It was typical of Anita Loos, who died Tuesday at 93, that this theater writer didn't meet her through mutual theatrical friends such as Helen Hayes, Carol Channing or Gilbert Miller. I met her through a sportsman, George Marshall, the late, irascible owner of the Washington Reskins, a gamblin' man, the sort of roguish male brunet Anita always preferred.
"Meet me in the Belle Watling Room at 5," George commanded on the phone one afternoon. "I've someone I want you to meet and it'll be love at first sight." The Belle Watling Room was sporty talk for the vast, ornate cocktail lounge of the Willard Hotel, a nickname borrowed from Rhett Butler's sexy benefactress in "Gone With the Wind."
At 4 feet 11 1/2 inches (Anita insisted on that one-half inch), George's present of a new friend should have been lost in the cavernous space but she lit up the whole area like the diamonds of which her greatest creation, Lorelei Lee, was so fond.
Her bobbed hair was another trademark which, with bangs, would endure into her 93rd year. Bored with having to make a hairdresser's appointment in Paris of the 19-teens, Anita and her dancing pal, Irene Castle, clipped their hair short in their hotel room one afternoon. Never again did Anita Loos have to waste her time in what she derided as hair parlors.
To meet the writer who had created not only Lorelei Lee in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," but also nearly 400 film scripts, a half-dozen novels and scores of essays, was to discover the opposite of the expected sophistication. She had the accent of a Middle West farm wife, no long A's or la-de-dah phrases. Very down to earth she was and George Marshall was right, not a week went by for the two of us over 30 years without a phone call, note or meeting.
Initially serialized in George Jean Nathan's Smart Set magazine, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" was published in book form in 1925 and has had an enduring role in American literature as the first native work to treat sex lightly, satirically. Lorelei explains a protector's wound by stating that "the gun went off and shot Mr. Eisman." Her brunet sidekick, Dorothy, is a wise companion for the trips that take the girls from the chorus to elegant suites of trans-atlantic liners and posh hotels. Europeans see the book as an insightful portrait of American life.
Even in the year of her death, Anita was working on what might have become a glorious prank, "Lorelei Lee at 95." About 20 years ago she remarked that then Lorelei would have been an airline stewardess but more recently had commented that such a profession had become too common. "Lorelei might now have posed as a radio psychiatrist," she said.
"Gentlemen" also prompted a not-quite-so popular sequel, "But They Marry Brunettes," which also became a film that still pops up, as does the Marilyn Monroe-filmed "Gentlemen" on late night TV.
An idea that her sophisticated image meant langorous indolence was also wholly wrong. Above all, Anita Loos despised pretentiousness.
She was up by 4:30 every morning, even into her 92nd year, writing in longhand on lined yellow sheets of legal size on a chaise longue in her bedroom. By 8:30 she'd done a day's work and was on the phone with such buddies as producer Morton Gottlieb, who'd first met her when he did publicity for a Loos producer, Gilbert Miller and such gadabouts as Paulette Goddard, Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish and Cathleen Nesbitt, who, at the age of 93, opened again Monday night as Mrs. Higgins of "My Fair Lady" on Broadway. By noon Anita and her set were onto whatever scandal or madness the bon ton had gotten into during the past 24 hours.
Born in Sissons (now Mount Shasta), Calif., April 26, 1888, Anita used to say that she really was raised in San Francisco. When nudity took the spotlight a decade ago on the New York stage, Anita scoffed that such was old stuff. "On the Barbary Coast when I was a child there was a production of Oscar Wilde's 'An Ideal Husband' totally in the nude. My father told me about seeing it."
However, it was from San Diego, where her footloose father managed a movie theater, that Anita embarked on her writing career. She watched hundreds of movies from behind the screen and realized that someone had to construct the stories which occupied the stars.
She outlined the idea for a picture on a postal card, signed it "A. Loos" and sent it to D.W. Griffith, then, in 1912, at the start of his directing career. Griffith responded by writing "A. Loos" to meet him in a hotel lobby. Mother Loos insisted on going along for propriety's sake and Griffith, having expected to meet a man, assumed Mother was "A. Loos."
