Anita Loos (April 26 1888 – August 18 1981), was an acclaimed American screenwriter, playwright and author. On pronouncing her name, "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.
Following her early appearances on the stage, Loos drew on her life experiences for subject matter to fulfill her ambition to write screenplays and scripts. After a short-lived marriage and fueled by her initial writing success, she joined the Hollywood film community as a writer. In her first position with a major film company she was teamed with John Emerson whom she would later marry, and it was during the following years that she would write one of her best-known works, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The marriage to the philandering hypochondriac Emerson deteriorated while Loos did most of the work, and when the team was offered a contract to write pictures for MGM she took the job to write alone.
Over the next few years the now happy and successful Loos worked alone, socialized, and saw whomever she wanted while giving the impression that she and Emerson were still a "team"; but following treatment at a sanatorium for Emerson's mental health, the couple lived apart until his death in 1956. Loos continued to write for MGM (after a brief spell with United Artists), and then as a free agent; writing or adapting plays, screenplays and novels.
During her later years Loos was a constant contributor to magazines, and wrote a number of memoirs. She continued to attend shows, balls and other social events, and remained a virtual institution on the New York scene until her death at the age of 93.
While living there, Loos tagged after her alcoholic scamp father as they explored San Francisco's underbelly; together they would sit on the pier, fishing and making friends with the natives, feeding into her 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 passed away while their father was on one his drinking and philandering "fishing trips", while 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. Soon after graduating from high school, 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 put her hand to it. She wrote The Ink Well, a successful piece for which she would receive periodic royalties.
In 1911, the theater was running one-reelers after each night's performances; Anita would take a perfunctory bow and run to the back of the theater to watch the films. She sent her first attempt at a one-reel screenplay, The New York Hat, 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 brothers friends, 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 Companies. 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.
Loos returned to California just as Griffith who wanted to make longer films, was leaving Triangle, and was teamed with 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 Loos-written films made Fairbanks a star. When Fairbanks was offered a sweetheart deal with Famous Players-Lasky, he took the team of Emerson-Loos with him at the then-staggering amount of $500 a week. These films laced with humor, firmly established Fairbanks as a major leading man of the American screen. During this time Loos, Fairbanks and Emerson collaborated well together and Loos was getting as much publicity as either Lillian Gish or Pickford. Loos was a media darling, 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.
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 of 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 no problem putting his name on them. When William Randolph Hearst offered Loos a contract to write a picture for 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, so they could write for their old friend Constance Talmadge, whose husband Joseph Schenck 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's famous 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 did what women do, they went shopping. The Talmadge-Schenck's convinced Anita to summer with them in Paris without Emerson. Much of this adventure would end up as fodder for Loos book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
When they returned they produced five more films over the next sixteen months. Emerson still received his full salary though reputedly made few appearances on set and the scripts continued to bear both names. Emerson's assistant who had taken up the slack on set, objected to the lack of credit and unfair reimbursement and was subsequently replaced. The new assistant director had eyes for Anita, who had recently filed for divorce from her estranged first husband. Emerson fearing the loss of his meal ticket, proposed marriage. They were married at the Schenck estate on June 21, 1921. 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 "own" 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, where Emerson busied himself flirting with young girls. 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 Toklas, and Elizabeth Marbury and Elsie De Wolfe. Soon Anita was tearing up the town with Elsa Maxwell and Dorothy Gordon "Dickie" Fellows.
After one more film for Constance, The Perfect Woman (1920), Emerson turned down 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, perhaps maneuvering himself into a dominant position in the relationship. Loos took the back seat, as always doing most of the writing yet sharing full credit. Their first play, The Whole Town's Talking, which opened at the Bijou Theatre on August 29, 1923, got good reviews and was a moderate success. Soon after 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 gentlemen. 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 life-long 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. Menken and when he was in New York, she would take a break from her "Tuesday Widows", and join his entourage. This circle 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 the anti Round Table-ness of this group. Loos had gradually come to realize that 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 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, as well as 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 on 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 and the literary establishment fell all over themselves praising it. 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 years end, and twenty 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 Lasky. Dorothy Shaw 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 when it reached 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, Alfred 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 society hostess Sybil Colefax, whose drawing room had become a salon, filled with "the bright young things" of the day such as John Gielgud, Harold Nicholson, Noel Coward as well as notables such as Arnold Bennett, Max Beerbohm and Bernard Shaw. Photos of Loos on the loose in London made their way into the New York papers, and Emerson's subsequent whisper-throated "death bed" phone calls managed to inflict guilt on Loos transatlantically. Emerson finally joined Loos in London, and to keep his spirits up she took him to the theatre 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 all friendships and made new ones, and where 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 every effort, "Blondes" closed in April 1927.
The first film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes 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 Mr. Zukor and never worked again. Between 1927 and 1929, the Emersons did a lot of traveling, which was hard on Loos' health. All their winters were spent in Palm Beach, where Emerson would shamelessly social climb. There Loos met a new beau, Wilson Mizner, a witty and charming real estate speculator and in some quarters – confidence man. Though they saw each other every day that first winter, 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 Christmased in Hollywood, in 1929. The Emersons had traveled to Hollywood along with Anita's new best 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 much 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 him 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.
The first project Thalberg handed Loos was Jean Harlow's Red-Headed Woman since 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.
"She was a very valuable asset for MGM, because the studio had so many femmes fatales – Garbo, Crawford, Shearer, and Harlow – that we were always on the lookout for 'shady lady' stories. But they were problematic because of the censorship code. Anita, however, could be counted on to supply the delicate double entendre, the telling innuendo. Whenever we had a Jean Harlow picture on the agenda, we always thought of Anita first." – Sam Marx.
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 passing April 3, 1932, a date Loos would continue to mark.
At MGM Loos happily turned out scripts, however she would have to use Emerson as a conduit to communicate with some 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 around 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 a 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 Sept 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.
MGM had bought the film rights to Clare Booth Luce's 1936 smash Broadway hit The Women in 1937. Many writers had taken a stab at a screenplay version, but the studio handed it to Loos and veteran scriptwriter Jane Murfin, and three weeks later Loos handed Cukor a script he loved. Unfortunately the censorship board did not. They insisted on changing over 80 lines, and the film had to go into production. Loos was apprehensive, but Cukor insisted she do the changes on set, amongst 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 war was declared in September 1939, Loos convinced Huxley that it would be safer for his family if they stayed in the U.S., 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 beau on her arm – a relationship, with another hanger-on with a drinking problem, that would be short-lived.
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 an as-yet-unknown Carol Channing and by the time it arrived in New York it was another smash. Carol Channing was soon 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 got 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, brought Loos more fame 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 twenty years. A Mouse is Born got a lukewarm reception, but by then Loos was already working on a dramatic adaptation of Colette's Gigi. The production was underway 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 Jules Stine, never got off the ground when it opened in Boston and closed swiftly after. Both Emerson and Helen Hayes' husband Charles MacArthur passed away with 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 played for only two months.
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:
"With each book came a new spate of interviews and as one of the last survivors of the silent era, Anita's stories became more exaggerated and she was soon reported to have sold her first scenario at the age of twelve. She continued to thrive on interesting people and interesting activities – and held an opinion on everything – but worked hard on keeping the vivacious and flippant image and hiding her loneliness."She once commented, "I've had my best times when trailing a Mainbocher evening gown across a sawdust floor. I've always loved high style in low company."
After spending several weeks with a lung infection, Anita Loos died in New York City at the age of 93 from natural causes. At the memorial service, friends Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon and Lillian Gish, regaled the mourners with humorous anecdotes and Jules Styne played songs from Loos' musicals, including "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend".