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Anita Loos (April 26, 1889 – August 18, 1981) was an American screenwriter, playwright and author, best known for her blockbuster comic novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She wrote film scripts from 1912, and became arguably the first-ever staff scriptwriter, when D.W. Griffith put her on the payroll at Triangle Film Corporation. She went on to write many of the Douglas Fairbanks films, as well as the stage adaptation of Colette’s Gigi.
Anita Loos was born Corinne Anita Loos in Sisson, California (today Mount Shasta), to Richard Beers Loos and Minnie Ellen Smith. Loos had two siblings: Gladys and Clifford (Harry Clifford), a physician and co-founder of the Ross-Loos Medical Group. On pronouncing her name, Loos is reported to have said, "The family has always used the correct French pronunciation which is lohse. However, I myself pronounce my name as if it were spelled luce, since most people pronounce it that way and it was too much trouble to correct them." Loos' father, R. Beers Loos, founded a tabloid for which her mother, Minerva "Minnie" Smith did most of the work of a newspaper publisher. In 1892, when Loos was four years old, the family moved to San Francisco, where Beers Loos bought the newspaper The Dramatic Event, a veiled version of the UK's Police Gazette, with money Minerva borrowed from her father.
While living in San Francisco, Loos followed her dissolute alcoholic father as they explored the city's underbelly. Together they would sit on the pier, fishing and making friends with the locals, feeding into Loos' lifelong fascination with lowlifes and loose women. In 1897, at their father's urging, she and her sister performed in the San Francisco stock company production of Quo Vadis. Gladys died, aged eight, of appendicitis while their father was on one of his drinking and philandering "fishing trips". Anita continued appearing on stage, sometimes being the family's sole breadwinner. Eventually Beers Loos' spendthrift ways caught up with them, and in 1903, Beers Loos took an offer to manage a theater company in San Diego. There, Anita performed simultaneously in her father's stock company, and under another name with the more legitimate stock company in town. It was around this time that she started shaving years off her true age.
Loos had known she wanted to be a writer since she was six, and she also wanted to free herself of the shackles of stock performance. After graduating from San Diego High, Loos devised a method of cobbling together published reports of Manhattan social life, mailing them to a friend in New York who would submit them under their own name for publication in San Diego. Her father had turned out some one-act plays for the stock company, and encouraged Anita to work in the field herself. She wrote The Ink Well, a successful piece for which she would receive periodic royalties.
In 1911, the theater was running one-reel films after each night's performances; Anita would take a perfunctory bow and run to the back of the theater to watch them. She sent her first attempt at a screenplay, He Was A College Boy, to the Biograph Company, for which she received $25. The New York Hat, starring Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore and directed by D. W. Griffith, was her third screenplay and the first to be produced. Loos dredged real life and real situations for her scenarios: she dished up her father's cronies, her brother's friends and the rich vacationers from the San Diego resorts; eventually every experience became grist for her script mill.
By 1912, Loos had sold scripts to both the Biograph and Lubin studios. Between 1912 and 1915, she turned out 105 scripts, only four of which went unproduced, and she would write 200 scenarios before she ever saw the inside of a studio.
Her mother, Minnie, had objected to Loos working in Hollywood. In 1915, trying to escape her influence, Loos married her first husband, Frank Pallma, Jr., the son of the band conductor. But Frank proved to be penniless and dull – after six months, Anita sent him out for hair pins, and while he was gone she packed her bags and went home to her mother. After that, Minnie rethought her position on a Hollywood career. Accompanied by her mother, Anita joined the film colony in Hollywood where Griffith put Loos on the payroll for Triangle Film Corporation at $75 a week with a bonus for every produced script, perhaps making her the first "staff writer".
Many of the scripts she turned out for Griffith went unproduced. Some he considered unfilmable because the "laughs were all in the lines, there was no way to get them onto the screen," but he encouraged her to continue, because reading them amused him. Her first screen credit was for an adaptation of Macbeth in which her billing came right after Shakespeare's. When Griffith asked her to write the subtitling for his epic Intolerance (1916), she traveled to New York City for the first time to attend its premiere. Instead of returning to Hollywood, Loos spent the fall of 1916 in New York and met with Frank Crowninshield of Vanity Fair. They had an instant rapport, and Loos would remain a Vanity Fair contributor for several decades.
