Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes

loosThe Short Version: Lorelei Lee, a vivacious young woman, recounts in her diary the various men who’ve tried to woo her – and presents her own unique perspective on love, money, happiness, and the world at large.

The Review: We all know the movie, of course. Many of us might also know the musical, which launched Carol Channing to stardom. But what to make of this book, arguably the least famous of the three iterations? Gentlemen Prefer Blondes arrived on the scene in 1925, the same year as The Great Gatsby – but it feels like a work out-of-time for a litany of reasons.

It purports to be a diary of one Lorelei Lee, a sexpot blonde whose mere attentions are enough to make otherwise worldly and intelligent men entirely lose their minds. She starts in Hollywood, is picked up to be “educated” by one rich man, and then basically hops from one to the next across the globe – in the hopes, it could be said, of finding a suitable mate… but also, perhaps, of just having fun.

And the book is fun, at its core. The wit shows the book’s age a little bit – after all, 1925 was a different time in so many ways, for women as well as for writing – but it’s hard not to laugh at Lorelei’s blithe shrug of charm whenever she does something utterly ridiculous that seems, to her, to be completely ordinary. When it’s revealed that, as a young woman, she shot a man who she was both her employer and a bit of a sexual predator – and that the jury acquitted her with tears in their eyes – it all feels like something out of Chicago. And as she floats around the world, not quite getting what all the fuss is about (her comments on England are some of my favorites), there’s a charming ignorance that you can’t help but find amusing, even as it helps validate the stereotype of the dumb American blonde sexpot.

It’s fascinating to consider this book in feminist terms, though. My BookClub picked it up because Lenny Letter had featured an essay by Gillian Jacobs about Anita Loos, proclaiming that Lorelei’s insights remain evergreen. Naturally we were intrigued – and much of our discussion ended up circling around this particular angle on the book. On the one hand, yes, there’s something remarkably bold about a female voice speaking so adroitly about being a woman in a time when women were still largely second-class. And Loos had to battle to get this book published, and to get out from under the hand of an oppressive (to say the least) husband. But I’m not sure it’s a good thing that “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” continues to be a perennial catchphrase/hashtag/mantra. There is a materialism and an at times willful lack of intelligence in Lorelei that, more often than not, feels like Loos is intending us to laugh at her instead of with her. Lorelei isn’t a feminist hero, she’s a goof, good for a laugh no matter your sex.

Then there’s the issue of the sequel. I didn’t realize commercialism had arrived so soon upon the literary scene, although I suppose there are Greek playwrights who didn’t really want to write a trilogy but had to… and maybe it’s good that we don’t have a copy of Love’s Labour’s Won. Anyway, we do have But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes – which begins with the same Lorelei we seemed to know before, having tumbled into the Algonquin roundtable and charmed the editors and publishers and authors and they now want her to write something new… so she writes not a continuation of her story, but the story of her long-suffering friend Dorothy. And I have to say, I found it difficult at best to get through. Perhaps I should’ve taken a break between the two novels, although their length and general levity would make you think you could swallow them both in little more than a single sitting. But the sequel felt stale; Lorelei’s prose and quirks of writing (all the many misspellings and misunderstandings are intentional, for those who may be concerned about picking up an apparently unedited manuscript) are not anywhere near as refreshing as when they were telling her story – and they often feel downright sigh-inducing in the second half. The third person narration also doesn’t suit and the whole thing feels… well, it feels like a sequel was demanded and Loos did what she had to do, except that her heart wasn’t in it in the same way that it was the first time around.

Rating: 3 out of 5. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes does have its charms, but the book ultimately feels like a frivolity, not an ur-text for feminism. This, it should be noted, is different from saying that Loos herself was not a feminist, for she was and continues to provide a strong example for young women seeking to emancipate both themselves and their voices. But the book is slight – and its sequel, appended in this Penguin paperback, is downright unnecessary. Don’t think too much and you’ll have some fun – but don’t expect much more than that.

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