December 12, 1988 12:00 PM

by Gary Carey

The subject of this rather disappointing book created one of the most memorable—and singular—American characters in 20th-century literature, the gold-digging innocent, Lorelei Lee, of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Loos spotted the theatrical potential of Colette’s Gigi, rescued the screen version of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women and churned out scripts for Pickford, Harlow, Gable, Crawford, Tracy. But despite her Hollywood high steps—and her self-perpetuated image as a fun-loving flapper—Anita Loos was a fairly low-key character. How else could she find time to produce more than 200 scripts, several books, plays and articles, even in a career that spanned seven decades? Indeed, Loos, the second child of a sedate home-making mother and philandering publisher father, must have felt a need to repair the dramatic defects of her own story early on. As a small child, she insisted her family drop her first name (Corinne) for what she perceived as her more exotic middle name, Anita; in later years, she liked to suggest she had written her first screenplay at 14 (she was 24) and Blondes in her 20s (she was nearly 40). The most interesting aspect of her life seems to have been her miserably unhappy marriage to film director John Emerson, who not only took credit for many of Loos’s projects while living off their proceeds but repaid her tolerance by cheating on her and eventually succumbing to a crippling hypochondria. Anita was fairly upfront about Emerson’s failings in her autobiographical writings: “Mr. E had started our marriage off by demanding freedom to choose his own associates; so he had to allow me the same privilege.” Carey lacks the psychological depth—or reportorial skills—to offer much new insight into Loos’s decision to stand by “Mr. E.” Other potentially fascinating relationships—such as those with her aggressive housekeeper-companion Gladys and the adopted daughter she dubbed “Miss Moore”—are explored only long enough for the reader to emerge thoroughly confused about Loos’s affections and motives. Another odd connection, with future bandleader Peter Duchin, comes up only in passing: Carey blithely notes that Loos was appointed temporary guardian of the motherless and ailing toddler, then abruptly drops the subject. Perhaps no life could match the legend Loos herself created, but surely this most original woman could not have been the diffident bore depicted here. (Knopf, $24.95)

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