by Elyse Graham
When James Joyce was nearly blind and working on the first draft of Finnegans Wake, the book he permitted himself during his daily reading window was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a best-selling satire by Anita Loos. 1
The book has the interest of biographical color rather than any usefulness for explaining the Wake. But Loos uses language in an interesting way; her book is a prime example of modernist techniques seeping into popular use. And the dialect humor is close to what Joyce worked for in certain chapters of his earlier books.
(In fact, although Loos works against the background of modernism and name-checks Conrad, there is an important sense in which her book is a reminder of how much high modernism borrowed from popular culture. Emphasis on the material of language had characterized the main stream of American literary humor throughout the nineteenth century.)
Loos grew up in California in a small family that ran a nickelodeon. She spent her spare hours at the library poring over magazines that arrived from back East. For extra income, her father enrolled his children as players in various stock troupes and touring companies, but Loos apparently didn’t care for acting. At six years old, she had won a children’s poetry contest, which left her intent, she later said, to become a famous writer (Carey, 15-20). 2
She struck the right kind of writing for her historical moment in 1916. That year she sketched out a film treatment—it was a short story laid out visually, since she didn’t know scriptwriting technique—and mailed it to Biograph, the production company that made reels for her family’s theater. An envelope returned bearing a check and a release form. She was twenty-three years old. Over the next several years, Loos wrote a number of scripts for Biograph and eventually moved to New York City– where, she recalled later, she would be “breathing the same air as Henry Mencken” (Carey, 21-28).
Loos befriended Mencken, and later claimed to have had a flirtatious relationship with him—not a distinction; he tried to charm most of the women he met. One day in 1924, while riding a train across the Midwest, Loos noticed that the men in her car ignored her but leaped to hoist luggage for the blonde beside her. She simmered and thought about a blonde who then had Mencken’s arm, undeservedly in Loos’s opinion. “There was some mystifying difference between us,” she later wrote of the train passenger. “Why did she so far outdistance me in feminine allure? Could her power, like that of Samson, have something to do with her hair?” 3 Loos took out a yellow pad and began to write.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes became the American best-seller of 1925. When it first appeared in serial in the women’s magazine “Harper’s Bazaar,” the story made circulation fly—and so increased male readership that makers of cigars, menswear, and sporting goods started to run ads (Loos, 80). Edith Wharton, tongue only a little in cheek, hailed it as “the great American novel.” “Apparently,” wrote a theater critic in 1926, “every present day musical show is compelled by law to include a song called ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.'” 4
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes masquerades as the diary of one Lorelei Lee, a flapper from Little Rock who lives well on the bounty of older men. With a brunette friend who, in the capacity of chaperone, eggs her on, Lorelei has various adventures in gold-digging and finally marries a Philadelphia millionaire, whom she convinces to move to Hollywood so she can be in pictures.
The book had nothing new to say about sexual politics. Even ten years earlier, chorus girls and blondes were worn gags on the magazine circuit. 5 The richness of Blondes lies in its mastery—and it is mastery—of dialect and irony. Loos always said that she finished the manuscript on the train and forgot it in her suitcase for six months, but six months is just enough time to groom prose and leave a cover of indifference. If comedy is a rhetorical device, so is talent.
Lorelei writes not dictates, but her prose follows the mannerisms of colloquial speech, with lots of fragmented sentences, verbal tics (“I was intreeged,” “It was devine”), and verbal filler surrounding repeating key phrases. The idea is that not much mental organizing intervenes between brain signal and written word.
A gentleman friend and I were dining at the Ritz last evening and he said that if I took a pencil and a paper and put down all of my thoughts it would make a book. This almost made me smile as what it would really make would be a whole row of encyclopediacs. I mean I seem to be thinking practically all of the time. I mean it is my favorite recreation and sometimes I sit for hours and do not seem to do anything else but think. So this gentleman said a girl with brains ought to do something else with them besides think. And he said he ought to know brains when he sees them, because he is in the senate and he spends quite a great deal of time in Washington, d. c., and when he comes into contract with brains he always notices it. 6
Free association doesn’t entail candidness. Lorelei euphemizes as she goes. “So of course if a gentleman is educating a girl,” she says, “he likes to stay and talk about topics of the day until quite late, so I am quite fatigued the next day and I do not really get up until it is time to dress for dinner at the Colony” (Blondes, 13).
What talk means is anyone’s guess. As Susan Hegeman observes, the effect of the novel’s doublespeak is to leave open to the imagination any number of possible levels of scandal. On one hand, Lorelei’s sexual magnetism is apparent from the way men act around her; but on the other, she comes across as oddly sexless. She even gives men childish nicknames like “Daddy” and “Piggy.” She withholds the mention of sex for so long that it becomes a preoccupation for the reader, just as it is for her male followers. 7
The irony of Blondes, in short, refuses to reveal its bottom. At the verbal level, Lorelei’s solecisms undermine her pretensions about herself and the gentlemen who furnish her education. At another level, Lorelei is an ignoramus pretending even greater ignorance. She perpetually undercuts her scatterbrained prose with shrewd mercenary conduct, which she undercuts again by giving fifty-centime tips in France because the coin is so small. Lorelei’s true intelligence and her true actions are questions that never resolve. Nothing puts what the heroine is trading for gifts, but our knowledge of the sexual economy urges us to fill in the gaps (Hegeman, 536).
