Anita Loos: From Lorelei to Marilyn

‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ was first filmed in 1928

In an article for Silent London, Pamela Hutchinson traces the career of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes author Anita Loos.

“In 1925, Loos published her masterpiece, first as short stories in Harper’s Weekly and then as a full-length novel. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a comic tour de force, and no less than Edith Wharton called it ‘The great American novel’. This breathless and ungrammatical text is presented as the no-holds-barred diary of one Lorelei Lee, a beautiful blonde gold-digger from Little Rock, Arkansas, and her adventures in pursuit of a diamond tiara with her friend Dorothy, a brunette with a one-track mind.

As Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a hit novel and play, of course it had to be filmed. The film was a hit too, but sadly it is now lost. The 1928 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had impeccable comic credentials, being directed by Keystone alumnus Mal St Clair, and starring two more former employees of Mack Sennett: Ruth Taylor and Ford Sterling.

Anita Loos with Marilyn’s idol, Jean Harlow (1932)

When the talkies came in, Loos was hired by Irving Thalberg to work for MGM … Who better than Loos, for example to write a script for Jean Harlow, the 1930s ultimate Lorelei Lee type, breathless, blonde and babyishly naïve? Except she was adapting a book by Katharine Brush called Red-Headed Woman, which was a cue for plenty of promotional jollity.

Anita Loos with Carol Channing at a Broadway rehearsal (1949)

After this, Loos went back to New York, and wrote for the stage – not without success. She wrote the book for a musical adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was a little milder than the novel and starred Carol Channing and Yvonne Adair as Lorelei and Dorothy.

Then, of course, 20th Century-Fox and Howard Hawks came for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It remains a great joy to see two great comediennes, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, both of whom were exploited by Hollywood in their turn, enacting this superb comic revenge on stupid men. The 1953 film has some great moments, but it’s a little sluggish in between times. Never mind: the song Diamonds are Girl’s Best Friend is the best possible tribute to Loos’s satirical pen, and the staging of Isn’t There Anyone Here for Love? in which Russell cavorts among an entire male Olympic team, must surely have tickled her. But Loos had nothing to do with the production, having struggled with her writing partner on the stage version. She did, however, say that Monroe was sublime casting. And of course, she was 100% right.”

Carol Channing 1921-2019

Carol Channing, the legendary Broadway star who originated the role of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has died aged 97.

Born in Seattle in 1921, Carol and her parents moved to San Francisco when she was two weeks old. Her mother Adelaide was of German Jewish descent and her father George was part African-American (on his mother’s side.) A newspaper editor by profession, George was also a Christian Science practitioner and teacher.

At sixteen, Carol left home to major in drama in Bennington College in Vermont. In 1941, she won her first Broadway part as Eve Arden’s understudy in a revue, Let’s Face It! That year she was married for the first time, to writer Theodore Naidish. They divorced after five years.

In 1948, Carol won a Theatre World Award for her featured role in another revue, Lend An Ear. Stacy Eubank noted in Holding A Good Thought For Marilyn: The Hollywood Years, that on June 16, a little-known starlet, 22 year-old Marilyn Monroe, attended the opening night at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood, where she was photographed with director Bill Eythe and actor Bill Callahan.

Marilyn at the ‘Lend An Ear’ LA premiere, 1948

Illustrator Al Hirschfeld published a caricature of Carol as a flapper in the show, the first of many portraits to come. She even credited his artwork with helping her win the part of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Al Hirschfeld’s artwork for ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1949)

Jule Styne’s musical adaptation of the 1926 novel by Anita Loos opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre in December 1949, running for almost two years. In her 2002 memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, Carol wrote that Loos had told Styne, ‘That’s my Lorelei!’ after seeing Lend An Ear in New York. Styne promptly wrote a new song for Carol, ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.’

Carol as Lorelei Lee

In January 1950, Carol made the cover of Time magazine. She was married again that year, to footballer Axe Carson, and they had a son, Channing Carson. After her third marriage to manager and publicist Charles Lowe in 1956, he was renamed Chan Lowe and went on to become a successful cartoonist.

Darryl F. Zanuck swiftly acquired the film rights to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for Twentieth Century Fox. Carol was duly invited to Los Angeles for a screen test, but it was generally assumed that Betty Grable, the studio’s reigning blonde star of musical comedy, would get the part. In any case, Carol had already decided to take the show to London after the Broadway run ended.

Marilyn in New York, circa 1951

In mid-June of 1951, Marilyn Monroe flew to New York, where she spent several days.  Columnist Dorothy Manners would report that she had been given tickets by Fox to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – perhaps as a warning to Grable, who was then on suspension. ‘Physically, Marilyn fits the bill,’ Manners noted, ‘but whether she is experienced enough to take on a top comedy performance remains to be seen.’

