What a marvellous novella this turned out to be. Smart, engaging and uproariously funny – another great summer read for me.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the debut novel of the American screenwriter and author Anita Loos. (You can read a little more about her career here.) The book was an instant success on its release in 1925 – the individual sections had previously been published in Harper’s Bazaar, so the market was ripe for its appearance as a complete text.
Blondes features Lorelei Lee, a young American girl about town, and her best friend, Dorothy Shaw. Lorelei and Dorothy are very different from one another. At first sight, Lorelei – a blonde – appears rather witless and ditzy, while Dorothy – a brunette – seems sharper, more outspoken and more irreverent in her views. Lorelei likes to think of herself as being very refined, someone who is part of a particular social set along with everything this confers – more of that later…
So Mr Eisman gave me quite a nice string of pearls and he gave Dorothy a diamond pin and we all went to the Colony for dinner and we all went to a show and supper at the Trocadero and we all spent quite a pleasant evening. (p. 18)
The book’s main action really gets going when one of Lorelei’s male friends, Mr Eisman, ‘the Button King’, sends Lorelei to Europe with a view to broadening her horizons – a means of furthering her education if you like. Naturally, Dorothy accompanies our narrator on her trip, and their story is presented as a series of entries from Lorelei’s diary, a sequence of amusing vignettes as the girls make their way from New York to London to Paris and beyond.
It soon becomes clear that Lorelei has little interest in gaining a ‘traditional’ education while abroad. In fact, she seems far more concerned with shopping, drinking champagne and collecting valuable trinkets than taking in the famous sights. The majority of these attractions fail to impress her anyway, especially once she compares them to the buildings back in the US.
In London they make a very, very great fuss over nothing at all. I mean London is really nothing at all. For instants, they make a great fuss over a tower that really is not even as tall as the Hickox building in Little Rock Arkansas and it would only make a chimney on one of our towers in New York. So Sir Francis Beekman wanted us to get out and look at the tower because he said that quite a famous Queen had her head cut off there one morning and Dorothy said “What a fool she was to get up that morning” and that is really the only sensible thing that Dorothy has said in London. So we did not bother to get out. (p. 40)
Money, expensive jewellery and the good things in life are all important to Lorelei – she likes nothing more than a glamorous diamond bracelet and a delightful glass of champagne or two. Men are the main providers of these things with Lorelei attracting a trail of suitable admirers wherever she goes.
That said, Lorelei isn’t particularly interested in getting involved in any amorous romances. Unlike Dorothy, who falls in love relatively easily, Lorelei doesn’t become emotionally attached to any of these men. Instead, she sees them more as forms of light-hearted amusement and entertainment, just as long as they can furnish her with stylish gifts. As soon as Lorelei gets bored with her current beau, she demonstrates her readiness to move on to the next – providing he has enough money to keep her in the manner to which she has become accustomed.
So the French veecount is going to call up in the morning but I am not going to see him again. Because French gentlemen are really quite deceiving. I mean they take you to quite cute places and they make you feel quite good about yourself and you really seem to have a delightful time but when you get home and come to think it all over, all you have got is a fan that only cost 20 francs and a doll that they gave you way for nothing in a restaurant. I mean a girl has to look out in Paris, or she would have such a good time in Paris that she would not get anywhere. So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever. (p. 55)
By the way, these misspellings and the rather childlike phraseology are all part of Lorelei’s charm; Loos’ prose has a natural rhythm all of its own.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a short book, but the girls’ adventures rattle along at quite a pace. There is a brief encounter with the Prince of Wales, a contretemps over a diamond tiara that Lorelei has her eye on, and plenty of other vignettes aside. We even get a peek at Lorelei’s backstory – an incident involving a shooting, a charge of which our heroine was rather demurely acquitted.
The two women make ideal foils for one another – in many ways, they are complete opposites. Lorelei struggles to understand why Dorothy can fall for a man who has no money, while Dorothy herself is dismayed at Lorelei’s willingness to accept a life without love. However, a man’s monetary wealth and resources are more valuable to Lorelei than any emotional or physical connection. She is very single-minded in her approach.
You might feel you know the story of Lorelei and Dorothy from the 1953 Howard Hawks film – also titled Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but Loos’ original novel feels like a different creature altogether. There is something rather knowing about the book, something much sharper and more satirical going on underneath the outwardly frothy surface. It’s all very cleverly done. Whatever level you choose to read it on, it’s a real treat.
The Penguin Classics edition comes complete with a series of charming illustrations by Ralph Barton. Here’s an example from the Paris section of the story.
