Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos (1925) — A Jazz Age Classic

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, subtitled The Intimate Diary or a Professional Lady, published in 1925, popularized the unfortunate tropes of “dumb blonde” and ruthless gold-digger in the character of Lorelei Lee.

We accompany the unflappable flapper around New York and Europe, where she dallies with the affections of hapless men. Maybe she’s not so dumb after all.

Anita Loos (1889 – 1991, who was by the time of the book’s publication already a successful screenwriter, claimed that the book’s inspiration came from a real-life incident.

On a train, her efforts to haul around her large luggage were ignored by her male fellow passengers (Loos was a tiny brunette). Yet when a blonde dropped her book, the men around her fell all over themselves in a competition to retrieve it for her.

She used the incident as the jumping-off point for a series of sketches about a gold-digging blonde flapper from Little Rock who came to be called Lorelei Lee. These were published in Harper’s Bazaar magazine as “The Lorelei stories.”

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Quotes by Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

More about Anita Loos
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The satiric stories that subtly skewered sex tropes were such a hit that the magazine’s circulation quadrupled within a short time. The stories were soon collected into the novel Gentleman Prefer Blondes, published in 1925, and which is arguably the most enduring work by Anita Loos. It was the second bestselling novel of 1926, having captured the carefree spirit of the Jazz Age.

Was Lorelei Lee a feel-good flapper exemplifying the roaring twenties, or a scheming “professional lady,” as the subtitle implies? Likely, a bit of both. The rank of “professional” refers to the gold-digging, and not, as the term has often been used, to refer to prostitution per se.

Despite the light tone of the book, it was well-received by critics and devoured by the public. Edith Wharton deemed it “The Great American Novel,” though that distinction hasn’t endured. While Gentlemen Prefer Blondes can be deemed a classic, its stature as a great work of literature would be questioned today.

In 1927, hot on the heels of the book’s success, a sequel was published, titled But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. Take that, Blondes!

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Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes 1953 film

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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was first made into a 1928 silent film, for which Loos co-wrote the screenplay. However, there are no copies in existence, and it is considered a lost film. The 1949 Broadway adaptation of the novel became a musical starring Carol Channing. The story has continued to return to the stage in several renamed versions for decades to come.

The best-known adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the 1953 film starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe as two best friends who work as American showgirls. Based on the 1949 stage play, Monroe, as Lorelei Lee, made the song “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” an iconic standard. The story and premise depart fairly substantially from the original 1925 novel, but this film is considered a movie musical classic.


A contemporary edition

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes continues to stay in print. From the 2014 Liveright edition:

“This delirious 1925 Jazz Age classic introduced readers to Lorelei Lee, the small-town girl from Little Rock, who has become one of the most timeless characters in American fiction. Outrageous and charming, this not-so-dumb blonde has been portrayed on stage and screen by Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe and has become the archetype of the footloose, good-hearted gold digger (not that she sees herself that way).

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes follows Lorelei as she entertains suitors across Europe before returning home to marry a millionaire. In this delightfully droll and witty book, Lorelei’s glamorous pragmatism shines, as does Anita Loos’s mastery of irony and dialect. A craze in its day and with ageless appeal, this new Liveright edition puts Lorelei back where she belongs: front and center.”

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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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A 1925 review: Introducing the professional gold digger

From The Davenport Daily Times, December 1925: The beautiful and successful gold digger is not a new type in fiction but Anita Loos is the first one to our knowledge to write the diary of a professional lady of this sort.

Her heroine may never have heard of Plato or middle distance or Chopin or the Nobel awards or the Locarno treaty, but she knew her oil, as the slang phrase has it, when it came to the pleasant art of extorting gifts of jewelry or money from wealthy men.

In one chapter she gets herself engaged with the mental reservation that if she can’t really stick it out, she will go on such an orgy of extravagance fit her fiancé’s expense that the only decent thing for him to do will be to break the match. Then her way will be clear to a profitable breach of promise suit.

But a gentleman gold digger of whom she is enamored persuades her to go through with the marriage so that friend husband will finance the production of some scenario he has written, and our little heroine serenely closes her diary with the reflection that everything is as right as can be in the rightest of possible worlds.

She has a convenient husband who is hardly astute enough to be suspicious, she has ample money to buy all the jewelry she wants, and she has in the gentleman gold digger a friend who can satisfy her craving for mental stimulation.

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Gentleman Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos cover

The original cover of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
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Another 1925 review: “A Topsy of literature”

From the Salt Lake Telegram, November 15, 1925:  Anita Loos already famous in her way. but even so, we hardly expected a book of subtle humor from her pen such as is found in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Characterized as The Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady, it resolves itself into a book that is crammed full of chuckles. You may object to the methods of a charming gold-digger, or you may marvel at the void of the dumbbell. And you may object to some scattered risqué remarks.

But in spite of it all, you’re bound to be amused, for her leading character the author has created an intriguing gold digger, dumb and beautiful. What a smooth worker she is.

Here we have her in all her glory, in a sidesplitting, astonishingly frank diary that takes her from New York to London, Paris, Vienna, and Munich in quest of art education In the foreign colleges known as the Ritz hotels.

Diplomats, princes, society, big business, and men—sho plays them all, especially men, men, men. Tiaras. state secrets, titles, and Poirlett models all fall into her pretty little net.

With the intimate drawings by Ralph Barton, this book, its characters, and its sardonic insight will become part of our tradition of humor alongside the Benchleys. Stewarts and Lardners of our period.

A precocious pen

Perhaps it’s heredity. Anita Loos’s father was humorist—and a theatrical producer. At age five she was on the stage. At thirteen she was an authoress. and at the same time was writing scenarios for David Griffith.

When Griffith, two years later, saw the child in pigtails and sailor suit who was writing his roughest comedies for him, he nearly collapsed. Since then she has outlined the moods and motions for many an eminent screen star; and she has come to know far more about “professionals” than it is wise perhaps for anyone to know.

On her last trip to California, to while away the dull passages of a four-day train journey she wrote the first chapter of this book. Harper’s Bazaar, which took the first, called for more.

And so the book “growed up,” a Topsy of literature which is certain to make a definite mark in American Literature.

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