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  • The Thoroughly Modern World of Louise Brooks
  • Kristine Somerville

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Still from Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). Courtesy of the George Eastman House Motion Picture Document Collection

People who are beautiful make their own laws.

—Tennessee Williams

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Charlie Chaplin pirouetted around the airy penthouse in a storm of toilet paper. As the music on the gramophone became hard and mournful, he rose into an arabesque and with one hand yanking upward made a noose of the flimsy paper scarf around his neck. His face contorted in pain, and he fell limp on the couch, delightfully dead. “Isadora Duncan,” Louise Brooks guessed.

Louise was as drunk as the devil, but still she poured herself a cup of corn whiskey from her Wedgewood teapot as Charlie swished around the room as a Follies girl. Louise recognized her own silky walk.

In Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks had met her match; they were both pleasure seekers and way too wild in a business that was way too tame. He was between movies, and she was about to leave the Follies. She had yet to answer Hollywood’s call to accept Colleen Moore’s leftovers. Charlie had warned her away. “It’s murder. A town of whores and con men,” he said.

They had spent two glorious months together, the best months of her life so far, hiding out at her New York City penthouse during the day, promenading at night. They ducked into little restaurants or out-of-the-way bars. But she knew that Charlie’s interest was waning: the abstracted look when she talked during dinner, the unannounced business meetings and the hurried lovemaking. The scandal sheets were on to them. In bed over hot chocolate and French pastry they’d read the front page: “‘Will they get together?’ is the question filmdom asked. The answer was an unqualified yes. Charlie ‘the Tramp’ Chaplin and Ziegfeld’s favorite gal Louise Brooks, ‘Brooksie’ to her friends, disappear together for days at a time.”

For years after they broke up, Louise Brooks would study the resplendent choker of pearls Chaplin had given her and think about his parting words: “One should never completely relax unless one wants to feel the poetry of slowly dying.”

To Louise, Charlie Chaplin remained the most baffling, complex man who ever lived. She admired that he lived totally without fear and made a promise to herself to emulate his approach to life. She also recognized his enormous talent. She later said of this lovely being from another world, “I learned to act by watching Martha Graham dance, and learned to dance by watching Charlie Chaplin act.”

Louise Brooks’s two-month fling with Chaplin was just one of many madcap romps in a life and career characterized by soaring successes [End Page 104]

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An early publicity portrait of Louise, photographed by Nishiyama. Courtesy of the George Eastman House Motion Picture Document Collection

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Working out for the rowing team race in Rolled Stockings (1927).

Courtesy of the George Eastman House Motion Picture Document Collection

and humiliating defeats. From childhood on, she was schooled in what F. Scott Fitzgerald had called “the wise and tragic sense of life.” She learned quickly that happiness and pleasure were ephemeral; a deeper, more lasting satisfaction came out of struggle, and indeed, Louise Brooks struggled. In middle age, she was afflicted with a multitude of troubles, many of her own making. By the end of her life, she could talk with authority of failure and success. No one knew what to make of a woman who threw away opportunities as fast and furiously as Louise. She often did not know what to make of it herself.

Restless and utterly self-assured, at a young age Mary Louise Brooks had a sense of her own destiny. Born in Cherryvale, Kansas, population 7,000, in 1906, she was the second of four children. Her father, Leonard, was a hardworking lawyer for an oil and gas company, and her mother, Myra, was a suffragette who traveled the country lecturing on women...