This is the source of the novel’s cynicism. Blondes shows its readers to match Lorelei in worldly knowledge, but they likely stop short of her worldly behavior. Because the novel mocks just such bourgeois morality– Lorelei vouches for her father’s respectability by citing his Elk membership; a censor board excises naughty bits from films, then watches the cuts obsessively– the reader emerges not as a moral hero but as another fool.
Loos’s genius was to recognize this. Lorelei’s narration burlesques, in excoriating detail, the vernacular of the American middle class. Lorelei uses “you” as an indefinite pronoun, swallows complicated concepts in vague nouns, and rounds out sentences with mindless verbal filler. Apparently to sound sophisticated, she upgrades “me” to “I” in such phrases as “a sweet girl like I.” Her cramped vocabulary prompts her to recycle adjectives: “quite” and “quite a lot” to mean everything from somewhat to vehemently to often to incessantly, and “nice” for all manner of moral euphemisms (“a nice girl”). (The latter substitution is especially barbed, since it questions the difference between innocence and stupidity.)
Compounding this effect is the tendency of her sentences to wander around repeated key words and phrases. The repetitive phrasing, combined with a dearth of punctuation– she can spell, but she punctuates sloppily– forces upward interesting structural variations, sometimes creating odd poetry:
So Mr. Spoffard spends all of his time looking at things that spoil peoples morals. So Mr. Spoffard really must have very strong morals or else all the things that spoil other peoples morals would spoil his morals. But they do not seem to spoil Mr. Spoffards morals and I really think it is wonderful to have such strong morals. (Blondes, 138)
The patterning forces the reader to look close—to consider anew, as verbal artifacts, familiar items of American slang: “an old fashioned girl,” “having a good time.” At the same time, the repeating phrases become tonal variations on middle-class banality. Loos probably owes something to Ring Lardner and something to Gertrude Stein. 8
Lorelei’s idiomatic basis in the bourgeoisie raises the novel’s satirical stakes. By its lights, Lorelei’s semiliteracy is mass ignorance, her sexual doublespeak is social hypocrisy, and her mercenary instinct is the grubby soul of capitalism. Loos liked to joke that the Russian authorities endorsed her book as a capitalist tragedy– a reading, as she knew, that is perfectly respectable. In Susan Hegeman’s entertaining gloss, Lorelei’s diamonds are credible shorthand for the way wealth covers its dubious origins. The gifts of jewelry she receives improve (we may suppose) her looks– which attracts more gifts– which make her yet more attractive– a process that mimics the circulation of capital attracting capital. As her “capital of attractiveness” builds, the suspect labor behind it slides in importance– so that by the book’s end, Lorelei is so cleansed that she is fit to marry a prominent bluenose (Hegeman, 543). Lorelei rises through conspicuous consumption, and she is herself a display of men’s pecuniary strength. She is the endpoint of commodification, the consumer who is also a consumer good.
The novel gets its moral center from Lorelei’s brunette friend, Dorothy. Dorothy approves of Lorelei’s dealings; what distinguish her are brains and a lack of taste for hypocrisy. (Told that a candidate for district attorney has poured $1,000 of liquor down his sink and is petitioning all to do likewise, Dorothy asks, “If he poured 1,000 dollars worth down his sink to get himself one million dollars worth of publicity and a good job—when we pour it down our sink, what do we get?”) (Blondes, 142-43) Dorothy doesn’t draw suitors as Lorelei does, but she seems to interest a few worthy men. Lorelei moans when Dorothy turns down lunch with a studio magnate in favor of “a gentleman called Mr. Mencken from Baltimore who really only prints a green magazine which has not even got any pictures in it.” “But,” Lorelei adds philosophically, “Mr. Eisman is always saying that every girl does not want to get ahead and get educated like me” (Blondes, 40).
1 Richard Ellmann, James Joyce: 582; James Joyce, Letters I: 246; Gary Carey, Anita Loos: A Biography: 98, 108. Hereafter cited as Carey, with page number.
2 Quoted in Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, Mencken: The American Iconoclast (Oxford University Press, 2005): 245.
3 Anita Loos, Cast of Thousands (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1977): 85. Hereafter cited as Loos, with page number.
4 The Bookman 64, 3 (Nov. 1926): 341.
5 See, for example, Puck 61, 1571 (Apr. 10, 1907): 2; The National Police Gazette LXXIX, 1265 (Nov. 16, 1901): 3.
6 Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (New York: Liveright, 1973): 11-12. Hereafter cited as Blondes, with page number.
7 Susan Hegeman, “Taking Blondes Seriously.” American Literary History 7, 3 (Autumn 1995): 525-554. Hereafter cited as Hegeman, with page number.
8 See Richard Bridgman, The Colloquial Style in America(New York: Oxford University Press, 1966)