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The Divine Miss Brooks

If you’ve seen images of the flapper girl of the 1920s wearing a bob haircut, dress just below the knee, and those hats, you’ve seen someone who probably was very much influenced by the actress Louise Brooks.

Who, you may ask?

Louise Brooks was such a major force in film that one French film historian once declared, “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!”

Her most famous films were in the silent era. Perhaps the two most noted are Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. She loathed the Hollywood scene and its politics and refused to play by its rules, which led in part to her being blackballed by the industry. She left Hollywood for good in 1940, spent several years in her hometown of Wichita (years she hated), and then moved to New York where she worked as a dancer, possibly a courtesan (i.e., call girl for a short and select clientele of very wealthy men), and sales clerk. After her role in the development of cinema received new appreciation in the 1950s, she had a successful career as a writer. She died in her apartment in 1985 from a heart attack.

In addition to being famous for her film career, she was also well known for her eroticism, sex symbol status, and purposefully cultivated ambiguous sexuality. She let people think she was bisexual, although she only ever admitted to two lesbian affairs, and was derisive of the notion of bisexuality.

“I had a lot of fun writing ‘Marion Davies’ Niece’ [an article about Pepi Lederer], leaving the lesbian theme in question marks. All my life it has been fun for me. … When I am dead, I believe that film writers will fasten on the story that I am a lesbian… I have done lots to make it believable […] All my women friends have been lesbians. But that is one point upon which I agree positively with [Christopher] Isherwood: There is no such thing as bisexuality. Ordinary people, although they may accommodate themselves, for reasons of whoring or marriage, are one-sexed. Out of curiosity, I had two affairs with girls – they did nothing for me.”

In 1953, she entered the Catholic Church. Since I’m researching an article on Catholic converts, and want to focus on mercy since this is the Year of Mercy, I’m very interested in Louise’s story.

Because of this, I spoke this afternoon with Thomas Gladysz, director of the Louise Brooks Society. I wanted to get at why this famous, enigmatic shaper of culture had embraced Catholicism, at least for a time.

He told me, “She was down and out and was just sort of in limbo in her life. She had left film in 1940 [and after moving to New York], she lived a fragile existence for a number of years.”

Around this time, she began to study the Faith, which gave her some answers and comfort, and she took instruction at NYC’s St. John the Evangelist Church (she attended this parish, which closed in 1969 and is now a part of the archdiocesan offices). She also attended the Paulist Fathers’ mother church, St. Paul the Apostle. Around this time, she read Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “The Little Flower.” Probably on April 4, 1953, at the Easter Vigil, she received the introductory sacraments (baptism, First Holy Communion, and confirmation) from Bishop Joseph Francis Flannelly, who presided at St. Patrick Cathedral. When confirmed she chose as her confirmation patron St. Thérèse. Indeed in her effects was found a self-portrait she had painted of her as The Little Flower.

“She was searching,” Gladysz says. “She was out of work and on her own and looking for a path in life.”

I asked him about Brooks’ being a call girl and whether that had stopped by this point. He says, “She did this only at the most desperate point in her life. She was drinking. She didn’t know what to do.”

Whether she had stopped by 1953 is therefore anyone’s guess. Regardless Gladysz says she had an “on again, off again relationship with her faith,” and that by the mid-1960s, she had left it.

Some believe this was because she loved alcohol more than God. Gladysz disputes this, however.

She had several “spiritual counselors who were sympathetic to her situation and counseled her,” he says, “but it came down to sex. There was one who had told her, ‘You have to give up sex,’ [her last marriage ended in 1938] and she just couldn’t. She told him, ‘I’m not a saint.’ She had issues that conflicted with her Catholicism that eventually led her to break with the Church.”

He says, “There were passages in her notebooks that discussed her faith. She wrote a chronology of her faith. ‘I went to church.’ ‘I was a daily communicant for so long.’ ‘I went to confession.’ ‘I committed a mortal sin.’ She was an observant recorder of her practice of her faith.”

“A priest told her her faith was more intellectual than emotional.”

Around 1956, she had moved to Rochester, NY, and went to church there. She even spoke before a local Catholic women’s group. After she died in August 1985, she was cremated and interred in Rochester’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

Note: On February 24, 2016, I received a note from Thomas Gladysz stating the following:

The “book Brooks was reading was “Storm of Glory” — “Her spiritual trek was guided by two New York City priests, whom she saw with increasing frequency in late 1952 and early 1953, and by a book about the life of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Storm of Glory by John Beevers. So enamored of Saint Thérèse was Louise that she spent one entire Sunday propped up in bed with her easel, fashioning a portrait in charcoal on canvas from a small photo of Thérèse at eight. It was the best and most haunting of her dozen works of art.”

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