Loos returned to California just as Griffith, who wanted to make longer films, was leaving Triangle Film Corporation, and she joined director and future husband John Emerson for a string of successful Douglas Fairbanks films. Loos and company realized that Douglas Fairbanks' acrobatics were an extension of his effervescent personality and parlayed his natural athletic ability into swashbuckling adventure roles. His Picture in the Papers (1916) was noted for its wry style of discursive and witty subtitles: "My most popular subtitle introduced the name of a new character. The name was something like this: 'Count Xxerkzsxxv.' Then there was a note, 'To those of you who read titles aloud, you can't pronounce the Count's name. You can only think it.' "
The five films Loos wrote for Fairbanks made him a star. When Fairbanks was offered a sweetheart deal with Famous Players-Lasky, he took the team of Emerson-Loos with him at the high income of $500 a week. During this time Loos, Fairbanks and Emerson collaborated well together, and Loos was getting as much publicity as either Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford. Photoplay magazine labeled her "The Soubrette of Satire". In 1918, Famous Players-Lasky offered the couple a four-picture deal in New York for more money than they had been making with the Fairbanks unit.
Loos, Emerson and fellow writer Frances Marion migrated to New York as a group, Loos and Emerson sharing a leased mansion in Great Neck, Long Island. Loos desperately wanted Marion as chaperone, as she found herself attracted to Emerson. He would readily admit that he "had never been, nor could be, faithful to any one female." Loos convinced herself that he would see that she was different from all his other girls, and that behind his outwardly dull exterior was a great mind. She would be wrong on both counts. She would later write: "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."
The pictures for Famous Players-Lasky were not as successful as their previous films, partly because they starred Broadway headliners not adept at screen acting. In addition to their film "collaborations" the couple wrote two books: Breaking Into the Movies, published in 1919, followed by How to Write Photoplays in 1921. Though the scripts carried both names, they were mostly products of Loos alone. Later Loos would claim that Emerson took all the money and most of the credit for projects, even though his contribution usually consisted of observing from bed as Loos worked. Much to the chagrin of her friends, her adoration of Emerson had manifested as subservience. When their contract was not renewed, he blamed her scripts, though he had claimed credit for them. When William Randolph Hearst offered Loos a contract to write a picture for his mistress Marion Davies, Loos included Emerson in the deal, though his presence was unnecessary. Hearst liked the picture and Getting Mary Married (1919) was one of the few Marion Davies pictures that didn't lose money.
Loos and Emerson turned down another picture with Davies, preferring to write for their old friend Constance Talmadge, whose brother-in-law Joseph Schenck (husband of Norma Talmadge) was an independent producer. Both A Temperamental Wife (1919) and A Virtuous Vamp (1919) were great hits for Talmadge. The Schenck studios filmed in a New York warehouse, and Loos and Emerson occupied suites at the Algonquin. Individually, Anita liked many members of the Algonquin Round Table, but as a group she found them overwhelming. In the spring of 1919, the couple joined the Talmadges and the Schencks at the Ambassador Hotel on Park Avenue, with Constance, filling the void left by the loss of her sister many years before. When Anita and Constance weren't working, they went shopping. The Talmadge-Schencks convinced Anita to summer with them in Paris without Emerson. Much of this adventure would end up as fodder for Loos's book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
When they returned, they produced five more films in 16 months. Emerson still received his full salary, though reputedly made few appearances on set and the script credit continued to name both of them. Emerson's assistant, who had taken up the workload on set, objected to the lack of credit and unfair reimbursement and was subsequently replaced. The new assistant director had eyes for Loos, who had filed for divorce from her estranged first husband. Emerson proposed marriage. They were married at the Schenck estate on June 15, 1919. Loos was among the first to join Ruth Hale's Lucy Stone League, an organization that fought for women to preserve their maiden names after marriage. Hale, wife of playwright Heywood Broun had struggled to get a U.S. passport issued in her birth name.
