Anita Loos was the first female staff writer in Hollywood. Her sharp wit, classic one-liners and knack for subtly made her a legend of the silent film era. But she never got the credit she deserved—probably because her husband constantly stole it from her. Along with all of her money. Read these wise and witty facts about Anita Loos, the “the world’s most brilliant woman”.
Anita Loos was born in April of 1888. Her parents owned and operated a tabloid newspaper out of San Francisco but her father—a boozer and loser—flitted all of their money away. Sadly, this would be a chilling omen for her own personal life.
Her spendthrift of a father did, however, manage to provide her with inspiration—and a lifelong attraction to bum-husbands.
As long as no one was calling her “loser”, Loos didn’t really care how people pronounced her name. She later said, “Clifford [her brother] would painstakingly correct anyone who mispronounced our name. I never cared what people called me.
So I became Miss ‘Loose’ while my brother was always ‘Dr. Lohse’”. After all, who has time to correct people when you’re supporting an entire family…
By the time she was in her teens, Anita Loos was responsible for most of her family’s income. Her parents put her and her sister into theater productions, having sold their ailing newspaper business for a theater company in San Diego.
But, even as she recited her lines, Loos knew she wanted to write, not act. And she had plenty of material to work with.
Loos grew up around seedy characters with questionable motives and somewhat wayward morals, including “lowlifes” and ladies of the night. It was the perfect fodder for her writing.
And write she did. Even as she continued working for her parents’ theater company, Loos managed to write 105 scripts, most of which the studios produced.
At the age of 24, Loos wanted to set out on her own so she left her parents’ theater company and married a man named Frank Pallma Jr. Unfortunately, she was in for a brutal wakeup call. Pallma Jr. proved to be a total loser.
Just six months into their marriage, she asked him to go out and get her hairpins. Then, as he was gone, she packed her bags and moved out. Loos had to pick herself up and start all over again—but if anyone was capable, she was.
After fleeing her unsuccessful marriage, Anita Loos moved back in with her mother.
But she yearned for a life of independence. Shortly after, she returned to Hollywood with her mother where her obvious talents as a writer impressed the legendary director, DW Griffith. Without hesitation, he put her on contract with a studio, making her the first female staff screenwriter in Hollywood.
As a screenwriter, Loos was obviously ahead of her time—her time being the era of silent films. But there was a sad consequence to her talent. Even though Loos was obviously gifted, Griffith complained that her scripts were “unfilmable” because the “laughs were all in the lines, there was no way to get them onto the screen”. But Loos saw the lack of dialogue in silent film as an opportunity.
Loos teamed up with the director John Emerson and the actor Douglas Fairbanks on a series of films—and promptly changed the course of film history with her witty subtitles. “My most popular subtitle introduced the name of a new character. The name was something like this:
‘Count Xxerkzsxxv’. Then there was a note, 'To those of you who read titles aloud, you can't pronounce the Count's name. You can only think it’”.
Loos’ sharp one-liners got her the kind of recognition she deserved and her name appeared in the tabloids alongside actresses Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. Photoplay magazine dubbed her the “Soubrette of Satire” while Fairbanks called her “the most brilliant woman in the world”. That kind of success, however, came with down sides.
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With more than a few successful scripts to her name, Anita Loos landed a lucrative contract with Famous Players-Lasky. As part of the deal, however, she insisted on having the director John Emerson tag along—a man she had become quite fond of. She had started lovingly referring to Emerson as “Mr. E”. He would refer to her as “ATM”.
Famous Players-Lasky sent Loos and Emerson to New York to turn Broadway stars into movie stars.
Loos insisted that friend and fellow screenwriter, Frances Marion, accompany them as a chaperone because didn’t trust herself to make smart decisions where Emerson was concerned. She should have trusted her gut. It would have saved her a lot of money.
Despite her better judgments, Loos fell for Emerson.
Emerson, however, was not a one-woman kind of man. In fact, he was a professed bachelor. He had readily admitted to Loos that he “had never been, nor could be, faithful to any one female”. Loos should have taken him at his word. But she had a thing for losers with spending problems.
Given that she was so obviously a brilliant woman, it’s hard to see what Anita Loos saw in Emerson. By all accounts, he was a dull and altogether uninteresting man. But she convinced herself that she could make something of him and, moreover, that she could convince him to change his bachelor ways.
But no one ever really changes.
While they were in New York, Loos and Emerson wrote several scripts that turned Broadway thespians into Hollywood stars. Just as Famous Players-Lasky had intended. But at the same time, they were hiding a dark secret. Unbeknownst to the studio, Loos did most of the writing.
Allegedly, Emerson’s contributions mostly consisted of him ogling Loos from bed while she penned gold.
In New York, Anita Loos befriended the famous Talmadge sisters: Constance, Norma, and Natalie. The three sisters tried to warn Loos that Emerson was no match for her. Starry-eyed, Loos couldn’t help but love the man. She even cut him in on a lucrative deal for a Marion Davies movie that William Randolph Hearst had commissioned.
The Talmadge sisters convinced Anita Loos to accompany them on a summer trip to Paris.