In her autobiography, Carol claimed that Marilyn was instructed to see the play every night for a month, which is doubtless an exaggeration given Marilyn’s busy schedule. Chronically shy, Marilyn never ventured backstage. “Our orchestra never saw anyone that beautiful before,” Carol recalled. “For the first time they were all looking at Marilyn instead of our conductor…”

That November, after Blondes finally closed, the New York Post‘s Earl Wilson reported that Marilyn hoped to play Lorelei on the screen. In his 1992 biography of Monroe, Donald Spoto wrote that Fox informed Marilyn the part was hers on June 1, 1952 (her 26th birthday.) Nonetheless, the studio kept up the intrigue for several weeks before announcing it to the press, still claiming that Grable would star, with Marilyn turning brunette to play Lorelei’s friend Dorothy.

When the news broke on June 23, Hedda Hopper wrote that Carol had responded with a 200-word telegram to Fox, while Grable denied asking Zanuck for the part. Marilyn was now the studio’s rising star, but as Stacy Eubank observes, she was still on a standard contract and would cost Fox far less than either Grable or Channing.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a golden opportunity for Marilyn, and a huge success when it opened in 1953. “I was heartsick over the whole thing, of course,” Carol admitted, and she also felt that Jack Cole’s flamboyant choreography “completely upstaged” the lyrics.

Carol with Yvonne Adair as Dorothy

“I do think it was one of her best movies,” Carol reflected on Marilyn’s performance. “Not funny, however. They didn’t use one word of Anita’s original book, which was hilarious and which was what constantly kept the stage musical on a higher level. Anita didn’t write the musical’s book. So where they didn’t insert the original book it was mundane. It was the stock formula for a dated Broadway musical. I followed Anita’s original Lorelei character ferociously…”

“You can cast Lorelei two ways,” Loos explained. “With the cutest, prettiest, littlest girl in town, or with a comedienne’s comment on the cutest, prettiest, littlest girl in town. I wrote her as a comedy, and Broadway is attuned to satire.” Carol’s broader interpretation was perfect for the stage, whereas Marilyn brought a softer, more innocent quality to Lorelei.

During the 1950s, Carol replaced Gracie Allen as a comedy foil to George Burns. “Finding roles that suit the strange and wonderful charms of Carol Channing has always been a problem to Broadway showmen,” a 1955 cover story for LIFE read. “She looks like an overgrown kewpie. She sings like a moon-mad hillbilly. Her dancing is crazily comic. And behind her saucer eyes is a kind of gentle sweetness that pleads for affection.”

Her next great role was in Hello, Dolly! (1964.) She befriended Broadway newcomer Barbara Streisand, only to lose out again when the younger actress was cast in the film adaptation. A registered Democrat, Carol campaigned for Lyndon B. Johnson and was a favourite of his wife, Lady Bird. In 1966, she won the Sarah Siddons Award, and finally achieved movie stardom alongside Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), winning a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress, and an Oscar nomination.

In 1970, Carol became the first celebrity to perform at a Super Bowl halftime. Three years later, she was revealed to have been on disgraced president Richard Nixon’s Master List of Political Opponents – which she quipped was the highest accolade of her career.

With Peter Palmer in ‘Lorelei’, 1974

The 53-year-old revisited her early success in Lorelei (1974), a reworking of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes featuring songs cut from the original play, and broke box-office records by selling out for six consecutive days in just 24 hours. She also frequently appeared on television, including a 1987 Jules Styne special in which she performed ‘Little Girl From Little Rock.’

Carol Channing in 2013

In 1998, Carol separated from her husband of forty years, Charles Lowe. He passed away shortly afterwards. She would marry once more in 2003, after rekindling her romance with high-school sweetheart Harry Kullijian. He died in 2011. Carol maintained her faith in Christian Science, followed a strict organic diet and swore off alcohol.

Marilyn (left) and Carol (right), by Al Hirschfeld

A much-loved resident of Rancho Mirage, California, Carol had a star dedicated to her on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in 2010. She returned two years later to honour Marilyn Monroe, praising her “brilliant and unique” performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Carol also attended a farewell party for Seward Johnson’s giant sculpture, ‘Forever Marilyn‘, when it left Palm Springs for the East Coast in 2014.

Black Starr Frost: Marilyn and ‘America’s First Jeweler’

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Tiffany’s, Cartier, and Harry Winston are household names – but have you ever wondered about the other companies name-checked in ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’? As Nandini D’Souza reveals in the Wall Street Journal, Black Starr & Frost has an impeccable pedigree – and the brand is due for a relaunch.

