Anita Loos wrote a funny book. This much, at least, has become evident as critics, both contemporary and subsequent, have praised Miss Loos for her clever and witty portrayal of a dumb blonde and the various the men she manages to inveigle through charm and sexual allure. However, much else about the novel is hard to come by. Perhaps the fact that the story was originally serialized in a women's magazine suggests that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was nothing more than a light piece for reading enjoyment, something to be valued for its comic effect rather than its literary merit. However, to describe Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as "a merry book" hardly explains its huge success and popularity; the novel became the surprise bestseller of 1925 after less than two months in the bookstores, and continued with record sales into 1926. In fact, the book was published in 85 editions and 14 languages, including Chinese. It was later made into two movie versions as well as a musical and other stage versions, featuring such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe and Carol Channing. Why was this novel such a hit? Clearly Miss Loos had tickled the funnybones of her readers, but she must have also hit some other part of the collective international consciousness to arouse such a response. This essay will attempt to identify and explore specific aspects which contributed to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes 's immense popularity and life as a bestseller during the Golden Era of The Roaring Twenties. In addition to the novel's comic portrayal of its heroine, this essay will take into account the significance of story's impact on the sales and readership of Harper's Bazaar, and its implications about sex and women in the 1920s.
In order to explain the phenomenon of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a bestseller, it is first necessary to understand the historical and social context in which the novel was written. The 1920s was a decade of the flapper; of celebrities such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitgerald, Tallulah Bankhead, and Clark Gable; and of expanding views on women, in both the political and sexual realms. These views were evident both in the movement for women's suffrage and in the media. Miss Loos, in her memoir Kiss Hollywood Good-by, describes the portrayal of women and sex in Hollywood during the earlier part of the decade:
"In its heyday Hollywood reflected, if it did not actually produce, the sexual climate of our land. A screen love affair used to unfold chastely and without guile until it reached its climax in a kiss which, by a ruling of the board of Censors, had quickly to fade out after seven seconds.
The lovers in those movies were products of the old American custom of men supporting women; so a girl's chief asset was the allure with which she disguised her normal acquisitiveness. That type reached its perfection in the gold diggers of the Twenties. Their technique might have been based on a theory that the most charming of all behavior lies in the canine species. Irving Thalberg used to tell me, 'When you write a love scene, think of your heroine as a little puppy dog, cuddling up to her master, wagging an imaginary tail, and gazing at him as if he were God'" (190-1).
The irony in this, and the chief comical aspect of the novel lies in the fact that Lorelei Lee's chief asset is indeed her allure, although she possesses zero acquisitiveness behind it. Gary Carey, author of a biography on Anita Loos, expresses the change from this former mode of sexual expression, which had occurred by the middle of the decade. He wrote, "After the First World War, America started casting off its puritan shackles, and by 1925 the country was disposed to laugh at institutions and moral virtues once held sacrosanct" (98). Carey continues to explain the reception of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in this new light.
"?while many of the pieties Anita touches on in her book had been questioned and condemned by earlier writers, she was among the first to make light of them?. In her view sex had nothing to do with romantic love (love is a word rarely, if ever, mentioned in the text) and everything to do with acquisition?. Lorelei's gentlemen want to possess her for much the same reason she wants to possess diamonds: she bolsters their egos just as the jewels enhance her self-esteem" (98).
The novel, in dealing with a topic once considered taboo, and in doing so in a humorous manner, allowed the public to read about sex as it was never before treated in American fiction. It is interesting to note that although the novel deals with sex and relationships between men and women, it does so in a manner which only hints at the topic without explicitly mentioning the details surrounding it. Carey writes, "Though Blondes quickly gained a reputation for being suggestive, it is perhaps the cleanest expose of illicit romance ever written" (90). A certain famous Viennese psychologist might argue, people's instinctual and suppressed interest in sex, and their natural inclination to indulge one's repressed desires, supports their reading of a novel which pushes all the buttons: sex that you don't have to take seriously.
Certainly, Miss Loos didn't intend for the novel to be taken seriously. In fact, when she started writing of Lorelei's adventures, she had no intention of publishing the piece at all. The story began as a joke on one of her many high society friends, H. L. Mencken, and his arbitrary attraction to a dumb blonde. Miss Loos's only wish was to give her friend, on whom she harbored a secret crush, a good laugh, while at the same time finding a channel in which to creatively express her resentment for the blonde. In an introduction to the novel entitled "The Biography of a Book," Miss Loos expresses her indignation that a "witless blonde" should be favored over her:
"Obviously there was some radical difference between that girl and me. But what was it? We were both in pristine years of early youth; we were of about the same degree of comeliness; as to our mental acumen, there was nothing to discuss; I was the smarter. Then why did that girl so far outdistance me in feminine allure? Could her strength possibly be rooted (like that of Samson) in her hair? ?. The situation was palpably unjust" (viii - ix).
The result was the beginning of an entire series on the adventures of Lorelei Lee, a dumb blonde. Mencken, who vastly enjoyed the piece and received it in good nature, suggested that Miss Loos have the piece published, although he didn't think it appropriate for his own magazine, The American Mercury. "Little girl," he warned Anita, "you're making fun of sex and that's never been done before in the USA. I suggest you send it to Harper's Bazaar where it'll be lost among the ads and won't offend anybody" (xiv). The editors of Harper's Bazaar couldn't have thought of a better suggestion themselves.
