When I started acting as a kid in Pittsburgh, my mother insisted I list "Fan of Katharine Hepburn, Cole Porter, and William Shakespeare" under special skills. I still don't see how those are skills, but it was true. I spent a lot of my free time watching movies from earlier decades, and one of my favorites was the 1939 classic The Women: it boasts an all-star cast of Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Fontaine. The titular ladies are glamorous, witty, and catty, and the dialogue is endlessly quotable; Joan Crawford as the salesgirl temptress Crystal Allen purrs, "There's a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society … outside of a kennel." Despite my affection for the film, I knew nothing about its screenwriter. It never occurred to me that the words were written by a woman.
It turns out the screenwriter, Anita Loos (who adapted Clare Boothe Luce's play for the screen), was quite the powerhouse, and she started young. By 1925, she had already written hundreds of screenplays for stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Lillian Gish. Anita was born in 1888 in Sissons, California, to an itinerant newspaperman and theater producer, R. Beers Loos, and his more affluent wife, Minnie Smith. R. Beers was a charming, philandering, low-grade grifter, qualities to which Anita was drawn in the characters she wrote and the men she dated. Anita was a precocious, charming child and made her acting debut at age six in a stage production of the historical love story Quo Vadis.
After R. Beers moved the family to San Diego and began managing a movie theater, Anita became a devoted moviegoer. She noticed the best films were produced by Biograph Company and sent them a scenario under the name A. Loos, reportedly because male screenwriters were paid more than female ones. This was not an uncommon way for women to break into the movies back then. In that era, films were considered "low" entertainment, and many women, like Anita, wrote from home and submitted the writing by mail. According to the film historian and co-editor of Anita Loos Rediscovered, Cari Beauchamp, women wrote half the screenplays for produced films from 1912 to 1922.
Anita sold her first scenario at 24, although she later claimed to have been as young as 12. Her first produced scenario was 1913's The New York Hat, directed by D.W. Griffith and starring Mary Pickford as a young girl who desires the titular, fashionable "New York" hat and Lionel Barrymore as the clergyman who buys it for her at the request of the girl's dying mother. Despite her professional success, Anita was still living at home under her mother's very watchful eye. A brief marriage to a man named Frank Pallma helped her get out of the house. She quipped, "In looking over the field, I separated the men from the boys and purposely chose a boy."
Following her breakup with Frank, Anita moved to Los Angeles (with her mother in tow) to work for D.W. Griffith's new company, Triangle Pictures, where she was known for her clever scenarios and subtitles. Griffith didn't always appreciate Anita's irreverent humor, but director John Emerson saw her value. He persuaded Griffith to produce some of Anita's scenarios, and they had several hits with the actor Douglas Fairbanks.
Anita was in awe of the older (Emerson was 14 years her senior), taller (Anita was under five feet tall), more sophisticated Emerson. His background in the theater lent him prestige, and by 1912 he was a valued director at Triangle. Their nicknames for each other reveal the imbalance in power: She referred to him as Mr. E., and he called her Bug. Although Anita was apparently much more romantically interested in Mr. E. than he in Anita, they married in 1919.
Very early on in their relationship, he took co-screenwriting credits on her scripts, despite not writing a word. They had success after parting ways with Fairbanks, relocating to New York and writing several pictures for the Talmadge sisters, who were hugely successful silent-movie stars.
Emerson was less happy with Anita's solo efforts. At first, Mr. E. tried to block the 1925 publication of Loos's novel Gentleman Prefer Blondes, which is today her most famous and heralded work. Perhaps he wanted to block it because he found the subject matter unseemly or was jealous of her success. When that didn't work, he asked her to include a dedication in the book: "To John Emerson, Except for whose encouragement and guidance this book would never have been written." Her editor shortened it: "To John Emerson." Once the book proved a massive commercial and critical success — Edith Wharton, James Joyce, and William Faulkner were all fans — John was quite happy to spend the profits. He and Anita lived in high style, often traveling to Europe. As Anita was fêted and celebrated, Emerson found ways to draw the attention back to himself, mainly through psychosomatic illnesses. Mr. E. often complained he was losing his voice, and after many visits to expensive clinics throughout Europe, one doctor pulled Anita aside to suggest a solution. Clearly, the ailment was in Emerson's head, so what if the doctor put Mr. E. under anesthesia, scratched his vocal chords, and then after surgery presented Emerson with a jar of fake nodules? The scheme worked, and Emerson's normal speaking voice returned.