Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a sensation when it was first published, in serial form, in Harper’s Bazaar in the early 1920s. Heroine and flapper Lorelei Lee narrates her own escapades and those of her best pal Dorothy Shaw. The two gals are besieged by suitors on both sides of the Atlantic. Although Lorelei is always out to get a nice piece of jewelry or some other gift from an admiring genteman, it’s hard to label her a gold digger. She and Dorothy are not exactly husband hunting — they are more often the quarry.
Once Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was published in book form in 1925, it soon became a best-seller, and Loos was asked to write a sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which was published in 1928. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes also spawned a successful Broadway musical and two film versions, one made in 1928, which has been lost, and the classic Marilyn Monroe/Jane Russell female buddy movie from 1953. Loos was first inspired to create the character of Lorelei after watching writer H.L. Mencken, a friend and writer that she greatly admired let a girl, a blonde, that she considered a bubblehead wrap him completely around her finger. Mencken not only didn’t mind being teased in print, but he helped her get it published.
I read an edition that included both novels, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. The original Harper’s illustrations, included in this double-edition by Ralph Barton really capture the era of flappers and speakeasies. Readers familiar with the technicolor film directed by Howard Hawks will be interested to see what survived from Loos’s original characterization of Lorelei to Monroe’s version.
“So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever.”
Both books are written as entries from Lorelei’s diary. Little Rock’s most famous fictional debutante has decided to become a writer, and Lorelei never lacks for anything to say about herself and her endless quest for “education,” or the merits and faults of those around her. Comic misspellings are peppered throughout both books: “Eyefull Tower,” “safire,” “Dr. Froyd,” “negligay,” etc. Lorelei always has her eye on the prize — and the next prize, and the next prize. She constantly complains about her best pal Dorothy’s behavior, but Dorothy seems to do quite well for herself.
“I mean I always encouradge Dorothy to talk quite a lot when we are talking to unrefined people like Lady Francis Beekman, because Dorothy speaks their own languadge to unrefined people better than a refined girl like I.”
“Safires” and “encouradgements” aside, Lorelei has no problem spelling words like “diamonds” or “champagne.” Lorelei and Dorothy’s antics are always amusing to read about. There is a bit of suspense involved in which suitor Lorelei will finally say “yes” to and mean it this time. No matter how much they might depend on a gentleman to take them to lunch at the Ritz, or take them shopping for bracelets and “negligays,” Lorelei and Dorothy always seem in charge of their own destinies. And they seem to be having a great deal of fun, too. From the introduction by Regina Barreca:
“Loos’s Lorelei and Dorothy didn’t fall into vice; they jumped. The leap was a fortunate one. Lorelei manages her affairs, financial and sexual, with great success. She’s a broker for her own goods. Her heroicism relies on her intelligence even more than on her blondeness, and on her willingness to understand the pleasures and penalties of the choices she makes.”
As funny as Lorelei and her narrative are, Dorothy invariably gets the best lines, as she sizes up another “gentleman” while the girls are traveling in Paris:
“… so Dorothy spoke up and said, ‘I hear that they number all of you Louies over here in Paris.’ Because a girl is always hearing someone talk about Louie the sixteenth who seemed to be in the anteek furniture business. I mean I was surprised to hear Dorothy get so historical so she may really be getting educated in spite of everything. But Dorothy told Louie he need not try to figure out his number because she got it the minute she looked at him.”
No matter how many fiancés or adventures they have, the girls’ most important relationship is with each other, as Lorelei proves in But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, when she takes up writing again, but this time to tell Dorothy’s story, which is quite a humdinger. Dorothy grew up in a carnival, and we follow her from the carny life to the stage, the Ziegfeld Follies, and beyond.
Lorelei may be a little distracted by her new married state, and even motherhood,
“And I always think that the sooner a girl becomes a Mother after the ceremony, the more likely it is to look like ‘Daddy.'”
but she still is serious about writing. She even manages to get an invitation to join the Algonquin Circle. Of course Dorothy is not so impressed.”Well, Dorothy finally finished her chicken hash and spoke up and said that she had overheard enough intellectual conversation for one day, so she was going out to hunt up a friend of hers who only talks about himself when he has a toothache.”
Both books are humorous and quick reads. It would certainly help to be a little familiar with the 1920s, especially New York and Hollywood. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes aren’t dated, but they are definitely a humorous time capsule. Lorelei and Dorothy don’t let anyone hold them back. They are sassy and witty and completely unapologetic. They aren’t exactly role models, but they are strong women who get what they want out of life. And that is always appealing to a girl like I.
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