Anita Loos (1893-1981) is most famous for her satirical short story collection Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, which became a film phenomenon starring Marilyn Monroe. She was an amazingly prolific writer who turned out more than 150 works including film scripts, short stories, novels, plays, and autobiographical books. "She had the wit of Dorothy Parker, the resourcefulness of Robinson Crusoe, and the endurance of the Sphinx," raved Diane MacIntyre in The Silents Majority.
Anita Loos was born April 26, 1893 (some say 1888), in Sisson, California, the daughter of Richard Beers Loos, a theater producer, and Minnie Ellen (Smith), a graduate of Mills Seminary for Young Ladies of Quality. As a young child, Loos appeared in her father's productions along with her sister Gladys, who died in childhood. Loos later noted in her autobiographical work Cast of Thousands that "child actresses at the turn of the century were just as larcenous as they are today." Her brother, Clifford, became a doctor who helped create Blue Cross.
Although Loos rejected a career as an actress, having performed in plays as well as silent movies, show business drew her in. While appearing in a San Diego play, viewing a short movie inspired Loos to give film writing a whirl. In 1913 she dashed a scenario off to the address she found on a film can, signing her letter "A. Loos" to seem older and male, and several weeks later received an acceptance letter from Thomas Dougherty of the American Biograph Company. Along with the acceptance for The New York Hat came the promise of $25 payment. The subsequent film was directed by film pioneer D. W. Griffith and starred Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore.
From 1912 to 1916, Loos cranked out more than 100 more film scenarios, mainly for the Biograph Studio, beginning at $25 each. "By 1916, Loos's price had gone up to $500 a picture," reported Marsha McCreadie in The Women Who Write the Movies: from Frances Marion to Nora Ephron. "In that year, she was given her first movie credit for Macbeth, by William Shakespeare and Anita Loos. In typically cheeky fashion, she is reported to have said 'If I had asked, [they] would have given me top billing.' "
Already popular as the author of light comedy and romantic melodramas, Loos, McCreadie wrote, began to build a reputation as a satirist, penning "wisecracking titles" to accompany Douglas Fairbanks' silent films. It was during this time that she met John Emerson, an actor and playwright 20 years her senior who was then working as a director.
In 1919, Loos married Emerson at Joe Schenck's estate in Great Neck, Long Island. "All the movie bigshots in the New York area were present," Loos wrote in Cast of Thousands. "I had set my sights on a man of brains, to whom I could look up," she lamented. "But what a terrible let down it would be to find out that I was smarter than he was."
Loos found her marriage disappointing from the start. "Instead of living happily ever after," she wrote, "John and I set about wrecking each other's lives. Our marriage was both tragic and comic, together with a thousand combinations of the two." The couple collaborated on a number of film projects and two books, Breaking Into the Movies, published in 1919, and How to Write Photoplays, 1921. Later Loos would claim that Emerson took all of the money and most of the credit for projects, even though his contribution usually consisted of observing from bed as Loos worked.
Despite Loos' unhappiness and Emerson's alleged philandering, the couple remained married until Emerson's death March 8, 1956. "Sometimes I get enquiries (sic) concerning my marriage to a man who treated me with complete lack of consideration, tried to take credit for my work and appropriated all my earnings," Loos wrote in Cast of Thousands. "The main reason is that my husband liberated me; granted me full freedom to choose my own companions."
Early in their marriage, the couple grew rich from the booming stock market. Together they traveled to Europe to pursue their dreams of "happily ever after." However, as the marriage soured, so did the U.S. economy. Loos and Emerson went broke in the 1929 stock market crash, and Emerson "was more than grateful to send me back to the easy money of Hollywood, where the golden era of movies was in full swing," Loos wrote. "Although the United States was in the depths of a depression, folks were scrimping on the bare necessities of life in a search for diversion."
Back to Hollywood
Irving Thalberg of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lured Loos back to Hollywood by asking her to craft a script based on a popular novel, Red Headed Woman. Loos jumped at the chance, especially since she would earn $3,500 a week. When she arrived in Hollywood, she learned that several other writers had made failed attempts at writing the script, including her friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. Loos wound up having the magic touch. Her script became a hit film that launched the career of Jean Harlow.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Loos enjoyed a productive and profitable relationship with MGM, for whom she wrote scripts for films including Susan and God, which starred Joan Crawford, The Girl from Missouri, San Francisco, and The Women, based on the play by Clare Booth Luce. In Cast of Thousands, she fondly recalled lunches at a café near the studio, where she would spend hours with other MGM writers, plus actors including Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Jean Harlow. "We called our hangout the 'Trap' and took the same delight in going there that kids do in playing hooky," she wrote.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Loos' own career caught fire with the publication of her book of short stories Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which chronicles the story of Lorelei Lee, a gold-digging blonde traveling through Europe. The inspiration came from a fellow train passenger when Loos traveled from New York to Hollywood with a group of film directors and writers. "Accompanying us on that jaunt was a Broadway cutie who was being imported to Hollywood for a screen test," Loos noted in Cast of Thousands. Over the course of the train trip, Loos grew more and more irritated by the behavior of the men, who jumped at the woman's every move. Comparing herself favorably to the actress, Loos could only conclude that the men were enchanted by her "quite unnatural" haircolor. "Why did she so far outdistance me in feminine allure?" Loos lamented. "Could her power, like that of Samson, have something to do with her hair?"
