249: Louise Brooks

Archival Spaces 249

The Last Days of Louise Brooks

Uploaded 15 August 2020

Louise Brooks died 35 years ago this week on 8 August 1985. I met Louise Brooks for the first time in 1975, long after her Hollywood career had ended, when she was living on N. Goodman Street in Rochester, N.Y., around the block from my apartment. At the time, I was a paid post-graduate intern at George Eastman House and confess that when I met her in Curator George Pratt’s office, she was to me just another silent film actress. She had come to Rochester in 1956 at the invitation of James Card, the founder of the George Eastman Museum Film Collection and my boss. Rumor had it that she had been living in poverty in New York City, working as a part-time salesgirl at Macy’s, occasionally selling herself, and drinking full-time. In 1957, James took her to Paris, where Henri Langlois celebrated her as a goddess and resurrected myth, while Jim took her as his lover. However, she still drank, and soon the legendary screaming matches between Brooks and Card became the talk of the local bar scene. When the relationship finally ended sometime in 1963, Louise began a friendship with George Pratt that only ended with her death.

James Card and Louise Brooks, Rochester, ca. late 1950s

George was gay. He loved Louise for her strength, but was also well aware of her weaknesses. It was George who encouraged her to write her memoirs, but she balked. Instead, he helped her research and write a series of articles, which were eventually collected together in Lulu in Hollywood (1982), a book that has remained in continuous print since then and established her as one of the most well-known actresses from the silent era. George told me he thought Louise’s career had ended because she was personally and professionally completely undisciplined. George had been hired by Card as an Assistant in 1953. By the time I got there, Card and Pratt had not talked for more than ten years, except through the departmental secretary, Kay McRae, possibly because of Louise’s switched allegiances.    

Louise by that time had long silver-gray hair, her face was extremely thin, almost anorexic, but with shiny eyes and still beautiful fingers. She wore a simple house dress with flats and no make-up. Her movements and speech were measured and deliberate. Had she really been a star? I saw her again a few weeks later, wearing a gray raincoat that looked like it was cut for a man, as she walked past my apartment around lunchtime; my kitchen faced the street. From then on, I saw her regularly on my lunch break, walking towards East Ave., then returning a short time later with a brown bag under her arm. George told me her diet consisted mostly of Vodka, at least until she stopped drinking a couple years later.

It was not until weeks after my first meeting that I saw my first Louise Brooks film, The Beggars of Life (1928). I now began to understand why Card had endeavored to collect every Louise Brooks film he could find. Could this wonderful young woman with black hair and a square face really be the same person I had met? After viewing all her other films at Eastman, I knew that she wasn’t. Louise Brooks in black and white existed only as a star image on the screen, in photos, and in the desire of thousands of later-born. Louise, herself, maintained a healthy skepticism about her and understood that she was not identical with the image on screen.

In September 1984, eight years after having left Rochester, I returned as George Pratt’s successor. Soon after, George suggested we visit Louise, driving to her apartment with Kay McRae. Louise opened the door, then turned around and went straight back to bed. I was flabbergasted to see that the living room décor consisted of a Formica kitchen table and two chairs, which we brought o her bedroom to sit with her. Except for her bed and a wooden nightstand, there was no other furniture, no pictures on the wall, no books. George introduced me again, but there was no conversation, because Louise wanted to write everything down. She had a little black notebook and a pencil, but her arthritic fingers were bent and shook, due to emphysema. It took her minutes just to write down my name. I asked her a question, which she had to write down, “for her next book,” before she could answer. After twenty minutes, we were all exhausted, so we decided to postpone the meeting for another day. It never came.

Louise was not as isolated as the above implies. She did have a small circle of friends who called and visited her regularly, many of them younger gay men.

Louise’s Apartment Building on N. Goodman St., Rochester, N.Y.

Her funeral service took place in a local Catholic Church with not more than thirty people: a few relatives from Kansas, local film critics and friends, and the Eastman Museum crew. Much to the surprise of her friends, Louise had converted to Catholicism at the end of her life. Jack Garner, the national Gannett Newspaper film critic and himself a devout Catholic – who passed away earlier this year – gave the funeral speech and served as an altar boy. Having had a Catholic education, I’ll never forget that image of Jack in red and white alter cassocks, almost seven feet tall and as wide as an armoire, towering over the presiding priest. Louise’s estate was donated to the Museum a few weeks later in a ceremony at Eastman. It consisted of two cardboard boxes with a few letters, some books she had been sent and her little black notebooks. The latter were completely illegible.

The late John Kuiper, Director Film Dept. and Eastman House Board member with Associate Curator at presentation of Louise Brooks estate to the Museum.

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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