To finish, a brief note about Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, a book that would make an interesting partner to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – you can read my post about it here. Reputedly inspired by the Loos, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, something that ultimately illustrated the darker side of life which lay beneath the glamour of the capital city of Berlin. It’s an excellent book, one that features a narrator whose voice I found utterly engaging from the start. Highly recommended reading.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.
There is also a sequel to this book ‘But they marry brunettes’, which, as a non-blonde child I found mightily reassuring. 😏
Ah, yes. It’s included in my Penguin Classics edition. I’ve heard it’s good but not quite up to the standard set by Blondes. (Not that I’m a blonde either as you can tell from my pic!)
No, it’s not quite as good, but fun in its own way.
I do like the sound of this. Lovely review 😊
It’s such a joy to read – and so much smarter than it seems at first sight. I can understand why it’s still in print.
Is “But they marry brunettes” a different story or part of the title but one we seldom here? The book sounds great fun.
It’s certainly connected to Gentleman Prefer Blondes. As far as I can tell, Brunettes goes into Dorothy’s backstory, so it’s a companion piece to the original as opposed to a standalone work. That said, Blondes works brilliantly on its own, so I don’t think it’s essential to read Brunettes as well.
This sounds rather refreshing, Jacqui. I came across The Artificial Silk Girl on my ‘to buy’ list the other day and wondered how it had got there but now I know!
I loved The Artificial Silk Girl. It’s actually much darker than Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but it does have something of the young-woman-in-a-big-city vibe. In some ways, Keun’s book seems closer to those early novels of Jean Rhys where the heroines have to rely on the favours of men as they drift around Paris trying to survive.
What fun. Just like a grown up Eloise.
It’s a real hoot. Definitely recommended.
Sounds like a fun read. It is my first time hearing about Anita Loos. I got reminded of Miss Pettigrew for some reason
I can understand why Miss Pettigrew came to mind especially given the relationship between the two friends. Delysia LaFosse does have a touch of Lorelei about her for sure. In fact, when I read Miss Pettigrew a couple of years ago, the relationship between Miss La Fosse and her friend, Edythe, reminded me of the dynamic between Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in the film adaptation of Gentleman Prefer Blondes. While I hadn’t read Loos’ book as that point, I had seen the film version two or three times.
Edith Wharton called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes “the great American novel.” I recently read this very funny satire with a group of FB friends and it was hard not to quote priceless line after priceless line. I loved Lorelei’s voice, the illustrations, and the culture clash when they visited Europe. Thank you for your lovely review. I haven’t heard of The Artificial Silk Girl and will look for it.
Ah, yes. There’s a bit about Wharton’s quote in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition. It seems it was highly praised at the time of publication. Not just a commercial success but a hit with the critics too. Lorelei’s voice is priceless, isn’t it? I particularly liked the section on London where she rubbishes the buildings for not being up to the standards of those in the US. The shenanigans over the tiara were such fun too.
The Artificial Silk Girl is well worth a look. It’s not as light or frothy as the Loos, but it does feature another narrator with a distinctive and engaging voice. I couldn’t help but fall for it from the word go.
I read this a few years ago anf thoroughly enjoyed it. My copy had ‘Blondes’ and ‘Brunettes’ back to back so you just flipped it over for the other book. ‘Brunettes’ wasn’t as good – it’s Dorothy’s story – but is worth reading as you enjoyed ‘Blondes’.
It’s great, isn’t it? So glad to hear that you enjoyed it too. I must have a similar edition to you as my copy also includes the sequel. Maybe I’ll leave it for a little while before going back to it just to mix things up a bit!
Oh yes, yours has the sequel as well. Mine doesn’t have the illustrations though.
Ah, the illustrations do add a nice touch. I think they’re from the original edition published back in the ’20s.
Lovely review, Jacqui! I read this years ago pre-blog and loved it as much as you. And I went into it prepared not to, but found that sharpness and knowingness under the surface very refreshing. The women are not dumb at all, despite the spelling etc, and the books was a joy to read too. Interesting comparison with the Keun book too – I wonder whether the European take on similar things is generally darker than the American one?
Thanks, Karen. It’s so cleverly done, isn’t it? In another writer’s hands, Lorelei’s voice could have been so annoying, but with Loos at the helm it works brilliantly, giving the whole thing a satirical edge. I’m sure the darkness of Keun’s take on the single-woman-about-town gig was a reflection of the sociopolitical climate in Germany at the time. Berlin must have been a very different city to the decadence of New York back then. Plus, I think the Keun was the early ’30s rather than the mid ’20s portrayed here?
