Novel * Anita Loos * I Ain’t Sayin’ She’s a Gold Digger * 1925
Modernism has a deserved reputation for being rather bleak. Most works of the era were either directly or indirectly about the first great apocalyptic war of the Twentieth Century, so it’s not like they were just a bunch of morose emo kids wearing flapper clothes and listening to jazz for no reason. That said, there is a tendency to overlook the streak of humor that many Modernists had. Yeah sure, most of the time it was a dry, understated humor, but even in the most dour novels there are scenes which are meant to be funny. These folks understood humor. Well, except T.S. Eliot. That joyless motherfucker never had a laugh in his life. But we’re not here to talk about my boy Eliot today. Instead, let’s talk about his total polar opposite, Ms. Anita Loos and her brilliant, gleeful novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
It seems to me that the cultural touchstone of this story has shifted from the author over to Marilyn Monroe and the 1953 musical adaptation of this book. I’m not here to diss that movie, I enjoyed it. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that it overshadows the novel, because the book is a ridiculous amount of fun. Loos deserves all the credit in the world, too. If you’re not familiar with her, that’s okay. I mean, I’m going to travel back in time a hundred years to marry her and have 100 of her babies, but here’s a brief sketch. Loos was born in California at the end of the 19th century. At the forefront of the nascent Hollywood scene, she was a force of nature when it came to script writing. Seriously, check out these film credits. Loos wrote full-tilt for decades, and moved between movies and plays and novels. This… probably wasn’t great for her overall health and happiness, but since when do artists lead happy lives? It seems she did all this at the behest of a man who didn’t appreciate her. When I go back in time I will terminate him. Anyway, she was an impressive woman, and this novel was probably her greatest achievement.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a novel that offers far more depth than it appears. The novel, which is presented as the diary of a young woman named Lorelei Lee, is a breezy, humorous story. It’s a straight up comedy, and it works. On the surface level, this is a funny story about an ambitious socialite out to get hers. Lorelei is from Little Rock, Arkansas and is not exactly from a distinguished family. However, she’s an attractive young flapper, and has a particular talent for seducing dumb rich guys. The book is written entirely from her point of view, and as the book goes along you eventually come to understand Lorelei’s ruthless intelligence. Don’t let the constant misspellings and naïve statements about culture throw you off. Lorelei is super smart, and all she wants is that cash money. She stackin’ her paper her wallet look like a Bible.
Lorelei’s diary, which she starts keeping because one gentleman or another suggested to her that “brains are really everything,” covers a relatively brief period of time, maybe three months. In this time, we follow Lorelei and her bestie Dorothy as they take a jaunt over to Europe (on another gentleman’s dime – don’t get hung up on the dudes, they’re interchangeable) for a few weeks before they return to New York. Most of the “action” consists of Lorelei scamming various men for cash and diamonds. For all appearances, Lorelei is vapid and shallow. Yet watching her effortlessly switch gears to interact with all sorts of different people, and always to her advantage, is breathtaking. Lorelei has a very clear sense of herself and her individuality, which she can leverage against others in order to project what they want to see in her. Most of the time it’s an impressionable, attractive young woman. Meanwhile her buddy, Dorothy, is there as a counterpoint. She’s crass and doesn’t have Lorelei’s killer instinct. That said, it’s nice having her around, cracking wise all the time.
American Modernism differs from British Modernism in lots of ways, but probably the easiest way to go about it is this: the Americans were concerned with money while the Brits were concerned with society. Everyone in the States was new money. There is no ancient aristocracy here, so the apocalyptic war (which of course didn’t really touch us and was therefore not a physical apocalypse) didn’t have the same effect on American society. There was no social order to topple. Instead, after the war America rose up. This was not our ultimate rise to international superpower, but it was close. Turns out it was a bubble economy which lead to the desolation of the Great Depression, but Loos and Fitzgerald didn’t know that when they were writing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Great Gatsby. All they were seeing at the time was a blizzard of money, screaming new technology, and endless opportunity.
It’s a mistake to assume that there weren’t any social changes taking place in the United States, of course. There was a universal loosening of rigid morality across the West after the war which happened for a lot of reasons. The apocalyptic nature of the war was part of this, of course, but the speed in which technology was advancing was also instrumental in the social movement which continues unabated even now. Young, attractive single women having any kind of autonomy was a new thing when this book was written. Women were only just being allowed to vote, to work, to speak without being spoken to. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an understated example of how some women navigated this new world. Lorelei is tired of being played, therefore she becomes a player. Make no mistake, Lorelei fucks. Her sexuality is her own, and she weaponizes it in order to achieve her own ends. That her ends are entirely materialistic are almost beside the point.
When Lorelei is in Europe, she’s confronted with a Europe trying to rebuild after a catastrophic war in the midst of a massive social upheaval. She could give a shit about any of that. She’s out to socialize, because that’s her business. If she’s not making money, she’s wasting time. Her conflict in Europe is that these social transactions aren’t as straightforward as in America. Here’s an example and the origins of a famous line:
“So the French veecount is going to call up in the morning but I am not going to see him again. Because French gentlemen are really quite deceeving. I mean that they take you to quite cute places and they make you feel quite good about yourself and you really seem to have a delightful time but when you get home and come to think it all over, all you have got is a fan that only cost 20 francs and a doll that they gave you away for nothing in a restaurant. I mean a girl has to look out in Paris, or she would have such a good time in Paris that she would not get anywhere. 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.”
Lorelei’s not out here to have a good time. There’s a clear transaction when Lorelei goes out with her American gentlemen. In public, she’s there to be seen. She’s a bubbly, pleasant, lovely young woman. In private, as mentioned above, she fucks. In return, the American gentleman provides comfort and cash. If that sounds gross, it really isn’t. Lorelei spends zero time worrying about her morality, so you shouldn’t either. She’s doing what she wants, and what she wants is fuckin’ dead presidents. Having a good time is incidental, and entirely beside the point. Her friend Dorothy, who Lorelei often holds in affectionate contempt, provides the counterpoint. To Dorothy, life is a party. She doesn’t discriminate between gentlemen, and as long as they can afford a few rounds at the bar, Dorothy is down to party. To Lorelei, this is a waste of time and effort. However, the larger point is that both young women are free to pursue their desires. Lorelei Lee is up there in the pantheon of Modern Women, yet it’s clear that she’s different than the Lady Brett type. No, she’s using the loosening of social morality to further her own station. Instead of reveling in her burgeoning freedom, she’s going to work. That diamond tiara isn’t going to buy itself, after all.