PRINT April 1990


I AM LOUISE BROOKS, whom no man will ever possess. Photographed in profile, or three-quarter profile, or full front, photographed and filmed for as long as I can remember; interviewed for as long as I can remember (before and after I was forgotten); slandered and revered for as long as I can remember—I remain Louise Brooks, whom no man will ever possess. There is my hair, as black as all that, and the crest of my eyebrows, as black as all that, which do not meet in the center of my forehead but nearly meet at the edge of my bangs, the enameled black of my bangs attached to the rest of it, my hair, which I wore less as a helmet than as a shroud. There is my face and there are my eyes, implanted in that absolutely alabaster exterior known as my face, seen time and again in profile and three-quarter profile and full front, which did not convey the vitality of youth so much as it conveyed the dissatisfaction one might have with such a thing, youth, upon realizing it exists only to be ruined, and sometimes one simply wants to get on with it. In my face you did not see death at work but death at play, hence my film “character,” the same one again and again, living in the mortuary of this world and knowing that Death, as an entity, has no regard for whether or not one takes one lover or sixteen, or seeks the ravages of gin to ravage and/or revenge one’s beauty, to accelerate hate or disappoint love—in the end, we are all to be assassinated. My “character” (in everything from Love ’em and Leave ’em to Pandora’s Box to Prix de Beauté to Diary of a Lost Girl) thinks of nothing beyond this moment, the moment of assassination (“It is Christmas Eve and she [Lulu] is about to receive the gift that has been her dream since childhood: death by a sexual maniac,1 I wrote once, elsewhere). No Christian ethic to speak of for “her.” And yet I myself died a devout Catholic. I am Louise Brooks, whom no man will ever possess.

I am Louise Brooks, whom no man will ever possess—not the biographer, chronicler, or fan; these are the roles they have assigned themselves in the flickering presence of herself, which may have been myself, too. These men, in making of themselves, each and every one, a fan, assign themselves an absent role—the fan does not exist as a presence to which one (myself) can reciprocate love or kindness or friendship since I or her (that star) exist as an object to revere, a condition that can only produce hate. This last was known to me since childhood. It was then that a man, a neighborhood friend, did things to me that hurt and hurt. There was no Jesus for me then; just him, this man. And the things he did—my beauty was a conduit for violence against me. And yet I became “her,” desired to be seen time and again.

There is nothing unusual in that, or perhaps there is everything unusual in that. A victim—a girl—of this kind of molestation does not become herself after such a thing; she becomes someone, something, who regards herself as perpetually displayed, to be hated or reviled, worthless. This is so; there was nothing, ever, to recommend myself to myself except the alabaster skin, the hair I wore as a shroud, the combined effect of which was to make men disappear. Again and again, I wanted them to absent themselves in the perfection of a beauty I never owned. Believe me in this: my distance from it was so great, so pharmaceutical, that I viewed it, my face, as one would a film, a film featuring a face and a story I would never come to know. By definition, then, I, too, was a fan of “herself,” hating and revering this: Louise Brooks, whom no man will ever possess.

And yet these men did seek to possess me, again and again, and primarily as authors of a text (biography, film criticism, memoirs), that features my name and descriptions of myself (or herself, the “star”) and sometimes photographs as well. But they did it for themselves. They did it by becoming authors of a text in which they are in control of me or herself, that thing that moves them to want to define and fix me through language that is not my own.

The least an object can do is shut up. Speech is impertinent. And yet, although it was, primarily, as a silent-film actress that I was known, the complexity and ultimate failure of language was what I conveyed. As one critic wrote upon the 1929 release of Pandora’s Box: “Miss Brooks is attractive and she moves her head and eyes at the proper moment, but whether she is endeavouring to express joy, woe, anger or satisfaction is often difficult to decide.” What we have here is language that is prohibitive; words fail the author in this case because the language I conveyed was not prescriptive. In which instance, as in life, is it not? There are those words—joy, woe, anger—and there is my expression of them: in the face that appears under my hair, in my neck that seems to be carved out of any and all the space surrounding it, through my body, which was a complete style unto itself.

Again, I wrote once, elsewhere: “That I was a dancer and Pabst essentially a choreographer in his direction came as a wonderful surprise to both of us. . . . As I was leaving the set, he caught me in his arms, shaking me and laughing as if I had played a joke on him. ‘But you are a professional dancer!’ It was the moment when he realized that his choice of me for Lulu was instinctively right. He felt as if he had created me. I was his Lulu.”

But in creating movement that matters, there is no need to invent a “character”—it is the self that we strive to express. In that early self, that early Louise Brooks, neither Pabst nor anyone else “created” me in a role—I was there myself, in it.

“Louise Brooks cannot act. She does not suffer. She does nothing,” wrote yet another critic of one of my early performances. In this review, the language is more to the point, although it, too, conveyed little of what I actually did: it does not analyze why I chose not to “act” but, rather, to be (among the first of my kind to do so).

One of the essential rules of screen acting is not to “do” anything at all. This happens when, and only when, one is free or absent enough from one’s self to believe we have nothing to lose. Which I did not: before I had lived, my life was lost to me at the hands of a man who did things to me that hurt and hurt. And about my “life” as it was lived: Mr. Barry Paris describes the events constituting it with such caution and at such remove that my life, in the reading, becomes yet another experience of nonreading; I am less written about in his book than chronicled. There is nothing to suggest “How I Became Louise Brooks,” yet another thing I should have written.

Several biographical details for the more documentary-minded among you: I was born in Cherryvale, Kansas, and raised in Wichita, Kansas; from my father (a lawyer), I inherited my eyebrows and love of scholarship; from my mother I inherited everything that was inattentive, moody, critical. I became interested in dance at an early age; I danced and danced; I left home to dance with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn and their troupe, Denishawn, another member of which was Martha Graham; I left Denishawn at the insistence of Miss St. Denis (I was too critical of others, she said, and too lax with myself). I was asked to perform with the Ziegfeld Follies; I was the most hated Follies girl, ever (too well-read, too much attitude); I was loved then and only then by several lesbians of intellectual distinction and many fairy boys who drank and wrote; I left the Ziegfeld Follies to make films. I slept with Chaplin, Garbo, Pepi Lederer (Marion Davies’ niece), William S. Paley, G. W. Pabst—in no particular order. I married twice but, by my own admission, loved only one man, George Marshall, who never restricted himself to the role of fan. I made a number of films, here and in Europe (twenty-four in all); was roundly hated for doing as I pleased and was regarded by many as a child to be cast out, especially in Hollywood (the studio system as dysfunctional family). Many years of drinking; years of writing or not writing. Several people along the way fell in love with me for what I once had been: that image played in their minds as my self, old, stooped, a recluse, talked some to some and little or nothing to others.

Once a fan (Kenneth Tynan, for instance) empowered himself by writing about me from that ultimately powerless position, I absented him from my life, forever. Again and again my dismissal of these men. What can it mean to any of you that that dynamic (the quivering male heart bent in gratitude at the unfeeling heel of my shoe) meant and can mean everything and nothing to someone like me, and that that ambivalence can consume a life? Or that that is all one’s life sometimes becomes—what Proust called “reciprocal torture,” or what Virginia Woolf called her “looking-glass shame.” Perhaps they did what I sought to do: to become the living embodiment of everything being nothing at all, this Death we live, this life no other has the right to claim.

Hilton Als is a writer who contributes regularly to Artforum.

1. All quotations are from Barry Paris, Louise Brooks, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

For Ian Frazier.