Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Book
June 23, 2010 1 Comment
If Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: the Movie is a dazzling euphemism in which the stars out-sequin the sequins, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Book is a plainer, darker beast. Have you read it? I just finished it; it’s quick and smart. Anita Loos’ Lorelei is more dangerous than Marilyn Monroe’s: she’s all insouciance, all “refinement,” uneducated but pathologically sly. And a near-murderess to boot. She’s continually annoyed at Dorothy, her “chaperone” whose wit filters through Lorelei’s complaints about her, if only as reported speech. (Loos has serious formal chops—managing to voice irreverent Dorothy through “refined” Lorelei is no small narrative accomplishment.)
I don’t know how much Helen Fielding borrowed from Anita Loos when she came up with Bridget Jones; in the end, Jones’ diary is a much franker document, endearing because there’s really no apparent filter between Jones’ neuroses and her presence on the page. The genius of Loos’ Lorelei is that she undertakes to write her diary as if it were a book. Given that so many gentlemen want to educate her, she assumes (when one of them finds her particularly brainy and sends her a book), that he wants her to read it. When she finds that it’s blank, she decides, without skipping a mental beat, to write it instead.
That’s the kind of logic that makes the diary work: it’s bonkers in a fun way, and what follows is not a confession but a delicious stripping down of society via its blonde loophole—it’s “gentlemen,” its legal procedures, its wives, its class assumptions, its “Prespyterian” reformers and Christian “science” all give way to platinum. The experience isn’t voyeuristic: you can never invade Lorelai’s privacy, any more than you can ruin her reputation. She admits to telling her gentlemen things she doesn’t even tell her diary. This has an amazing double-effect: it tells us that her euphemisms hide something without telling us what, and it makes clear that the reader of the diary isn’t a confidante, she’s a mark.
Lorelei’s brilliance lies in mixing a genius for calculation with a totally persuasive performance of authentic ignorance: she dislikes London and doesn’t think “England” will be any better, finds that Munich is full of “art, which they call kunst,” and skips town to get a marriage proposal in writing so she can persuade him not to marry her and sue him for breach of trust. Loos’ satire is feather-light. (When Lorelei meets “Froyd,” he marvels and finally dismisses her with a prescription to “get some inhibitions.”) Apparently George Santayana, when asked for the best American work of philosophy, named Gentlemen Prefer Blondes without skipping a beat.
Anita Loos, who had sold four movie scripts by the time she was twenty-four, started the book as a joke on Mencken, a personal friend who kept losing his wits around (in her words) “witless blondes.” In the course of her movie-making career she traveled with him and several other “gentlemen” who dropped everything when a blonde dropped a spoon but totally ignored brunette, ninety-pound Loos when she was manhandling overpacked suitcases.
This is all delightful. However, I have a bone to pick.
To the editor of my copy: you got Candace Bushnell to write the introduction? And allowed her to go unedited? You are, as Lorelei would say, filled with nothing but sentiment. It’s a staggeringly (and, unlike the diary, sincerely) dumb introduction, talking about the time Bushnell first came into contact with a “gold digger” (her term). Bushnell, pursuing a misguided parallel, sees herself as a “Dorothy” and characterizes her gold digger friend as a vapid, semi-conscious mythomane who “paints a picture of herself as the heroine of some Gothic novel, complete with evil villains from whom she must be rescued” who understandably “ended up in a straitjacket.”
“Nicole was, I suppose, a product of the eighties, but even so, she could have been straight out of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Bushnell says.
No she couldn’t. Ms. Bushnell, read the goddamn book. If you actually read GPB and think Lorelei is anything like Nicole, I have a genuine diamond tiara I’d like to sell you. Lorelei is not a gold digger, she’s a diamond digger. Lorelei is anything but melodramatic; she drastically underdramatizes everything that happens to her—“gentlemen” “educate” her. She has a “debut” party. Her beaux are not dukes; they sell buttons. They’re “Prespyterians.” They are, moreover, absolute party-killers. If she’s a mythomane, she’s a mythomane of the opposite kind. WHICH IS WHAT MAKES HER INTERESTING. Unlike your Nicole, she does not sensationalize. She thrives not on cocaine but on the moral power of the bland Midwestern euphemism—her calculations are so covert she even masks them to herself. She is not paranoid. She would never mistake herself for the heroine of a Gothic novel. At no point does she see or present herself as persecuted. She is from Little Rock, Arkansas, and even when a French lawyer breaks into her hotel room to scream and weep at her, she watches for awhile in incomprehension until she gets bored. Over and above all this, however, Lorelei is funny. Nicole, as you describe her, is not.
The point: Lorelei doesn’t belong to the Sex and the City universe. This is important and true, and it does Loos a huge disservice to suggest the connection. A much closer descendant of Lorelei’s is The Book Group‘s Fist, whose wide-eyed brainlessness and awareness of others ebb and flow in totally unpredictable ways but have this much in common: they always presuppose her intelligence and her effect on men. For the love of Pete, have Annie Griffin write the introduction to the next edition! Or Helen Fielding!
For Odd Saint, I propose Anita Loos, who saw fit to write complicated women even when she joked. Would that there were more of her in the movies.