The couple moved into a modest Murray Hill apartment and cut back to two films a year in order to travel. They spent the summer in Paris. Leaving Loos and her new assistant, John Ashmore Creeland, to visit many of the Paris-based writers Loos had met in America, as well as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and Elisabeth Marbury and Elsie De Wolfe. Loos was soon spending time with Elsa Maxwell and Dorothy Gordon "Dickie" Fellows.
After one more film for Constance, The Perfect Woman (1920), Emerson refused another contract with Schenck, who had become disenchanted with the film industry. After working with Actors Equity during their 1919 strike, he decided that the Loos-Emerson team should make the move to the theater; Loos took a subordinate position. Their first play, The Whole Town's Talking, which opened at the Bijou Theatre on August 29, 1923, received good reviews and was a moderate box-office success. Soon afterward the couple moved to a small house in Gramercy Park.
Emerson had convinced a devastated Loos that he needed to take a break from his marriage once a week. It was on these days he would date younger women, while Loos consoled herself by entertaining her friends: the Talmadge sisters, Mama Peg Talmadge, Marion Davies, Marilyn Miller, Adele Astaire and an assortment of chorus girls kept by prominent men. These "Tuesday Widows" soireés would influence her later writings, and it was with the "Tuesday Widows" that she visited one of her favorite hangouts, Harlem, where she developed a deep and lifelong appreciation for African-American culture. "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."
Loos had become a devoted admirer of H. L. Mencken and when he was in New York, she would take a break from her "Tuesday Widows" and join his circle, which included Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Joseph Hergesheimer, essayist Ernest Boyd and theater critic George Jean Nathan. Loos adored Mencken with what may have been love and preferred this group over the Round Table. She gradually realized Emerson paled in comparison to someone like Mencken, and disappointingly, high-IQ gentlemen didn't fall for women with brains, but those with more "downstairs". In 1925, on the train to Hollywood for another Talmadge picture, Loos began to write a sketch of Mencken and his vacant lady friends that would later become Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes began as a series of short sketches published in Harper's Bazaar, Known as the "Lorelei" stories, they were satires on the state of sexual relations that only vaguely alluded to sexual intimacy; the magazine's circulation quadrupled overnight. The heroine of the stories, Lorelei Lee, was a bold, ambitious flapper, who was much more concerned with collecting expensive baubles from her conquests than any marriage licenses, in addition to being a shrewd woman of loose morals and high self-esteem. She was a practical young woman who had internalized the materialism of the United States in the 1920s and therefore equated culture with cold cash and tangible assets.
The success of the short stories had the public clamoring for them in book form. Pushed by Mencken, she signed with Boni & Liveright. Modestly published in November 1925, the first printing sold out overnight. The initial reviews were rather bland and unimpressive, but through word of mouth it became the surprise best-seller of 1925. Loos garnered fan letters from fellow authors William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley and Edith Wharton, among others. "Blondes" would see three more printings sell through by year's end, and 20 in its first decade. The little book would see 85 editions in the years to come and eventually be translated into 14 languages, including Chinese.
When asked who the models for her characters, Loos would almost always say they were composites of various people, but when pressed, admitted that toothless flirt Sir Francis Beekman was modeled after writer Joseph Hergesheimer and producer Jesse L. Lasky. Dorothy Shaw was modeled after herself and Constance Talmadge, and Lorelei herself most closely resembled acquisitive Ziegfeld showgirl, Lillian Lorraine, who was always looking for new places to display the diamonds bestowed by her suitors.
Emerson, perhaps foreseeing the success of Blondes as a threat to his control over Loos, first attempted to suppress its publication, and then merely settled on a personal dedication. Loos continued to be overworked throughout 1926, sometimes working many projects at once. In the spring of 1926 she completed the stage adaptation, which opened a few weeks later in Chicago, and ran for 201 performances on Broadway. Emerson by this time had developed a serious case of hypochondria, using imaginary laryngitis attacks to garner attention away from her work; he was, in the words of his wife, "a man who enjoyed ill health." It was the opinion of New York's leading psychiatrist, Smith Ely Jelliffe, that she was to blame and that in order for Emerson to "get better" she would have to give up her career. She resolved to retire after her next book, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, a sequel to Blondes she had promised Harper's Bazaar.
