The New Yorker has a special issue out in which it reprints what it considers to be its most notable interviews and stories. They range from a short 1947 profile of the Edith Piaf, who was once acclaimed as France’s “national chanteuse,” to a 1964 longer profile of Bob Dylan.
What caught my eye was an article from 1964 that profiles writer Kenneth Tynan’s obsession with Louise Brooks, a girl from Kansas who had a white-hot career in 1920s film and dance, and became a Jazz Age icon. (Her bob haircut engendered millions of women around the world to copy it until it became emblematic of the Jazz Age.)
She eventually had a starring role in the German silent film “Pandora’s Box,” considered a masterpiece of the genre. Brooks’ performance in the 1929 film captivated people around the globe and still does today.
The film was shockingly louche for the age, and was eventually banned by the Nazis as “degenerate art.”
Alas, for a woman of that time, Brooks was independent and hedonistic and intelligent in ways that did not endear her to the powerful men who controlled Hollywood. Her career fizzled. She was treated harshly by an industry that Brooks, being far more intelligent than most of the men who pursued her, understood better than any of them.
One wonders how well Brooks would have done today in the age of “Me, Too.” She had the bad luck of being born far too soon.
Writer Tynan of The New Yorker finally catches up with Brooks in Rochester, NY, in her 80s, frail and living by herself. But, as the article makes clear, even in her declining years she remained a sharp observer of the intersection of the arts, Hollywood, and the human condition.
I had a bit of a Brooks obsession myself.
In 1991, British electronic band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) released a song called “Pandora’s Box.” It was lead singer Andy McCluskey’s homage to Brooks, with the subsequent music video consisting mostly of clips from the eponymous 1929 silent film.
When I first played the video off a promotional VHS tape we received at the Boston video bar Luxor, where I was a VJ on weekends, I was captivated by the music, video and especially the lyrics:
Born in Kansas on an ordinary plain
Ran to New York but ran away from fame
Only seventeen when all your dreams come true
But all you wanted was someone to undress you.
And all the stars you kissed could never ease the pain
Still the grace remains and though the face has changed
You’re still the same.
Frame of silence of an innocent divine
Is a dangerous creation when you fall the test of time
And all the photographs of ghosts of long ago
Still they hurt you so, won’t let go
And you still don’t know.
And it’s a long long way from where you want to be
And it’s a long long road, but you’re too blind to see.
When you look around yourself now, do you recognize the girl
The one, who broke a thousand hearts, and terrified the world.
I loved the beauty of those lyrics, especially after I did a little digging and learned more about Brooks.
The song and her story affected me so much that it was known, every Friday and Saturday night for years in that packed video bar, as my closing song.
So the New Yorker reprint in the current issue was a happy reason for me to relive that haunting music video I played hundreds of times at 5 minutes until 2am closing time in Boston.
It was my homage to Brooks, destroyed by men who used her and abused her until they knew they couldn’t control her.
Play it through good speakers or ear buds for its best effect. Amazing song. (And OMD was far too under-appreciated as a band.)