The notes Loos scribbled during that trip later evolved into a biting satire starring a magnetic flapper. The piece was published in serial form in Harper's Bazaar, sparking a huge leap in sales, and in 1925 as a book, garnering Loos fan letters from fellow authors William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, and Edith Wharton, among others.
The blazing success of Loos' book had one unusual side-effect. While Gentlemen Prefer Blondes earned Loos widespread acclaim, Loos' husband, John Emerson, began to suffer from a mysterious throat ailment. Loos suspected cancer. However, as she wrote in Kiss Hollywood Goodbye, she soon learned otherwise. "Dr. Jelliffe went on to inform me the specific reason for [Emerson's] loss of voice," she wrote. "The poor man, suffering agonies over the success of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, had invented a disease as a means of attracting attention. Dr. Jelliffe proceeded to quote from H.L. Mencken that a husband may survive the fact of a wife having more money than he, but if she earns more, it can destroy his very essence."
The book, which was eventually translated into 14 languages, enjoyed a long life in many forms. The first stage version, produced in 1926, ran on Broadway for 201 performances, and a 1949 musical, which ran for 740 performances, made a sensation out of actress Carol Channing. The film also introduced the popular song "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." Loos also wrote a 1974 version of the stage show, entitled Lorelei.
The first film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was released in 1928, starring Ruth Taylor as Lorelei Lee. The film was silent except for one sequence. "Little Ruth," Loos wrote in Kiss Hollywood Goodbye, took her role so seriously that as soon as the film was finished she married a millionaire named Mr. Zukor and never worked again." A talking version of the film, released in 1953, starred Marilyn Monroe. Loos followed Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which follows the tumultuous love life of Lorelei's best friend, Dorothy.
Colette and Other Associations
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Loos began an association with French writer Colette that would result in two successful plays and launch the career of yet another actress. Loos was hired to adapt Colette's book Gigi for the Broadway stage, another job that had been unsuccessfully attempted by other writers before Loos came along. The two writers got along famously, and Colette herself chose the actress she wanted to play Gigi when she spotted a striking woman among the extras of a movie being filmed in Monte Carlo. Audrey Hepburn premiered Gigi at New York City's Fulton Theater in 1951. Loos later penned a script based on Colette's Cheri.
In the 1940s, Loos was asked by her friend, actress Helen Hayes, to write a script that would help her break out of a string of overly serious roles. In response, Loos penned the play Happy Birthday, starring a librarian whose entire life is blown open after a few drinks at the local bar. The play premiered on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theater on Halloween 1946 and ran for 564 performances. Later Loos collaborated with Hayes on a book about New York City. Twice Over Lightly: New York Then and Now was published in 1972.
In her final books, Loos revisited her years in Hollywood with several autobiographical works. A Girl Like I, was published by Viking in 1966; Kiss Hollywood Goodbye, in 1974, also from Viking; and Cast of Thousands, was published by Grosset and Dunlap in 1977. Cast of Thousands is a coffee-table-sized book filled with photographs from Loos' personal life and Hollywood career, accompanied by a steam-of-consciousness narrative and sharp-tongued dishing about her many noteworthy friendships with giants of the century including Aldous and Maria Huxley, Charlie Chaplin, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and H. L. Mencken. While Loos delights in name-dropping, she is less willing to discuss her own personal life, devoting scant attention to her relationships with adopted daughter "Miss Moore," her long-time housekeeper Gladys, and bandleader Peter Duchin, whom she cared for after his mother died in childbirth. Loos died of a heart attack August 18, 1981, in New York City.
Contemporary Authors, Gale, 1999.
Loos, Anita, Cast of Thousands, Grosset and Dunlap, 1977.
Loos, Anita, Kiss Hollywood Goodbye, Viking, 1974.
McCreadie, Marsha, The Women Who Write the Movies: from Frances Marion to Nora Ephron, Birch Lane Press, 1994.
People Weekly, December 12, 1988, p. 54.
Britannica Online: Women In American History http://women.eb.com, (December 10, 2000.)
The Silents Majority http://www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms, (December 10, 2000.)