'Another Look' book club brings the Roaring '20s to Stanford with Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Once Marilyn Monroe vamped "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," the 1925 bestselling novel was all but forgotten. Stanford hopes to restore the balance with its seasonal book club event.

Edith Wharton called Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes "the great American novel" and declared its author a genius. Winston Churchill, William Faulkner, George Santayana and Benito Mussolini read it – so did James Joyce, whose failing eyesight led him to select his reading carefully. The 1925 bestseller sold out the day it hit the stores and earned Loos more than a million dollars in royalties.

Courtesy of the Anita Loos estateAnita Loos portrait

Anita Loos, whose novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes will be the topic of Stanford's Another Look book club's gathering on May 28.

Everyone, of course, has heard of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the short novel's fame was eclipsed by the 1953 movie of the same name, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Once the bombshell blonde vamped "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," the effervescent Jazz Age novel became a shard of forgotten history. Who has taken the send-up novel seriously since?

Stanford's "Another Look" book club would like to restore the balance. The book club launched by the English/Creative Writing Department is taking on the comic masterpiece at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 28, in the Stanford Humanities Center's Levinthal Hall. "Another Look" is a gift to the community – the event is free, open to the public, with no reservations required.

The evening will be moderated by the English department's Hilton Obenzinger, well known for his "How I Write" series of conversations with authors (available on iTunes here); he will be joined by English Professor Mark McGurl and Assistant Professor of English Claire Jarvis.

Clearly, this spring will make the 1920s roar again. Beginning May 1, Gavin Jones, chair of the English Department, will discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a cautionary tale of the American Dream, at the Stanford Alumni Association's Book Salon. Also, a major motion picture of The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, opens in theaters on May 10. But while Gatsby, published the same year as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, takes a grander, tragic look at the era, Loos revels in the pure nuttiness of two gold-diggers taking on New York City and Europe. Its story is told in a flapper's diary, with spelling and grammatical errors and verbal tics intact:

A gentleman friend and I were dining at the Ritz last evening and he said that if I took a pencil and a paper and put down all of my thoughts it would make a book. This almost made me smile as what it would really make would be a whole row of encyclopediacs. I mean I seem to be thinking practically all of the time. I mean it is my favorite recreation and sometimes I sit for hours and do not seem to do anything else but think. So this gentleman said a girl with brains ought to do something else with them besides think. And he said he ought to know brains when he sees them, because he is in the senate and he spends quite a great deal of time in Washington, d. c., and when he comes into contract with brains he always notices it.

Thus begins Loos' story of two upbeat, fly-by-night con artists, Lorelei and her sidekick Dorothy. "Lorelei and Dorothy create a carnival wherever they go. They create moral havoc," writes Regina Barreca in the introduction to the Penguin edition, comparing Loos' creation to Shelley's Frankenstein. "They are powerful for the same reason Shelley's monster is powerful: They have nothing to lose."

Obenzinger said the sequel But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes takes on a darker tone – drugs, prostitution, exploitation and organized crime make their appearance. But Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes takes nothing seriously, putting the stereotypic ditzy blonde on the map and immortalizing the era's new woman, able to vote, smoke, dance and drink. "Lorelei is the female Huck Finn of the flapper era," said Obenzinger.

"She is naive, shrewd and seemingly unaware as she exposes the absurdities and pretensions of boom-time capitalism," he said. "It's a hilarious send-up of new social dynamics, particularly the idea that women could get rich too through sexual manipulation."

Loos was no Lorelei, however. She said she would "always pass up a diamond for a laugh." She was born in Sisson, now Mount Shasta City, and grew up in San Francisco and San Diego. Much of her life story is to be taken with a grain of salt: trusted sources place her birth in 1888, 1893 or 1889. Each time she recalled receiving her first paycheck, she was younger, eventually claiming she started her professional writing career at 12. She was, in fact, 24. She also claimed to have written Gentlemen Prefer Blondes while still in her 20s. Not so; she was in her late 30s.

More reliably, she had five decades as a New York playwright, a novelist, a short story writer and one of Hollywood's most respected and prolific screenwriters. But nothing captured the zeitgeist like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

H.L. Mencken, with whom she had a flirtatious relationship, triggered her most famous novel after he briefly turned his attentions to an undistinguished blonde. "Could her power, like that of Samson, have something to do with her hair?" Loos asked.

"I wanted Lorelei to be a symbol of the lowest possible mentality of our nation," she wrote of the book that was first published serially in Harper's Bazaar. Mencken became a fan: "This gay book has filled me with uproarious and salubrious mirth," he wrote in a review. "It is farce – but farce full of shrewd observation and devastating irony."

Lorelei scribbles in her diary, "I mean champagne always makes me feel philosophical because it makes me realize that when a girl's life is as full of fate as mine seems to be, there's nothing else to do about it." But is Lorelei really as dumb as she sometimes seems?

She is in control of her destiny. She gets her guy, she gets good times, she gets the diamond tiara she craves, she even dances with the Prince of Wales – and there's plenty of champagne along the way.

The "Another Look" book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website anotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.

Cynthia Haven writes for the Stanford Department of English.

Cynthia Haven, English Department: (650) 815-9839, cynthia.haven@stanford.edu