The relationships straightened out, "The New York Hat" was quickly filmed, its Canadian leading lady, Gladys Smith, taking a new name, Mary Pickford, in a cast which also included Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish. That got Anita, actually 18 but looking about 12, started on 30 years of film-writing.
Of all the movies she thought up, her favorites were those for Douglas Fairbanks Sr., "such a jolly, fun-loving fellow, a smooth comedian and an athlete as well."
"Con men are the males I like the most," Anita used to say, "those wonderful, gambling frauds who talk big but can be twisted around once you get to know them. I even married one."
Succeeding her first husband of only a few months, a callow youth whose name has faded from history, was writer-director John Emerson, who did his all to take credit for "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."
"John insisted on getting the pay check for both of us," Anita once remarked, "but it didn't matter much to me for I was having fun. In those days we made movies for fun and when it stopped being fun, I just got out. I do find it ironic, though, that the money John stole from me actually went to supporting him the last 18 years of his life in an insane asylum."
Another con man she relished, probably even loved, was Wilson Mizner, the adventurer-gambler she used as the character Clark Gable would play in what was possibly her best screenplay, "San Francisco." She also told film historians she was proud of her screen adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce's play, "The Women," which some critics considered superior to the original.
She was mad, too, for H.L. Mencken, the Balimore political pundit. They arranged adjacent staterooms on the Super Chief for a five-day 1924 trip to the coast but Anita got miffed when Mencken took up with "a foolish, pretty blond" they'd picked up with in the bar car.
Anita got even with Mencken by locking herself in her stateroom and scratching out what became "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." It was an instant smash from its first magazine installation. "Never sneer at royalties or percentages" Anita Loos said a year or so ago when she showed me a new paperback edition in Swedish.
Anita kept her age pretty much to herself, her friends assuming she was maybe a decade younger. Only Helen Hayes really knew. When Helen complained of having spent years playing such noble females as Mary of Scotland, Queen Victoria and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anita obliged her by writing the role of a repressed librarian who gets tipsy in "Happy Birthday."
A musical version of this, given a production by James Hatcher with Fannie Flagg in the lead in Birmingham, was one of the final works of her career.
Survived by a niece, novelist Mary Anita Loos, Anita's true family consisted of Gladys Moore, her housekeeper for the past 40 years, and Gladys' granddaughter. Over 20 years ago the Harlem tenement where one of Gladys' sons lived with his family of seven children burned down. "Bring the youngest one down here," Anita told her black housekeeper. "Here" was a large, third- floor apartment facing Carnegie Hall and the Russian Tea Room.
The granddaughter also was named Gladys, so while Gladys remained Gladys, the baby was called Miss Moore. Anita labored over "new math" to help Miss Moore at school, took the two on her summers abroad. As a child Miss Moore knew French and Italian and a snapshot with her on his lap was the last ever taken of Aldous Huxley.
Miss Moore danced each Christmas in Balanchine's "Nutcracker" at Lincoln Center. When she married a smart young law student a couple of summers ago the wedding guests included Anita Loos, Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish and Carol Channing. (There was a tragic ending: Miss Moore's young husband died some six months later of a brain tumor.)
With Anita, characters were always special, from her Vermont grandmother named Cleopatra Fairbrother to such as Greta Garbo, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Santayana, Christopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden and Cecil Beaton. She chatted of a night a drunken F. Scott Fitzgerald attacked her and his wife Zelda with a carving knife. Only the timely entrance of a butler saved Zelda and Anita from untimely carving. "I was always glad there were French doors in that dining room of Scott's."
But she could be choosy about whom she would meet. One evening my wife and I took Anita to a Washington party whose guests included President Nixon. We were about three feet from him when I asked, "Would you like to meet the president?" Anita instantly replied, "Not particularly" and walked away. She liked, however, to chat with Alice Longworth about the soap operas they both enjoyed, Anita at the end of her day, Alice, a late sleeper, at the start of hers.
Until niece Mary arrives from the coast, plans for a memorial are not set. There is a previously planned opening today of a collection of Anita's paintings, drawings and memorabilia at New York's Grand Central Art Gallery. The showing will run through September, during which time it's certain thousands of her far-flung friends will pay a call.