Rebel Rebel: How Mavericks Made the Modern World
“Louise Brooks was the most seductive sexual image of woman ever committed to celluloid and the only unrepentant hedonist, pure pleasure seeker I have ever
met and this comes over in her films,” remarked eminent critic, Kenneth Tynan, who spent two days interviewing her in 1978. “And when men bored her she
left them and when Hollywood bored her she left and went into retirement from which she never emerged.”
Primarily known for just two European masterpieces, Pandora's Box and The Diary of a Lost Girl, directed in Berlin by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Brooks made only 24 films during a movie career that began in 1925 and ended, with inscrutable abruptness, in 1938. At the time she was regarded as a second tier star but today, is more well known and admired than any of the huge Hollywood stars who overshadowed her, such as Theda Bara, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Lillian Gish, her failure having lasted much longer than their success.
A single minded maverick, she was one of the first, most famous and infamous, ‘flappers’ - brash young women who, in the 1920s, wore short skirts, excessive makeup, smoked, drove automobiles, listened to jazz and visibly flaunted their disdain for the days acceptable behaviour and sexual mores. Indeed, these attractive, reckless, style obsessed flappers girls were, not only perceived as, but certainly were a threat to a society where women were expected to be seen, not heard, obedient and servile – rather like a domestic/nanny with whom you had sex with when drunk and produced offspring with. Said flappers changed all that in a decade and, as such, were infinitely more controversial than rockers, hippies or punk rockers and caused even greater hullabaloo. “The social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations," wrote Dr. R. Murray-Leslie in 1920 in an article entitled, Too many Women. Is it the cause of Social Unrest? And undeniably, Brooks (who slept with both Garbo and Charlie Chaplin, but not at the same time) - with her short pioneering Bob haircut, flimsy dresses, flat chest, open sexual proclivity, baffling recalcitrance and passion for drinks, drugs and fags - was the unrivalled Queen of the Flappers. She epitomised the Roaring Twenties and led the way for female emancipation and subsequently the vote and is one of the biggest and most influential style icons of all time.
She was born on November 14th 1906 in Cherryvale, Kansas to lawyer, Leonard Porter Brooks, a saintly man who was ‘so honest his secretary makes more money than he does’ and doctor’s daughter, Myra Rude, a talented pianist who thought that their four children, all under ten, “should take care of themselves.” Inevitably, this meant a lot of reading so that, by the time Louise was a teenager, she had already immersed herself in Dickens, Thackeray, Mark Twain and Darwin – which, as she readily admitted, did her Hollywood career no favours at all. Indeed, the Brooks clan seems a rather arcane bunch. Initially, poor English farmers, they settled in Tennessee in the late 18th Century, fought against the slave owners in the Civil War and in 1871, journeyed the 1000 miles in a covered wagon to settle in Kansas. Maybe it was this blood that allowed Brooks her spirit as, by the age of ten she was, as she stated in her memoir, “what amounted to a professional dancer”.
Of course, her teachers gave up on her because, as she said in her diary, “I am fed up with teaching my teachers what to teach me”, so her mother parceled her off to New York aged 15, with her stout matronly chaperon, Alice Mills. Here she was taught modern dance by Ted Shawn, who’s assistant Martha Graham has been said to have the same effect on dance as Picasso had on art. Already a beauty, sui generis, in 1922, Brooks now just 16, joined the rather arty modern American dance group, Denishawn Dancers, met Barbara Bennett (sister of soon to be Hollywood stars Joan and Constance Bennett) who introduced her to New York Café Society and Wall Street Brokers. Her trade mark bob already in place, cropped at what Christopher Isherwood described as, “that unique imperious neck of hers,” Brooks (a virtual Pygmalion who was given elocution lessons by a soda jerk, learned dining etiquette from waiters and dress sense from Miss Rita a salesgirl from the Bronx who worked in a fashionable store) had millionaire’s fawning at her feet and showering her with gifts aplenty. But as she later wrote, “Sexual submission was not a condition of this arrangement”.