But they made sure that she left Emerson behind, perhaps hoping she would get over him and fall for some Frenchman. But their plan sadly backfired. Upon their return to New York, however, Emerson put an end to the close friendship that Loos had with the Talmadge sisters.
If anything, the trip to Paris only made Loos want Emerson more. Inexplicable, we know. Shortly after her Paris trip, Loos officially filed for divorce from her good-for-nothing husband, Pallma Jr. She wasn’t exactly upgrading, however. Now that she was free, Loos tied the knot with Emerson and the couple moved to Gramercy Park.
Apparently, marriage to a highly successful writer was too much for Emerson. About four years into their marriage, he presented Loos with a cruel ultimatum. He told her that he would need to take a “break from their marriage” once every week. That translated to “I need to date younger women once a week”. Again, inexplicably, Loos agreed to the humiliating arrangement.
Anita Loos had her own reasons for marrying Emerson. Years later, she wrote, “Sometimes I get inquiries concerning my marriage to a man who treated me with complete lack of consideration, tried to take credit for my work, and appropriated all my earnings. The main reason is that my husband liberated me; granted me full freedom to choose my own companions”.
Their relationship might seem one-sided—but there was something to what she said…
Loos wasn’t exactly sitting at home knitting and pining over Emerson. While her errant husband ran about New York City with younger women, Loos hosted her own social events.
She started something of a social club, informally named the “Tuesday Widows” with her friends Marion Davies, Marilyn Miller, Adele Astaire, and others.
Loos didn’t appreciate Emerson taking all of the credit—and money—for her work, but she didn’t speak out until years later. In her memoir, she cut right to the quick when she wrote, “one after another of the pictures I wrote for John [Emerson] was a success. Conversely, the movies he made without me were all failures”. Few men, it would seem, gave her credit.
One of Loos’ good friends was the writer HL Mencken. But while Mencken adored Loos, he barely noticed her in the way that she might have wanted to be noticed. One day, on a train ride out to Hollywood, Loos noticed, ruefully, that Mencken kept vying for the attention of an attractive blonde.
Instead, of taking it personally, she came up with a plan. Loos knew it was just the kind of story that would sell.
Loos might have been offended by Mencken’s mawkish ogling after the attractive blonde while paying her no mind. But she turned that frustration into inspiration for her greatest story ever.
The way Loos put it, “High-IQ gentlemen didn't fall for women with brains, but those with more downstairs”. And Loos had plenty of brains.
Loos turned her train ride with Mencken into a hugely successful (if self-deprecating) series of shorts for Harper’s Bazaar. The stories, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, quadrupled the magazine’s circulation overnight and went on to become her best-selling novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Mencken clearly didn’t mind serving as the inspiration for the woman-crazed rubes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He had been the one who encouraged Loos to turn the short stories into a novel.
However, her husband’s reaction was disturbing.
Emerson actually tried to suppress Loos’ novel. The whiny loser only supported his wife when she agreed to dedicate the book to him.
The success of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes catapulted Loos into the ranks of literary superstars such as Aldous Huxley and Edith Wharton. But Emerson couldn’t tolerate Loos getting all of the attention and, in 1926, he fell terribly ill. Or, at the very least, he imagined that he fell terribly ill.
He was, after all, something of a drama queen.
From the sounds of it, Emerson wasn’t so much “sick” as he was “sick of being in Loos’ shadow”. In 1926, he developed a case of hypochondria, “affecting laryngitis”. In other words, he was acting. The overworked Loos commented that her husband was “a man who enjoyed ill health”.
But she wasn’t exactly ready to be his nurse.
Loos wrapped up the sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, titled But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, and made plans for a European vacation. Emerson, however, was too “ill” to go along. His plot for attention backfired spectacularly.
Jealous of Loos’ spotlight, Emerson joined his wife in Europe. Ultimately, however, they had to cut their vacation short and head back to New York for rewrites on the stage adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Just as they were about to resume their European vacation, however, Loos came down with a terrible sinus infection.
Even as she was battling her own illness, Loos was thinking of Emerson. With the help of her doctor, she quickly recovered from her illness—and had a stroke of genius. Along with her ENT specialist, Loos came up with the idea to perform a fake surgery on her husband to “cure” him of his laryngitis. It was just crazy enough to work.
Anita Loos arranged for Emerson’s “surgery” to take place in Vienna. After the fake procedure, the doctor presented Emerson with polyps that had, ostensibly, been lodged in his vocal cords. The procedure worked and Loos and Emerson returned to New York in good health. Their marriage, however, was about to take a turn for the worse.
Back in New York, when Emerson’s hypochondria first manifested, Loos had consulted a psychiatrist. Allegedly, the psychiatrist had told Loos “that she was to blame and in order for Emerson to get better she would have to give up her career”. So, upon their return to New York, that’s precisely what Loos did.
In her early retirement, Anita Loos spent most of her time traveling and summering in Palm Beach.
But, despite Loos sacrificing her career, she was in for an unpleasant surprise. Emerson kept up with his “breaks” from their marriage. Once again, however, Loos found companionship elsewhere. This time, she found company and comfort in the arms of another man. A smart one.