On the further advice of the psychiatrist, the couple had planned another European vacation. At the last minute, Emerson feigned being unwell and insisted Loos continue alone. Arriving in London, she was promptly taken under the wing of socialite Sibyl Colefax, whose drawing room had become a salon filled with "the bright young things" of the day such as John Gielgud, Harold Nicolson, Noël Coward and notables such as Arnold Bennett, Max Beerbohm and Bernard Shaw. Photos of Loos on the social scene in London appeared in the New York papers, and Emerson's subsequent whisper-throated "death bed" phone calls managed to inflict guilt on Loos for her absence overseas. Emerson finally joined Loos in London, and to keep his spirits up she took him to the theater every night. It worked: at times he forgot to continue his act and spoke in normal tones. The couple continued on to Paris, where Loos renewed old friendships and made new ones. Emerson's recovery was remarkable. In September, their vacation was cut short; Loos was needed back in New York to do revisions on Blondes for its Broadway debut. Despite them, Blondes closed in April 1927.
When But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes was published in 1927, Emerson proposed another European vacation and went ahead of Loos to visit medical specialists. A seriously ill but still devoted Loos followed him, always being left one hotel behind. When Loos came down with a sinus attack in Vienna, she and the ear, nose and throat specialist who was treating her came up with a method of "fixing" Emerson's hypochondria. The doctor arranged a bit of sham surgery for him and presented him with the "polyps" that had been supposedly removed from his vocal cords. This placebo treatment did the trick and when they returned a cured Emerson took great pleasure in showing off his little sloshy trophy. Not wanting to undo all her efforts, Loos retired to a life of leisure.
The first film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, now lost, was released in 1928, starring Ruth Taylor (as Lorelei Lee), who took her role so seriously that as soon as the film was finished she married a millionaire named Paul Zuckerman and never worked again. From 1927 to 1929, Loos and Emerson traveled extensively, which was hard on Loos' health. All their winters were spent in Palm Beach, where Emerson would indulge in social climbing. There Loos met Wilson Mizner, a witty and charming real estate speculator and in some quarters – confidence man. Though they saw each other every day, the relationship, what there was of one, didn't last beyond Florida. Loos, starved of intellectual male companionship, was rumored to have stopped just short of having a full-blown affair. Emerson also suffered a return of his imaginary throat ailment, though he recovered quickly after his second round of Viennese "pretend surgery".
Emerson also threatened to have another relapse after they spent Christmas in Hollywood in 1929. The Emersons had traveled to Hollywood with Loos' new friend, photographer Cecil Beaton. Wilson Mizner had also relocated to Hollywood as a screenwriter. Since Emerson had his own entertainment, Loos was often in the company of Beaton or Mizner. When they returned to New York in the spring of 1930, Emerson expressed his unhappiness at her inattention, and the guilt-ridden Loos would spend much more time alone. Emerson had also unwisely invested "their" money, which was lost in the stock market crash, and suggested she return to work. Loos was not unhappy with this, and within a few months had produced a stage adaptation of But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes and a comedy Cherries are Ripe.
With their income reduced, the couple moved to a residential hotel and did less traveling in 1931. Not long after, Loos came upon a love letter from one of Emerson's conquests. Apparently Emerson had been describing their marriage as "unfulfilled". Devastated, Loos offered him a divorce; Emerson refused and suggested they live apart, with his giving her a suitable "allowance". Blaming herself for his unhappiness, she moved to an apartment on East Sixty-Ninth Street. However, her new life allowed her to finally spend her "allowance"—that is, her portion of what she earned for the couple—in any way she liked.
When the Emerson-Loos team got an offer to write pictures for Irving Thalberg at MGM, Emerson refused to go. Loos took the $1,000-a-week salary alone.