By 1924 she had entirely reinvented herself as a New York Ace Face but, that said, still, without warning slipped off to London, where she performed The Charleston on stage at the Café De Paris and started a nationwide craze. Quite naturally, she was loved and embraced by the so called, ‘bright young things,’ a notoriously bohemian group of drink and drug addled aristocrats who included the politically suspect Mitford sisters, stately homos Cecil Beaton, Steven Tennant and Edward James and the literary minded Sitwell brood. Typically though, Brooks found them rather dull and so, after reading Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies that was based on them, remarked, “Only a genius could write a masterpiece out of such glum material”.
And so disillusioned with the English toff, she borrowed the boat fare and returned to New York where she announced: “At last my beloved New York was able to present a Louise Brooks who was neither Kansas nor Broadway nor Hollywood nor Park Avenue but uniquely herself.” Alighting from the boat she was met by Florenz Ziegfield, who immediately signed her up to appear on Broadway in the review, Louis the 14th. “The director detested me, “ she wrote in Sight and Sound. “Because on occasion when I had other commitments I would wire my non appearance to the theater.” Twelve months on, aged just 19, she first appeared as a scantily clad chorus dancer in the controversial Scandals. She then joined W.C. Fields and cowboy Will Rogers as cast member of the 1925 edition of The Ziegfield Follies as a specialty dancer. A ‘social butterfly’, she stayed out all night at the speakeasies, lived in hotels and was thrown out of both the Algonquin (where she met with Harpo Marx, George Cohan and Dorothy Parker) and The Martha Washington hotel for ‘bad behavior’. Still her admirers were legion. One of which was the peevishly witty Times critic Herman Mankiewicz, who went on to write the screenplay for Citizen Kane; Another was Charlie Chaplin with whom who she had a two month affair (“a true genius, a glistening creature who never said a bad word about anyone and was radiantly carefree and absurdly generous.”) W.C.Fields became her close companion and close friend (“a solitary person…he abhorred bars, nightclubs, parties and other people’s houses.”) Another ardent admirer was 36 year old, Walter Wanger, an executive at Famous Player Lasky (later to become Paramount) who was so besotted by her that he offered her a five year film contract. Over the following year she made 12 movies - most of which are now lost.
Her first audience with the press was with Ruth Waterbury of Photoplay who turned up at the fledgling actress’s hotel and, much to her annoyance, found the actress still in bed from where she conducted the interview. The writer embraced the studio press release line about this, ‘young chorus girl who should feel so very lucky to be cast opposite great star, Adolphe Menjou, in A Social Celebrity,’ but soon discovered that Brooks was not at all impressed by them, it or her.
“Whereas she looked at me as a stupid, ‘chorus girl,’ who didn’t know how lucky she was,” wrote the diminutive Brooks just 5’ 2’ in stocking feet. “I looked at her as artistically retarded not to know that ten years of professional dancing was the best possible preparation for ‘moving pictures;’ I asked her if she had seen, or even heard of, Martha Graham’s sensational success in the Greenwich Village Follies. She had not. I didn’t realize then that that this cultural conflict with this writer was merely the first instance of the kind of contempt that would drive me out of Hollywood.”
Very much impressed, Waterbury wrote, “Describing Louise presents its difficulties. She is so very Manhattan. Very Young. Exquisitely hardboiled. Her black eyes and sleek black hair are as brilliant as Chinese lacquer. Her skin is white as a camellia. Her legs are lyric. She is just nineteen.”
Seizing the moment, Brooks was on a roll as the single-minded flapper who captured the imagination of a million young girls. She shone in Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em as the sly and conniving shop girl Evelyn Brent who uses her feminine wiles to make her way in the world and appeared with Fields in It’s The Old Army Game of 1926.
While all this was going on she, uncharacteristically, married Army Game director, London born, Edward Sutherland - the hard drinking playboy and author/screen writer who novelist Anita Loos described as ‘the Beau Brummell of the era.’ The couple moved to Hollywood where she entertained the cream of ‘interesting’ Hollywood society such as Buster Keaton, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Clark Gable, Pola Negri, Tallulah Bankhead and John Barrymore. "When I went to Hollywood in 1927, the girls were wearing lumpy sweaters and skirts . . . I was wearing sleek suits and half naked beaded gowns and piles and piles of furs. But I just didn't fit into the Hollywood scheme at all. I was neither a fluffy heroine, nor a wicked vamp, nor a woman of the world. I just didn't fit into any category." The couple divorced after just two years. "The men I liked most were the worst in bed, and the men I liked least were the best,” she admitted. “I liked the bastards… English men are the best. And priest ridden Irishman are the worst."