“ONLY VIA A BLACK velvet jewelry tray could Mary Todd Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe find a common thread. Mrs. Lincoln once racked up a $64,000 bill for jewels from American jeweler Black, Starr & Frost. Many decades later, the actress name-checked the same company while singing ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Her character, Lorelei [in Anita Loos’ 1926 novel] was said to be inspired by one of the house’s clients, Ziegfeld Follies star Peggy Hopkins Joyce.

Though you may not recognize the name Black, Starr & Frost, the jeweler has an undeniably rich and colorful past. It’s one that the current owner and chairman Alfredo J. Molina, who bought the brand in 2006, wants to tap as he works toward his ambitious goal of restoring it to its glory days. ‘We’re America’s first jeweler,’ Mr. Molina said—and repeated during the course of an interview. Of possessing a Black, Starr & Frost gem, he added, ‘It’s owning a piece of history.’

black starr frost

That’s not hyperbole. The company was founded in 1810 and has operated continuously since—albeit with several name changes along the way. Before the Great Depression, the Black, Starr & Frost store at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 48th Street in Manhattan was the place to buy jewelry, table clocks and even class rings.

That does raise the question of why Black, Starr & Frost isn’t an American household name in the vein of Tiffany & Co. Ms. Elkins theorized that the company fell a bit short by not driving innovation: ‘I wouldn’t say they were imitators, but they were doing things that were popular at the time.’

Whether Mr. Molina will fully restore the brand’s luster is yet to be seen. But jewelry brands, perhaps more so than fashion houses, have a solid track record of a second chance.”

In the News: Marilyn’s Last Goodbye

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As so many outlandish conspiracy theories have arisen in the 53 years after Marilyn’s death, it is instructive to look back at how the tragic event was covered in the days after the news broke. Firstly, an extract from Time magazine’s obituary, which focused on the ill-fated production of Something’s Got to Give, claiming that only a few minutes of usable footage were shot. This myth persisted until 1990, when Marilyn’s impressive, if unfinished work was shown in public for the first time. (Headlined ‘The Only Blonde in World’, Time‘s obit inspired a painting of the same name by British pop artist, Pauline Boty.)

“She had always been late for everything, but her truancy was never heedlessness. Beset by self-doubt and hints of illness, she would stay alone, missing appointments, keeping whole casts waiting in vain. In the past year, her tardiness was measured in weeks instead of hours … She seemed euphonic and cheerful, even while 20th Century-Fox was filing suit against her in hopes of salvaging $750,000 damages from the wreckage of Something’s Got to Give.”

The New York Times noted the gulf between Marilyn’s ‘golden girl’ image and her sad demise, echoing the shock felt by many fans:

“The life of Marilyn Monroe, the golden girl of the movies, ended as it began, in misery and tragedy.

Her death at the age of 36 closed an incredibly glamorous career and capped a series of somber events that began with her birth as an unwanted, illegitimate baby and went on and on, illuminated during the last dozen years by the lightning of fame.

Her public life was in dazzling contrast to her private life.

No sex symbol of the era other than Brigitte Bardot could match her popularity. Toward the end, she also convinced critics and the public that she could act.

During the years of her greatest success, she saw two of her marriages end in divorce. She suffered at least two miscarriages and was never able to have a child. Her emotional insecurity deepened; her many illnesses came upon her more frequently.

In her last interview, published in the Aug. 3 issue of Life magazine, she told Richard Meryman, an associate editor: ‘I was never used to being happy, so that wasn’t something I ever took for granted.’

Considering her background, this was a statement of exquisite restraint.”

Writing for The National, Lincoln Kerstein – co-founder of the New York Ballet – praised Marilyn’s comedic gifts and unabashed sexuality:

“Marilyn Monroe was supposed to be the Sex Goddess, but somehow no one, including, or indeed first of all, herself, ever believed it. Rather, she was a comedienne impersonating the American idea of the Sex Goddess … When people paid their forty millions to see Monroe, it was for an aesthetic performance, not a simple provocation. And she, perhaps even consciously, exemplified a philosophy which had come to her pragmatically, and which a lot of American women don’t like very much—a philosophy at once hedonistic, full of uncommon common sense, and, even to some intellectuals, deeply disturbing. Her performances indicated that while sex is certainly fun, and often funny, it is only one of many games … Marilyn Monroe’s life was not a waste. She gave delight. She was a criterion of the comic in a rather sad world. Her films will continue to give delight, and it is blasphemy to say she had no use. Her example, our waste of her, has the use of a redemption in artists yet untrained and unborn.”

0e8fcf436c2bb08c85a37f81bd807e84The Los Angeles Times gave a detailed report about Marilyn’s final days, and the still-disputed circumstances of her death, under the headline ‘Marilyn Monroe Dies; Pills Blamed’…

“Two motion pictures executives were bidding for her services at the time of her death. One of them was reportedly J. Lee Thompson, director of the film The Guns of Navarone, who planned to meet with her Tuesday.