A study of the impact of the story on Bazaar, before it was released in book form, reveals much about the appeal of the novel. By the end of the Lorelei series in late 1925, the magazine's newsstand sales had quadrupled, but even more significant is the effect the story had on the magazine's readership. Harper's Bazaar was a typical ladies' publication, focusing on such things as fashion and domestic issues. By the third chapter of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, however, men began reading the magazine. Soon, advertisements for cigars, whisky, and sporting goods aimed at the male population, began appearing in the magazine.
Obviously, then, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes cannot be dismissed as just a women's novel. It gave men the opportunity to laugh at a silly woman; in fact, it gave women an opportunity to laugh at a silly woman. Had the novel had other than a female authoress, this might have been received differently. Beyond the story itself, the novel was evidence of a woman's success, no doubt an encouragement to women in an era during which women were fighting for increased independence. Blondes offered men a humorous portrait of the opposite sex and a female perspective of their own sex. At the same time, coming from a woman, the novel made a negative statement about frivolous women by indirectly making fun of one. Perhaps this idea had particular resonance during the Twenties, as many women tried to distance themselves from the image of the flapper, in favor of a more serious image with which to prove their independence and competence in the social and political arenas next to men.
Miss Loos jokingly explained the success of Blondes a few years after its release in book form, claiming "it appeared I had stumbled onto an important scientific fact which had never before been pinpointed" (Intro, viii). The immense success of her first novel (she was already acclaimed for her screenplays and scenarios) caught her by great surprise, eclipsing her expectations, and well surpassing her original goal of making Mencken laugh. Certainly the success of Blondes, before it had even been reviewed, brought greater pleasure than her personal satisfaction of having slighted the stupid blonde who snatched Mencken's attention away from her. The book won wide acclaim for its author, both with the public and with the literary elite. According to Carey:
"Blondes didn't need critical praise to become the surprise bestseller of 1925. It was one of those books that sold itself through word of mouth, and the word was good along every avenue of American life. Lorelei's diary made a hit with those who read nothing but light fiction as well as with James Joyce, whose failing eyesight made him highly selective about what he read. Anita was told that her book was one of the few he chose from the list of current fiction" (98).
Even Edith Wharton proclaimed Blondes to be "the great American novel (at last!)" and George Santayana jokingly declared it the best book of American philosophy.
In a humorous anedcote about the novel's international reception, Miss Loos recounts:
"?if one examines the plot of [Blondes], it is almost as gloomy as a novel by Dostoievski. When the book reached Russia, this was recognized, and it was embraced by Soviet authorities as evidence of the exploitation of helpless female blondes by predatory magnates of the Capitalistic System. The Russians, with their native love of grief, stripped Gentlemen Prefer Blondes of all its fun and the plot which they uncovered was dire. It concerns early rape of its idiot heroine, an attempt by her to commit murder (only unsuccessful because she is clumsy with a gun), the heroine's being cast adrift in the gangster-infested New York of Prohibition days, her relentless pursuit by predatory males (the foremost of whom constantly tries to pay her off at bargain rates), her renunciation of the only man who ever stirred her inner soul of a woman, her nauseous connection with a male who is repulsive to her physically, mentally and emotionally, and her final engulfment in the grim monotony of suburban Philadelphia" (xi).
In light of the author's ironic description of the plot, one can see how the novel must have treated its heroine comically, or else it would have made its readers "shed bittersweet tears over such sad eventualities" (xi). The novel is written in the form of Lorelei's diary, and the events mentioned above, which have all the potential of seriousness and tragedy, become a joke when narrated through Lorelei's rambling, grammatically shameful, and unintentionally funny voice. John Gross of the New York Times observes, "Lorelei's charm depends on the artfully artless style in which she rattles along, and on the mistakes and malapropisms which make her say so much more than she intends." Lorelei's obliviousness of her own ignorance and naïveté make her all the more laughable. For instance, in the fifth chapter, Lorelei records her visit with "a famous doctor in Vienna called Dr. Froyd who could stop all of my worrying because he does not give a girl medicine but he talks you out of it by psychoanalysis" (155).
"Dr. Froyd looked at me and looked at me and he said that he did not really think it was possible. So then he called in his assistance and he pointed at me and talked to his assistance quite a lot in the Viennese landguage? and it really seems as if I was quite a famous case. So then Dr. Froyd said that all I needed was to cultivate a few inhibitions and get some sleep" (157-8).
Much of the humor of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes lies in the ironic discrepancy between Lorelei's own view of herself and the reader's impression of her. Though she is a "calculating monster" (Eyman), Lorelei's insistence on propriety keeps her from behaving or writing in a manner other than what she thinks lady-like, and her diary is free from profanity or sexual allusions. Lorelei is at once a murderess and scheming man-eater, and a charming and funny - albeit ignorant - woman.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes , with respect to views on sex and women during the decade of the 1920s, and with consideration to its portrayal of a dumb yet irresistible woman/monster, became the surprise bestseller of 1925, but not for surprising reasons. The novel was an enjoyable and fun read for men and women alike. In addition, Anita Loos's humorously witty portrayal of her heroine won praise from the general public as well as the literati. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes , a first novel and an immediate success, had all the ingredients to make it a bestseller: public attention from previous publicity and readership; humor, and a new approach to the treatment of sex in literature with significant implications about women and sex in that era.
Gary Carey, Anita Loos: A biography.
Anita Loos. Kiss Hollywood Good-by.
Anita Loos. Cast of Thousands.
Anita Loos. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The illuminating diary of a professional lady.
Intro: "The Biography of a Book"
Scott Eyman. The Palm Beach Post. Nov 1998.