Later in life Brooks attributed her almost masochistic sexual bent to her being sexually molested aged nine by a fifty-year-old man named Mr. Feathers. She told her mother, who blamed her. “My mother told me I must have led him on,” she explained. “ But for me soft easy men were never enough - there had to be an element of domination - I am convinced that’s all tied up with Mr. Feathers.”
In 1928 Brooks, now aged 21, she made A Girl in Every Port, also directed by Howard Hawks (who helmed Scarface in 1932 and Red River in 1948) that sees her succeed as yet another amoral pleasure seeker who turns bullyboy, Victor McLaglen, into a simpering bowl of shuddering jelly. She followed up with Beggars of Life directed by WW1 war hero William ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman and plays a girl who kills her stepfather who tried to rape her and goes on the run dressed as a boy. Young flappers looked at Brooks with total and utter adoration. On film she was using all at her disposal to conquer men. She was a new kind of woman. She was Louise Brooks.
Undeniably, being a feisty 21 year old who held less respect for Hollywood than she did an ice cream, she hardly ingratiated her to the likes of Paramount big wig producer, B.P. Schulberg, with whom she argued relentlessly and later described as a “coarse exploiter who propositioned every actress and policed every set.” But by this time she was bedding multi millionaire playboy laundry magnate, George Marshall, who took over her business affairs and told her that her contract was up with Paramount and that the Austrian Expressionist cineaste G.W.Pabst was offering her a thousand dollars a week to appear in a movie in Berlin. Schulberg had given her a choice: stay at her old salary or quit. "And, just for the hell of it," Brooks wrote, “I quit." A few days later she was on her way to Germany.
“The Eden hotel where I stayed in Berlin, the Café bar was lined with the higher priced trollops while the economy girls walked the streets outside and on the corner the girls in leather and boots advertising flagellation,” she wrote. “Actors’ agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian quarter; race track touts arranged orgies for groups of sportsmen, the Nightclub El Dorado displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women, at the Marley there was a choice of feminine or collar and tie lesbians.”
Undeniably, Berlin during the Weimar Republic was a sexual Disneyland for foreign visitors where any and every sexual distraction could be procured for a pittance. The corruption had begun after WW1 had created thousands of war orphans and widows who had little option but to sell themselves to eat. Subsequently, prostitution became utterly entrenched in the city's underground economy that itself was fuelled by a massive drug culture in which heroin and cocaine were commonplace, the latter, selling for less than a penny a capsule, came from leftover military stockpiles that made their way into the black market onto the streets and into the boudoirs of the bourgeousie.
“In some circles, especially in the Berlin art world, cocaine was considered and interesting and fashionable vice”, chided Carl Zuckmayer who penned the Blue Angel screenplay. “I never got involved myself even though buckets and sacks of the stuff was snorted in my company. I was disgusted by their inflamed nostrils.”
Thus, in the twenties Berlin became known as a "powder city " that according to police reports was ruled by some 62 organized criminal gangs in Berlin, called Ringvereine. To add to the cities degradation hyperinflation had risen to a monthly rate of inflation of 3.25 billion per cent, which is the equivalent of prices doubling every two hours. It was into this world that this spirited, beautiful 22 year old was thrust while the picture in which she was to star, aimed to mirror it.
Die Büchse der Pandora - Pandora’s Box (1929) based on Frank Wedekind’s mercurial stage play, is an apt depiction of depravity and low life that sits rather comfortably in the aforementioned Berlin. Brooks is Lulu - a seductive, thoughtless sybarite whose raw sexuality and uninhibited quest for the illicit pleasures of life, set amongst a back drop of male and female homosexuality, brings ruin to herself and those who love her. Undoubtedly, it might easily have been a cautionary tale but, in the hands of both Pabst and Brooks, it is unquestionably not.
