Born Mary Louise Brooks in Cherryvale, Kansas. This beautiful dark-haired actress is primarily known for her roles in Silent Films made during the late Roaring Twenties in the USA and three films made in Europe in 1929 and 1930, and her trend-setting "bob" hairstyle.
Her parents were somewhat "ethereal", and although they inspired her with a love of books and music - her mother was a talented pianist who played the latest Debussy and Satie for her - they failed to protect her from childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a neighborhood predator. This single series of events was a major influence on her life and career - she once claimed she was incapable of real love. A natural actress and dancer, she was destined for great highs and lows.
She began her entertainment career as a talented dancer, appearing in her teens with the revolutionary Denishawn modern dance company whose members included Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn. After leaving Denishawn under a cloud, (her soon-to-be-famous obstinancy did her a disservice here), she turned to her influential friends, and she was quickly a featured dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, where she was immediately noticed by the then New York-based movie studios for her great beauty. Signing with Paramount Studios, where she stayed for most of the remainder of her American film career, her film debut was in the silent The Street of Forgotten Men in an uncredited role in 1925. Soon, however, she was playing the lead female role in a number of silent light comedies and "flapper" films over the next few years, starring with Adolphe Menjou, and W. C. Fields among others. She was noticed in Europe for her pivitol vamp role in the Howard Hawks directed silent "buddy film", A Girl In Every Port in 1928.
Her best American role was in one of the last silent film dramas, Beggars Of Life in 1928, as an abused country girl on the run with Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery as hoboes she meets while riding the rails. Much of this film was shot on location, an unusual practice for the time, and the boom microphone was invented for this film by the director, William Wellman, who needed it for one of the first experimental talking scenes in the movies. At this time in her life, she was rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, and was a regular guest of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies, at San Simeon. Her pageboy bob haircut had started a sensational trend, as many women in the Western world cut their hair like hers. Soon after this film was made, Louise, who loathed the Hollywood "scene", refused a request to record voice-over tracks for The Canary Murder Case, and left for Europe to make films for G. W. Pabst, the great German Expressionist director, effectively ending her Hollywood Studio career.
She starred in the 1928 film Pandora's Box, in which her waiflike role as the doomed flapper, Lulu, who meets her fate at the hands of Jack The Ripper after a series of salacious escapades, made her an icon of life, and death, in the Jazz Age. This film is notorious for its frank treatment of modern sexual mores, including the first screen portrayal of a lesbian. Louise then starred in the controversial social dramas Diary Of A Lost Girl,1929 and Prix de Beaute, 1930, the latter being filmed in France, and having a famous, but mesmerizing, shock ending. All these films were heavily censored, as they were very "adult" and considered shocking in their time for their portrayals of sexuality, in addition to being highly critical of society. Although overlooked at the time because "talkies" were taking over the movies, these three films were later recognized as masterpieces of the Silent Age, with her role of Lulu now regarded as one of the greatest performances in film history.
Louise is considered one the first "natural" actors in film, her acting being subtle and nuanced compared to many other silent performers. The close-up was just coming into vogue with directors, and Louise's almost hypnotically beautiful face was perfect for this new technique. Louise had always been very self-directed, even difficult, and was notorious for her salty language, which she didn't hesitate to use whenever she felt like it. In addition, she had made a vow to herself never to smile on stage unless she felt compelled to, and although the majority of her publicity photos show her with a neutral expression, she had a dazzling smile. By her own admission, she was a sexually liberated woman, not afraid to experiment, even posing nude for "art" photography, and her liaisons with many film people were legendary, although much of it is speculation.
She was also a notorious spendthrift in her later years, but was kind and generous to her friends, almost to a fault. When she returned to Hollywood, she found herself effectively black-listed, and never again enjoyed her previous success. Rumours purportedly sent out by the studios claimed she had the wrong voice for the new sound films, but she actually posessed a hard-won beautiful and cultured voice. After the humiliation of being cast in B pictures by studio executives as punishment for her outspokenness and disdain for ill-written scripts, in 1938, she retired from show business, briefly returning to Wichita, where she was raised. "But that turned out to be another kind of hell," she wrote. "The citizens of Wichita either resented me having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn't exactly enchanted with them. I must confess to a lifelong curse: My own failure as a social creature." She returned East and worked as a sales girl in a Saks store in New York City for a few years, then eked out a living as a companion to a few select wealthy men. Louise unfortunately had a life-long love of alcohol, and was an alcoholic for a major portion of her later life, although she exorcized that particular devil enough to begin writing about film, which became her second life.
Her many lovers from years before had included a young William S. Paley, the founder of CBS, who now quietly provided for her during this time, when she an oucast from entertainment world, and living frugally. French film historians rediscovered her films in the early 1950s, proclaiming her as an actress who surpassed even Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo as a film icon, much to her amusement, but it would lead to the still ongoing Louise Brooks film revivals, and rehabilitated her reputation in her home country. James Card, the film curator for the George Eastman House, discovered Louise living as a recluse in New York City about this time, and persuaded her to move to Rochester, New York to be near the George Eastman House film collection and with his help, she became a noted film writer in her own right. A collection of her witty and cogent writings, Lulu in Hollywood, was published in 1982. She was famously profiled by the noted film writer Kenneth Tynan in his essay, "The Girl With The Black Helmet", an allusion to her fabulous bob, a hair-style claimed as one of the 10 most influential in history by beauty magazines the world over.
She rarely gave interviews, but had a special relationship with John Kobal and Kevin Brownlow, the film historians, and they were able to capture on paper some of her amazing personality. She had lived alone by choice for many years, and Louise passed away quietly in 1985, after suffering from arthritis and emphysema for many years.
After her death, an excellent biographical film, Louise Brooks: Looking For Lulu, was made in 1998. She was married twice, but never had chidren - she referred to herself as "Barren Brooks". Her first husband was director Edward Sutherland; they later divorced. Her second husband was Chicago millionaire Deering Davis; they married in 1933, Deering left her five months later, and they divorced in 1937.
Louise Brooks is a still a major style influence, is considered one of the great actresses of the movies, an indispensible writer about Film, and one of the sexiest stars ever photographed.