.

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Photo from The Exiles Return