“At the time, Wedekind, produced Pandora’s Box at the turn of the century,” wrote Brooks. “It was detested, condemned and banned. It was declared ‘immoral and inartistic!’ Yet nobody who was connected with the film dreamed that Pabst was risking commercial failure with the story of an ’immoral prostitute who wasn’t crazy about her work and was surrounded by the ‘inartistic’ ugliness of raw bestiality.”
Pabst had a suitably unsentimental outlook and, was thus, the perfect director for such a film, but it was his casting of Brooks that really set the film apart.
“Pabst was looking for a girl that was perfect for Lulu. Absolutely born for the role,” informed Pandora’s Box assistant director, Mark Sorkin. “Lulu was this beautiful destructive character and so was Louise Brooks and as such she conveyed it perfectly. But Louise was very independent and when she worked she always had an opinion of what she had to do that wasn’t always right but was most of the time.”
Perhaps the finest piece of casting in cinema history, Lulu (who in the play had also been molested as a young girl) for all her feminine charms and seductive guile is never an exploiter but, just like Brooks, is the exploited and, even though we are never allowed to feel sorry for her, she is like a voluptuous bird of paradise in a cage full of hungry predatory vultures.
“As Wedekind said, ‘Lulu is not a real character but the personification of primitive sexuality who inspires evil unaware,’” said Brooks. “She plays a purely passive role. Besides daring to show the prostitute as a victim, Mr.Pabst went onto the final damning immorality of making his Lulu sweetly innocent. I played Pabst’s Lulu and she is not the destroyer of men like Wederkind’s Lulu. She was the same kind of nitwit as I am. I would have made an impossible wife - staying in bed all day reading and drinking gin. Lulu’s story is as near as you will get to mine.”
Lulu begins as the mistress of a respected, middle-aged newspaper publisher, Peter Schön, who, feeling Lulu unfit to marry, plans to wed the daughter of a cabinet minister. His aims are shot to pieces after his fiancé finds him delecto flagrante with his former mistress who marries him herself. At the infamous wedding scene, the first lesbian scene in movie history, Brooks dances cheek to cheek with the raving bull dyke, Countess Geschwitz which enrages her new husband, who then finds her in their wedding bed verging on what appears to be both romp and orgy with two wedding guests Schigolch and Rodrigo. Beside himself, he finds his revolver and, after a struggle, is killed. Consequently, Lulu is convicted of manslaughter and is sentenced to five years but escapes with the help of Geschwitz - the only person in the film that truly loves Lulu - ending up In London on Christmas Eve, turns to prostitution to eat and suffers an ignominious and untimely end.
Remarkably, even though Pandora seems somehow more convincing in its depiction of twenties Berlin as a silent picture, it was a commercial failure but rediscovered by cine-files decades later it became a huge cult classic that, regarded as one of the great works of the silent era, was a great influence on film noir. Somewhat belatedly another screen icon was born.
Numerous critics have declared that the untrained Brooks re-invented screen acting by simply not caring what we, the audience, thought of her, not over reacting, not over acting, not anything. ”When I acted I hadn’t the slightest idea of what I was doing I was simply playing myself which is the hardest thing to do if you know that its hard,” she told filmmaker Michael Leacock. “I didn’t know anything, so it seemed easy. I had nothing to unlearn. When I worked with Pabst, he was furious with me as he approached people intellectually and you couldn’t approach me intellectually because there was nothing to approach… But I was never an actress as I was never in love with myself."
Next up for the Pabst and Brooks came, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) based on the million selling novel of 1905, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, by Margarete Böhme. It is the story of Thymian Henning (Louise Brooks) a naïve, virginal daughter of pharmacist, Robert Henning, who, in a moment of distress is ravaged by her father’s assistant becomes pregnant, has the baby taken away, is banished to a Draconian reformatory, escapes and, with no place to go, ends up a prostitute in an up market brothel.