Yes, there are definitely timing and cultural differences between the two books – and Berlin in the 1930s must have been a worrying place to be.
One of my favorites, as you know from Twitter replies lat night! So glad you loved it. I read it once a long time ago, before the blog, and then again a few years ago. I’m pretty sure I blogged about it that second time… gonna have to go look for it.
Yes, indeed! Thanks for getting in touch via Twitter. Do feel free to post a link to your review here if there is one. It’s always interesting to see another perspective.
Here it is! (I also apparently had listed Lorelei as one of my ‘Top 10 Fictional Heroines’) https://roofbeamreader.com/2013/02/08/thoughts-gentlemen-prefer-blondes-by-anita-loos/
Thanks for this. I’ll be over to take a look at your review in a little while.
I do love a novella and this sounds a witty, fun read. I’ve seen the film a couple of times so I’m interested that you think this is sharper – I’d really like to read it.
Funnily enough, I was think of your novella series as I was reading it. In fact, I couldn’t recall whether you’d mentioned in during your marathon blogging event in May! The film is great — I love the dynamic between Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell — but the book seems cleverer in some ways. It feels sharper (or more satirical) underneath that outwardly ditsy surface.
This sounds such delightful fun, it’s going straight on my wishlist. Great review as ever.
Thanks, Ali. I think you’d have a ball with this – it’s such a lot of fun.
Excellent review Jacqui, this sounds like a fun read. I adore the movie (haven’t seen it for years, but I remember as a child loving any movie with Jane Russell in it) but the fact that the movie isn’t faithful to the book wouldn’t put me off at all.
Thanks, Belinda. It’s a good one if you’re looking for a bit of escapism with a satirical edge. I remember reading somewhere (probably in the introduction) that the Howard Hawks film was based on a Broadway musical version from the late ’40s, so it’s a couple of steps removed from Loos’ original book. Nevertheless, it’s a lot of fun. I think Madonna’s video for Material Girl was based on one of Marilyn Monroe’s’ scenes from the film, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.
The Madonna video was definitely based on diamonds! I also like the Nicole Kidman version in Moulin Rouge.
I like the fact that Kidman has been enjoying a bit of a renaissance of late. She’s terrific in The Beguiled and Top of the Lake S2.
Fab review Jacqui, this sounds like just the kind of escapist read I’m in the mood for. It’s going on the list!
That’s great to hear. It’s a lot of fun – definitely a good one for the summer. :)
Your review made me think of Keun right away. It sounds wonderful. I really need to read it as I loved the Keun novel so much.
I’m glad the similarity to The Artificial Silk Girl came through okay. This is actually somewhat different to the Keun in terms of viewpoint – it’s lighter in tone, particularly on the surface. I’d love to hear what you think of it.
This is one of my favorite books. I walk around with lines from it floating through my head. Excepting the many screenplays Loos wrote early in her career, I have read everything by her I’ve been able to find. In addition to “Brunettes” there are some other short novels that continue to the story of Lorelei Lee (including one in which she becomes a mother), but none quite rise to the level of “Blondes.” A work by Loos that does almost reach those heights is her terrific autobiography, “A Girl Like I.” Loos was one of 20th century America’s greatest writers and an international treasure. And now I’m off to hunt down that Keun book.
It’s eminently quotable! And you can tell she was a screenwriter as the whole text lends itself so well to being read aloud. I doubt whether these passages are Lorelei’s best lines as I didn’t have my notebook by my side as I was reading the book – a point which left me scrabbling around for suitable quotes when it came to writing it up. Oh well…
It’s interesting to hear that Loos’ other books never quite reached the heady heights of Blondes. That’s often the case with something like this – there’s only so long a writer can sustain the joke before the novelty starts to wear a little thin. You should definitely seek out the Keun, though. I really think you’d get a lot out of it.
I had no idea about the connection between this and The Artificial Silk Girl. It’s the one Keun novel I haven’t read – which is perhaps why I’m leaving it for the moment!
It’s an interesting link, isn’t it? You know, I can’t decide whether you would like the Loos or not! I have a vague suspicion that it might be a bit frothy for your tastes in spite of the satirical concept at its heart. The Keun though is another matter altogether. I’m pretty confident you’ll enjoy that. Plus, you have a great track with Keun’s other work, a fact that can only stand you in good stead when it comes to reading The Artificial Silk Girl.
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