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March 2017: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Loos)

posted May 7, 2017, 5:50 PM by East Bay Smith Club
Our record of having book club meetings during torrential downpours was finally broken on March 9th when we gathered once again at Nancy Spaeth’s house in Berkeley.  Perhaps because of the clement weather, our ranks swelled to ten Smithies and included Ginny Levett who was visiting from Southampton, England, thus making my commute from Danville look like small potatoes indeed!

Our book for the month was Anita Loos’s 1925 comic novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Judging by the liveliness of our discussion and by the number of times it was interrupted by laughter, I think it is fair to say that Loos’s humor has aged well, even though the book is undeniably a product of its times.   The book is presented as the diary of Lorelei Lee a former chorus girl and self-proclaimed “professional lady,” who travels from New York to Europe and back again in an effort to educate herself and to secure her financial future through the manipulation of rich and gullible gentlemen.    This description might make Lorelei Lee seem unsympathetically mercenary, and Loos allows her main character to be unabashedly open about her calculations concerning the value of the gifts she receives from a gentleman when weighed against the tediousness of the attention she must endure in return.  Nonetheless, Lorelei is attractive and entertaining company, and she has an uncanny ability to make those around her happy, even as the expenses mount.

Loos was inspired the write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes after watching her male friends, and in particular the journalist H.L. Mencken, fall for “stupid little” blondes while ignoring the women who were their cultural and intellectual peers.  Given this starting point, one might expect Lorelei to come across as quite dim.  She certainly has had little formal education, as the creative spelling in her journal attests.  At times, she is also quite adept at missing the blatantly obvious.  Nonetheless, she has a basic understanding of human motivations that allows her moments of pure genius.   As her best friend Dorothy comments, Lee’s “brains reminded her of a radio because you listen to it for days and days and just when you are getting ready to smash it, something comes out that is a masterpiece.”   These moments of cleverness and the fact that they allow Lee to be the master of her own fate, transform her into one of the more interesting heroines in modern literature.  Lee never seems pay a price for doing what she wants or for seeking what she desires.   Sadly, we could think of few other female characters where this is the case.

In our discussion, we talked about the uniqueness of Lorelei’s character and of the unusualness of the book itself.  Most of us enjoyed reading it, though one member couldn’t handle the prose’s “stream of consciousness” style, which can be challenging but which also fit both with the book’s format as a personal diary and with the literary trends of the 1920’s.  A couple other members also failed to read the book because our libraries seem to have few copies of it available.  This seems a bit odd considering how popular the book once was.  In fact, Edith Wharton called it “the great American novel” and it sold out several printings in succession.  Perhaps this popularly attests to the truth of Mencken’s comment that in writing the book Loos was “the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex.”  As someone pointed out, it is actually not clear how much sex there is in the book; however, Loos’s comedic exploration of the relations between men and women, whether sexual and otherwise, still provided us with plenty to laugh at and to ponder.   We also enjoyed discussing Lorelei Lee’s rich and often refreshingly non-competitive relationships with the women in her life, like her best friend Dorothy and her maid Lulu.  All in all, I think most of us would agree that it is worth keeping this novel alive in the American canon and that several of us are interested enough to read the sequel:  But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. (And here I promised I would mention one woman’s comment that the combination of the two books’ titles reminded her of the old saying: “Smith to bed, Holyoke to wed.”  A shocking epigram, perchance, but if it implies that Smith somehow embraces the spirit of Lorelei Lee, then I’m o.k. with that J.)

Literarily yours, Karen B.