The first project Thalberg handed Loos was Jean Harlow's Red-Headed Woman because F. Scott Fitzgerald was having no luck adapting Katherine Brush's book. The picture, completed in May 1932, was a smash and established Harlow as a star and put Loos once again in the front rank of screenwriters.
Now happy and successful, Loos moved to an apartment in Hollywood, where she was unexpectedly and unpleasantly joined by Emerson. Though Emerson expressed contrition about his previous behavior, he did nothing to change it. While Emerson busied himself offering screen tests to young starlets, Loos was now free to see whomever she pleased, including her now quite ill friend Wilson Mizner. Mizner, who had abused his body through drink and drugs, wasted away until dying on April 3, 1932, a date Loos would continue to mark.
At MGM Loos happily turned out scripts; however, she frequently had to use Emerson as a conduit to communicate with directors and other executives who balked at dealing with a woman on equal footing. This worked well to promote the idea they were a writing "team" and a happy couple. She bought a modest house in Beverly Hills in 1934, where she could write in the garden when weather permitted. There seemed to be no world or life outside of Hollywood; during the day it was work, and at night parties given by other MGM folk, like the Thalbergs, the Selznicks and the Goldwyns. Loos was a frequent attendee at George Cukor's Sunday brunches, which was the closest Hollywood had to a literary salon.
In 1935, about the time of the Writer's Guild formation, she was paired with Robert Hopkins, who would later become a frequent collaborator. Their work on San Francisco got an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay. Thalberg had taken ill again and gave Emerson a two-year contract as a producer at $1,250 a week. By mid-1937 Loos had decided not to renew her contract with MGM; since Thalberg's death in September 1936, things had not been going well at the studio and every film felt like a struggle. She signed with Samuel Goldwyn at United Artists for $5,000 a week and almost immediately regretted it. Loos soldiered on, working on "unworkable" scripts.
In October, Loos and her brother Clifford checked Emerson into a very expensive sanatorium, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Loos, who had always left the finances to Emerson, soon discovered that most of her money was no longer in joint accounts but in his own private accounts. Overworked at the studio and under stress from Emerson, she became more and more depressed. After 17 years of his nonsense, she finally asked Emerson for a divorce, and he agreed. Loos promptly bought herself out of her United Artists contract and re-signed with MGM, and bought a beach-front house in Santa Monica. Emerson would continue to find ways to stave off any talk of divorce plans, making finalization impossible. When Emerson was deemed well enough to leave the sanatorium, she paid for a nurse to care for him in an apartment of his own.
MGM had bought the film rights to Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 smash Broadway hit The Women in 1937. Many writers had, unsuccessfully, taken a stab at a screenplay version. The studio handed it to Loos and veteran scriptwriter Jane Murfin, and three weeks later Loos handed Cukor a script that he loved. Unfortunately the censorship board did not. They insisted on changing more than 80 lines, and the film had to go into production. Loos was apprehensive, but Cukor insisted she do the changes on set, among his all-star bevy of leading ladies. Loos made immediate friends with Paulette Goddard, who was surprisingly well-read. She also had Aldous and Maria Huxley as houseguests, and encouraged Huxley to stay in California and continue to write there. When World War II began in September 1939, Loos convinced Huxley that it would be safer for his family if they stayed in the United States rather than returning to England, and she got him a job adapting screenplays at MGM.
When Hunt Stromberg, the last producer she respected, left MGM to produce independently, Loos tried to get out of her contract as well, but by then she had grown into too valuable a property to the studio. Throughout the war Loos wrote screenplays, grew vegetables in her Victory garden and knitted socks and sweaters for the boys overseas. MGM let her go before her contract ran out. This time she decided to become a free agent, and even returned to New York to work on a new play. When she returned to California, she had a new partner who had a drinking problem; the relationship would be short-lived.