Producer Sam Spiegel also wanted her to star in a picture for him, it was reported.

Miss Monroe had received an offer of $55,00 a week to star in a night club appearance in Las Vegas recently, but she turned it down.

Further evidence that her career was on the upswing was indicated by a typewritten message on a table in her home.

It was from a representation of Anita Loos, creator of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and said:

‘Dear Miss Monroe: On behalf of Anita Loos, now in Europe, we would like to know if you would be interested star role new musical based on French play Gogo. Book by Anita Loos, lyrics by Gladys Shelley and enchanting music by Claude Leville. Can send you script and music if you express interest. (signed) Natalia Danesi Murray.'”

Finally, The Guardian‘s W.J. Weatherby published a personal tribute to Marilyn (click to enlarge.) He would later write a book about their friendship, Conversations With Marilyn.

Forever Blonde: Lorelei Lee at 90

loos blondesLorelei Lee, heroine of Anita Loos’ 1925 novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was as adept at wooing intellectuals as Marilyn, who played her in the musical of the same name – despite being the most famous ‘dumb blonde’ in literature.

Writing for the Daily Beast, Nathaniel Rich reveals that authors William Faulkner, James Joyce and many others were all captivated by Lorelei’s gold-digging ways.

“It is an extremely funny book, and has remained funny for more than ninety years—almost definitely a world record. The humor sticks because the satire is not actually directed at Lorelei but at man’s lowest instincts, instincts that during the madly prosperous Twenties were allowed unprecedented indulgence. ‘I wanted Lorelei to be a symbol of the lowest possible mentality of our nation,’ wrote Loos in a forward to the novel’s 1963 edition. The men chasing Lorelei—statesmen, intellectuals, and titans of industry—are no less representative of this mentality. She does not even spare the writer who most forcefully exposed the era’s ludicrous excesses and inanities. Early in the novel Dorothy, the only girl in New York City less ‘refined’ than Lorelei, is pursued by H.L. Mencken, ‘who really only prints a green magazine which has not even got any pictures in it.’ In fact it was Mencken, a mentor to Loos, who inspired the novel in the first place. Loos, bewildered by the sight of so many of her intellectual male friends falling for ditzes, particularly blonde ones, was amazed to see that Mencken was bewitched by ‘the dumbest blonde of all.'”

While the 1953 movie’s plot bears no resemblance to the novel, the character of Lorelei remains the same. Carol Channing played the role on Broadway, but perhaps Marilyn – with her blonde allure and guileless wit – was the only actress who could do justice to Lorelei on the big screen.

Loos MM signed

Marilyn owned a first-edition copy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and a copy signed by MM, with a dedication to child actress Linda Bennett, was auctioned by Nate D. Sanders in 2014. (Surprisingly, it went unsold.)

 

Women in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’

Over at BitchFlicks today, a feminist perspective on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from Myrna Waldron, as part of this week’s ‘Women and Gender in Musicals’ series.

“The friendship between Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw is one of the most positive female friendships depicted on film, and is one aspect of the adaptation distinctly improved from the original novella by Anita Loos…They’re a lot closer to ‘frenemies’ in the original, which is a surprisingly misogynistic depiction of women from a female writer. The musical version instead makes Lorelei and Dorothy inseparable. They are absolutely devoted to each other and protective of one another…Each thinks the other is foolish when it comes to relationships, but they accept each other’s differences and are loyal to each other before any other man in their lives.

Another feminist aspect of the film, one which I think is left over from the characters’ original incarnations as flappers, is their complete sexual liberation…They drink, they smoke (though they are never seen actually smoking, just buying cigarettes), they dance, they party, they stay out late. And while wealthy men like Gus’ father look down on women like Lorelei, they are completely unapologetic about their choices.

The film also depicts the women as unmistakably intelligent, albeit in different ways. Dorothy is very obviously meant to be the “smart” one, who corrects Lorelei’s mistakes, catches on to other people’s insinuations, and is always ready with a witty retort. But while Lorelei might be ‘book dumb,’ she’s not stupid. Together, Lorelei and Dorothy are master manipulators, and she’s far more devious than she lets on.

The most famous number in the musical, by far, is ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’, which has endured for over 60 years and is considered Marilyn Monroe’s signature number… On the surface the song is about being materialistic – that Lorelei’s love for jewels supersedes all other things, and at the surface, yes, it would be a theoretically anti-feminist song. But I think the song is actually about a longing for financial independence.”

The Literary Lorelei

“One of the most famous lines from the book and film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is: ‘Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?’

In the film, Marilyn Monroe utters those words as the character Lorelei Lee but the lines were written first in the novel by American author Anita Loos.

And Lorelei Lee is one of the most memorable female fictional characters for Australian crime novelist Shane Maloney.”

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