Today, such a tale that might seem rather commonplace but, in the twenties, by empathizing with the plight of the prostitute, it was explosively controversial, hit the zeitgeist head on and, even though many women in the city had suffered the same fate, ruffled more than a few feathers and failed at the box office.
Brooks final European film, Prix de beauté, produced by Pabst and directed in Paris (where she was a huge fashion icon) by former Italian theatre critic, Augusto Genina, stands out purely because of the actresses then derided naturalist acting style. The perfect vehicle for Brooks, Prix de beauté should have made her a worldwide star but it came out at just as talkies were taking over and, even though a French actress dubbed Brooks, the general public considered it dated.
By this time she had fallen out with Pabst with whom she’d just had a one night stand. She gave, as she describes, “the best sexual performance of my life. I jumped into the hay with him and delivered myself body and soul.”
“At one point in Paris Pabst was annoyed with me for spending time with my every hour away from work with my rich American friends,” she wrote. “He thought they prevented me from being a serious actress and would discard me like an old toy when done with me. ‘Your life is exactly like Lulu's,’ he said, ‘and you will end the same way.’”
This third flop in a row drove Brooks back to Hollywood where Paramount had carefully converted her last film with them, The Canary Murder Case (with William Powel and Jean Arthur) to a talkie by overdubbing a lackluster American actress, Margaret Livingston’s jarring voice and using a Brooks lookalike for added scenes. Brooks, whose voice Tynan described as a treasure Hollywood failed to realize, was incensed. Paramount responded by deliberately destroying her career by placing her in small insubstantial roles but of course Brooks, typically, did not give a hoot about Hollywood or this ‘silly business’, so didn’t help herself one iota.
“This intricate man [Bill Wellman] offered me a part in The Public Enemy,” she told Richard Leacock. “But when I turned it down to make a trip New York he passed it onto Jean Harlow.” The Public Enemy, was one of the years biggest box office successes and made huge stars of its two leads - James Cagney and Harlow.
After a few even more lacklustre more Hollywood films, Brooks - disenchanted with what she described as, “Hollywood fools” - retired in 1931, aged 25, declared bankruptcy in 1932, and began dancing in nightclubs to earn a living. She attempted a comeback in 1936 but was told she would have start again at the bottom as a chorus girl. Columbia chief, Harry Cohn, summoned her to a series of meetings in his office in 1930. He greeted her naked from the waist up and explained that good parts would appear if she played the ‘game’ with him. She refused and was denied a contract. A veritable pig of a man, Cohn, vengefully publicized her aborted "comeback" by circulating a still throughout the countries newspapers with the caption, ‘Louise Brooks former star who deserted Hollywood seven years ago at the height of her career for Germany has come back to resume her work in pictures but seven years is too long for the public to remember and Louise begins again at the bottom.’ Her last film was, Overland Stage Raiders (1938), opposite John Wayne and a ventriloquist’s dummy. In her own estimation, she’d made $124,000 (almost $2 million in today’s money) during her career and spent the lot.
“The only people who wanted to see me [about work] were men who wanted to sleep with me,” she told Kenneth Tynan. “Then Walter Wanger warned me that if I hung around I’d become a call girl. So I fled to Wichita, Kansas where my family had moved in 1919. But that turned out to be another kind of Hell. The Citizens of Wichita either resented me for being a success or hated me for being a failure. And I wasn’t exactly enchanted with them.”
After an unsuccessful attempt at operating a dance studio for “young people,” and an unsuccessful booklet, "The Fundamentals of Good Ballroom Dancing,” she returned East to New York. “I found that the only well-paying career open to me, as an unsuccessful actress of thirty-six, was that of a call girl and I was too proud for that ... and began to flirt with the fancies related to little bottles filled with yellow sleeping pills,” she said in her book.
Like many she struggled through the war but still didn’t sell out. In 1943 she was paid $1500 for the rights to publish her ghostwritten story in "The American Weekly" magazine, but it never saw the light of day as Brooks refused to provide salacious details or name any names.