Return to New York
In the fall of 1946, Loos returned to New York to work on Happy Birthday, a Saroyanesque cocktail party comedy written for Helen Hayes. The play had several false starts the previous year, but now proceeded with Joshua Logan as director, and produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It opened in Boston, but the audiences hated it at first. Loos kept on improving the script throughout the Boston run; when it opened in New York at the Broadhurst, it was a hit and ran for 600 performances. Katharine Hepburn was eager to play in the screen version, but the Hollywood censors weren't ready for a woman to be "sloshed" on screen for two acts and be rewarded with a happy ending. Loos sold her Santa Monica house to her niece, and despite his time-worn histrionics, she made certain Emerson understood he would not be joining her in New York under any circumstances.
Once again at home in New York, she and her old friend screenwriter Frances Marion, worked on an unproduced play for Zasu Pitts. A few romances came her way, including Maurice Chevalier. Two Broadway producers had their eye on a musical version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and brought in Joseph Fields as co-author. After initial stops and starts, Loos threatened to quit the production unless they assured her she would never have to speak to Fields again. The show opened in Philadelphia with a then-unknown Carol Channing. By the time it arrived in New York it was another success. Channing soon was elevated to an A-list star, the show played for 90 weeks and went on tour for another year. The producers closed the show when Channing became pregnant. Herman Levin commented: "I was convinced the show wouldn't work without Carol, and in my opinion it never has." A musical film version was produced in 1953, directed by Howard Hawks and adapted by Charles Lederer. It starred Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Loos had nothing to do with the production, but thought Monroe was inspired casting.
The success of Blondes the second time around meant Loos had a greater profile than ever before. She moved to a more spacious apartment at the Langdon Hotel and bought a car; she and her companion Gladys Tipton would travel to visit friends whenever the mood struck. In 1950, Loos began writing A Mouse is Born, another novel, and when it was safely in the hands of the publisher she left for the continent, her first trip to Europe in 20 years. A Mouse is Born had a lukewarm reception, but by then Loos was already working on a dramatic adaptation of Colette's Gigi. The production was under way before Colette wired that she had found their "Gigi"—she had seen Audrey Hepburn in a hotel lobby in Monte Carlo. Gigi opened in the fall of 1951 and would run until the spring of 1952; by then Hepburn had been elevated to an A-list star, contracted to Paramount Pictures.
For the next few years, Loos worked on more adaptations and traveled to see friends, while she and Gladys moved into a spacious apartment on West Fifty-Seventh Street. Her next musical, The Amazing Adele, starring Tammy Grimes and with music by Albert Selden, never got off the ground when it opened in Boston and swiftly closed. Both Emerson and Helen Hayes' husband Charles MacArthur died within a few weeks of each other, and the women threw themselves into their work together, with Anita working on an adaptation for Hayes filming Anastasia in London. Loos worked and traveled even while being treated for a painful hand ailment that prevented her from writing. In 1959, Loos opened another Colette adaptation, Chéri, with Kim Stanley and Horst Buchholz in the title role, but it ran for only two months.
Loos would continue writing, always a constant magazine contributor and appearing regularly in Harper's Bazaar, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Biographer Gary Carey notes: "She was a born storyteller and was always in peak form when reshaping a real-life encounter to make an amusing anecdote." Loos began a volume of memoirs, A Girl Like I, which would be published in September 1966. Her 1972 book, Twice Over Lightly: New York Then and Now, was written in collaboration with friend and actress Helen Hayes. Kiss Hollywood Good-by (1974) was another Hollywood memoir, this time about the MGM years and would be very successful. Her book The Talmadge Girls (1978) is about the actress sisters Constance Talmadge and Norma Talmadge.
Loos would become a virtual New York institution, an assiduous partygoer and diner-out, conspicuous at fashion shows, theatrical and movie events, balls and galas. A celebrity anecdotalist, she was also never one to let facts spoil a good story:
She once commented, "I've enjoyed my happiest moments when trailing a Mainbocher evening gown across the sawdust-covered floor of a saloon."
She was interviewed in the television documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980).
After spending several weeks with a lung infection, Anita Loos died in New York City at the age of 92 from natural causes. At the memorial service, friends Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, and Lillian Gish, regaled the mourners with humorous anecdotes and Jule Styne played songs from Loos' musicals, including "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend".