Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was one of the most popular books of its day. First serialized in Harper’s Bazaar in 1924 (published as a book in 1925), it was an immediate hit among the general public and was widely acclaimed among writers such as George Santayana, H.L. Mencken, William Faulkner, and Edith Wharton. Gentlemen seems to have been the inspiration for the “dumb blonde” trope, immortalized by Marilyn Monroe, that has appeared in American movies ever since. But the thing about Lorelei Lee is that she is not quite so stupid as she appears at first blush. She seems naive and might lack refinement and education, but when it comes to looking out for number one, she can outsmart just about any man or woman who crosses her path.
The novel is written as Lorelei’s diary and follows the adventures of Lorelei and her friend Dorothy as they navigate the social scene of 1920s New York and Europe. Lorelei’s friend Gus Eisman, the “button king,” keeps Lorelei in comfort and out of sight of his wife. The two women spend their days shopping, lunching, and clubbing, and enjoying quite a lot of drink, prohibition notwithstanding. They also get to take an amusing European tour, courtesy of Mr. Eisman, in order to further Lorelei’s “education.” While in London, which she describes as “really nothing,” she is repeatedly accosted by upper class women who want to sell her their jewelry. Lorelei has her eye on a diamond tiara, but since Mr. Eisman is not in London, she tries to find a way to persuade the wealthy Sir Francis Beekman (“Piggie”) to give it to her as a gift. He eventually does, Lorelie promises to always stay in London for him, and then she and Dorothy take off for Paris. In Paris, Lorelei and Dorothy are confronted by Piggie’s wife Lady Francis Beekman. She wants the tiara and hires a couple of French lawyers to work on Lorelei and try to steal the tiara back. The way it all works out proves that Lorelei is sharper than others (including her smarter brunette friend Dorothy) give her credit for. The girls’ trip to Vienna and meet-up with Mr. Eisman leads to Lorelei’s involvement with Henry Spoffard. Spoffard is a well known member of a wealthy American family and a bit of a prig, but Lorelei finds ways to manage him and his family to her advantage, ultimately having to decide whether or not to really marry him.
Loos’ writing is full of snappy snarky dialogue. When the English ladies offer to sell Lorelei their various wares and name their prices in pounds, she wants to know “how much it was in money”. Some other gems:
…it [the etiquette book] wastes quite a lot of time telling you what to call a Lord and all the Lords I have met have told me what to call them and it is generally some quite cute name like Coocoo….
…she [Dorothy] said my brains reminded her of a radio because you listen to it for days and days and you get discouradged and just when you are getting ready to smash it, something comes out that is a masterpiece.
So last night we went to the Foley Bergere and it really was devine. I mean it was very very artistic because it had girls in it that were in the nude.
…Dorothy says the only thing she could stand being to Henry, would be his widow at the age of 18.
I enjoyed Loos’ writing style and her send-up of “smart men,” i.e., intellectuals, social leaders and titans of industry who never seem to understand that they are being played. But in the end, I couldn’t help but be bothered by the whole story. According to the introduction by feminist scholar Regina Barreca (who loves the book), Loos started writing the story after witnessing H.L. Mencken being taken in by “a stupid little blonde” (Loos’ own words). She wanted to poke fun at her friend Mencken, but it seems to me that the lasting impact of this novel has been the creation of the dumb materialistic blonde stereotype. It’s a little weird to me that a woman writer created the classic “bimbo” role. Loos wrote a sequel called But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which is included in the Penguin Classics version of Gentlemen. I had planned to read it, but a little of Lorelei’s musings went quite a long way.