Monday, 8 April 2013

'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' and 'But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes' by Anita Loos

Edith Wharton had lodged her tongue ever-so-slightly in her cheek when she said that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was "The great American novel". This book's contribution to Modern literature cannot indeed be undermined. The way Loos uses language here, shows how modernist techniques swept into popular use; or rather, in the way she drops names like Conrad, shows how much high modernism borrowed from popular culture. It must be remembered that when Joyce was writing Finnegan's Wake, the book he read daily was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; and the humour in the language and dialect in Loos's novel would immediately be identified by readers of Joyce.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes seemed like a laugh riot to me at first. Not having seen the movie, or having read anything about the book, I had opened it without presumptions. Yet, barely into the second page, I realised that here there was something stronger than rib-tickling laughter. Lorelei Lee's gold-digging adventures take her from the East coast of America to Central Europe, with halts in London and Paris in between. Together with her best friend Dorothy, the duo seem to be two cute flappers travelling on their own, until one realises that without their knowing it, they are the worst kind of danger to society and institution. The why and how is what happens in the novel.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opens in New York where Lorelei Lee, after have her acting career in Hollywood nipped in the bud by her admirer Mr. Eisman (the "button king"), settles down with a diary gifted by him to become "literary". Mr. Eisman objects to a girl being in the cinema, and the Button King is only the first in a string of long line of Lorelei's admirers through New York to Central Europe. We gradually learn that Lorelei has overcome not only a childhood rife with mandolin playing, but also a trial for attempted murder in her teens. She walked scot-free only by kissing the judge and members of the jury. Her best friend Dorothy, whose story is traced in But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, was working in a carnival when her education was interrupted by a string of Do-Gooders who took it upon their stead to decide what was respectable for her and what wasn't. It resulted in her being kissed by the Deputy Sheriff:

. . . she let the Deputy Sheriff rant on about how beautiful girlhood was, especially when a girl started in to get toward Womanhood. So when he finished talking himself out, she gritted her teeth and let the Deputy Sheriff kiss her. And after it was all over, Dorothy says she felt like a little boy who had just found out that Santy Claus was the Sunday School Superintendent.

Perhaps in a perverse way, it is because of these several Do-Gooders that Lorelei and Dorothy make way for New York from Little Rock, Arkansas, innocently luring billionaires along the way, who buy every thing for them, from seven thousand pound diamond tiaras, first class passages to Europe, dinner at the Ritz, as well as spill top state secrets. The girls learn to believe in "trust" only when "fund" succeeds it.

At the end of the first book, Lorelei marries the dolt billionaire Henry Spoffard, someone who is busy policing other people's morals.

So Mr. Spoffard spends all his time looking at things that spoil peoples morals. So Mr. Spoffard really must have very 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. Spoffard's morals and I really think it's wonderful to have such strong morals.

By getting married to such a boor, one would think that Lorelei has finally had it. But at the beginning of the second book she gives birth to the Spoffard heir, and after narrating Dorothy's story, she declares how she is finally about to win the prize she wants:

I really believe that I shall be the next one to get into the Social Register, because the way they are having to put society people out of it, somebody or other has to take their place, and it will probably be me. And when I get in, I am going to try to get Dorothy in to, because we have been in almost everything else together. And if I do manage to get Dorothy into the Social Register, I shall really have to begin to believe that the world is quite a good place to live in.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes might be a thoroughly enjoyable book to one who has an appetite for satires, for that is what Anita Loos does in her portrayal of the two monstrous flappers. However, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes lacks the spark of the former, and it can be read only as its companion piece I'm afraid. I found Dorothy's experiences and predicaments until and beyond the Ziegfeld Follies immensely exasperating; and frankly no one can write about a romance between a chorus girl and a millionaire better than Sir P. G. Wodehouse; and that includes both the continents. Period.

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