While Emerson was out gallivanting with younger women and trying to climb the social ladder, Loos was spending time with another man, Wilson Mizner.
By 1930, Loos was spending almost every day with Mizner. She professed, however, that their relationship was purely an intellectual one. But there were still the rumors.
Emerson’s jealousy-induced hypochondria flared up again and he accused Loos of not spending enough time with him. (The irony, we know).
And that wasn’t the only problem. Additionally, he had lost most of their money on risky bets in the stock market and suggested that Loos return to work. The joke was on him, though. She was about to write him out of her story for good.
Shortly after returning to work, Anita Loos found a love letter from one of Emerson’s “girlfriends”. Devastated, and realizing that he would never love her, Loos asked Emerson for a divorce and offered to pay him an allowance (seeing as though he couldn’t write anything himself). Emerson agreed but Loos should have known—he was hard to get rid of.
Anita Loos fell right back into the swing of things without missing a beat.
She landed a massive contract with MGM where she wrote for femmes fatale such as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Moira Shearer King. As producer Samuel Marx said, “Anita[...]could be counted on to supply the delicate double entendre, the telling innuendo”. It was just what Hollywood needed—but her personal life still haunted her.
With her new success, Loos moved back to Hollywood.
But her “baggage” came with her. Emerson, allegedly feeling sorry for his past actions, followed Loos back to Tinsel Town. From the looks of it, Loos tolerated Emerson’s presence even as he “auditioned” an endless stream of would-be starlets. As usual, however, she had her reasons.
Even though she didn’t love him anymore, Anita Loos still found a use for Emerson in the increasingly male-populated film industry. Instead of going through with the divorce, she used Emerson (who worked as a producer) to relay her suggestions to directors who were less receptive to ideas coming from a woman.
For a time, her scheme worked.
It’s fair to say that without Anita Loos, even Hollywood’s hunkiest leads wouldn’t have found their “chops”. But her presence at the studios meant that she knew Hollywood’s darkest secrets. There was that one time when she spied Clark Gable washing his dentures in a fountain on the studio lot.
But oddly enough, for all of the hardship she ensured because of men, Loos wasn’t exactly a feminist.
Despite being a trailblazer and something of a feminist icon, Loos wasn’t a fan of the women’s liberation movement. In fact, she leveled her pointed wit at suffragettes, saying “They keep getting up on soapboxes and proclaiming that women are brighter than men. That’s true, but it should be kept very quiet or it ruins the whole racket”. I mean…she makes a good point.
For years, Anita Loos worked tirelessly as one of the best-paid script doctors in Hollywood history.
But, at the height of her career, tragedy struck her personal life. Emerson was diagnosed with schizophrenia and moved into a sanatorium—that she paid for, of course. Loos again pressed Emerson for a divorce, but he delayed finalizing it.
Emerson’s excuse for not signing the divorce paper probably had something to do with his schizophrenia—or the shocking secret he was hiding. Loos had left the finances to Emerson to manage.
But, with his mind slipping, she took on the books herself only to realize that he had stashed most of her money away into his own personal accounts.
With Emerson in the sanatorium, Loos eventually found her life in Hollywood to be too isolating. Additionally, her good friend—and possibly lover—Mizner had passed away. After some consideration, she decided to leave Hollywood behind once and for all, selling her Beverly Hills home and moving back to New York City—her real home.
Back in New York and free of Emerson, Loos could finally write at her own leisure—and actually keep the money she earned. Over the next 15 years, she wrote several plays for various Broadway stars, including Zasu Pitts and Carol Channing.
And, without that albatross of a husband hovering over her, her personal life picked up as well.
Anita Loos wasn’t just a free agent as a writer—she was a free agent in her love life. Although she was technically still married to Emerson, he was on the other side of the continent sipping his lunch out of a straw.
As such, over the years, Loos sparked up a few romances—including one with the dashing French actor Maurice Chevalier.
The 1953 film adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes starring Marilyn Monroe catapulted Anita Loos back into the Hollywood limelight. Even into her old age, Loos remained a fixture in the New York social scene.
She was a staple at theater and movie events and a denizen at the hottest parties and fashion shows. And she never lost her wit.
Even as her health waned, Loos continued writing as a contributor for Harper’s Bazaar, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. And no one was safe from her sharply pointed wit. Her biographer Gary Carey wrote, “She was a born storyteller and was always in peak form when reshaping a real-life encounter to make an amusing anecdote”.
It’s a wonder that Loos remained married to Emerson for as long as she did. Despite nearly 40 years, Loos made it clear that she didn’t suffer fools lightly. In her 1966 memoir, A Girl Like I, she wrote, “[...]beauty combined with lack of brains is extremely deleterious to health”. Fortunately, she had plenty of both beauty and brains.
In the end, Anita Loos put so much of her life into her stories that she could barely tell reality from fiction. Author Cari Beauchamp called her, “one of the last survivors of the silent era”, and through her time in Hollywood, rubbed elbows and wrote lines for the screen’s greatest stars.
She may just be the woman who made the biggest impact in silent-era Hollywood—and when she died in 1981 at the age of 93, famous friends like Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish made sure to remind everyone just what a genius she’d been.
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