After WW2 and brief stints as a radio actor and a gossip columnist, she shocked New York. “In 1947 the proud snooty Louise Brooks started work as a salesgirl at Saks, Fifth Avenue. They paid me $40-a-week,” she told Tynan. “ I had this silly idea of proving myself an ‘honest woman’ but the only effect it had was to disgust all my famous New York friends who cut me off forever.”
During this period she wrote an autobiographical novel called, Naked on My Goat, a title taken from Faust, but after working on the novel for several years, destroyed her only manuscript by throwing it into an incinerator. She attributes this to a sense of pudeur, embarrassed by her candour regarding her sexual proclivity. She later summed herself up as a typical mid westerner, “born in the Bible belt of Anglo Saxon farmers who preyed in the parlour and practiced incest in the barn… I too am unwilling to write the sexual truth that would make my life worth reading. I cannot unbuckle the Bible belt.””
Between 1948 and 1953 then eked a living as a courtesan supported at various times by three millionaires (one of which was CBS founder William Paley who
provided her with an allowance for the rest of her life) but declined to marry them because as she said, “I wasn’t in love with them. In fact I have never
been in love. And If I had loved a man, could I have ever been faithful to him? Could he have trusted me behind a closed door? I doubt it. It was clever of
Pabst to know that, even before he met me, I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu.”
She swerved marriage by becoming a Catholic who in the eyes of the church was still married to Eddie Sutherland, but her young priest fell in love with her and was banished to the West Coast. ”He wanted to give me special instruction in my apartment but I resisted,” she said.
But by 1954 she hit an all time low. “There was no point in throwing myself in the East River because I could swim, and I couldn’t afford the alternative, which was sleeping pills.” Depressed, she had become an overweight alcoholic recluse, forgotten by all and sundry until in 1955 Henri Langlois, the energetic head of The Cinémathèque Française, organized a massive exhibition entitled Sixty Years of Cinema, the entrance to which was dominated by two huge blowups – one of French actress Falconetti in Dreyer’s La Passion de Joan d’ Arc and Brooks in Pandora’s Box. Subsequently, when a critic demanded to know why this non entity Brooks occupied centre stage and not Garbo or Dietrich he went ballistic and shouted. “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!” Later that year silent film enthusiast and film curator at Eastman House, James Card, tracked her down to what she described as her “grubby hole on First Avenue at Fifty Ninth Street”.
“It was such a shock to see someone who had looked like her in the most deplorable, unimaginable physical condition from having lived on nothing but alcohol for years and years and years,” stated Card. “She was enormously bloated and her hair was unkempt hanging around her face like the witch of Endor and she wore a rusty old overcoat and huge space slippers that she called her uniform, She was like a Lon Chaney in reverse somebody so remote for the person I’d seen on screen that it was unlikely it was the same person.”
Card set about her rehabilitation. He moved her to Rochester New York where he was the curator of the Eastman Museum. Here he screened many of her movies for her, most of which she had never bothered to watch. “I still haven’t seen them...not right through,” she admitted. “Jimmy Card screened them for me during my drinking period. So I would watch through glazed eyes for about five minutes and sleep through the rest. I still haven’t seen Pandora. I’ve been present at two screenings but was drunk both times. Card still persevered and eventually persuaded her that film, which she had never taken seriously, was indeed a valid art form. Consequently, she looked back at all the years of misery, the twenty years of obscurity, started to re-evaluate her worth and began writing a series of tough, fastidious, yet rather elusive articles about her experiences in film. Brooks had been a heavy drinker since the age of 14 but remained relatively sober when writing her incisive essays on her colleagues and contemporaries as Garbo, Dietrich, Chaplin, Bogart, Fields, ZaSu Pitt and Pabst that, published all over the world in rather serious film journals such as Sight + Sound and Positif, cemented her iconicism and allowed her a second career. Brooks, above all a gorgeous failure, now initiated a new kind of marketing strategy that exonerated the beauty of stubborn recalcitrance and was rewarded with an instant cult following. Then in 1957 Langlois presented a festival in Paris, Homage to Louise Brooks and flew her over, where she was greeted with wild acclaim from, among others, Jean Luc Godard who, in 1962, made his own Brooks tribute with his movie Vivre Sa Vie, whose heroine - a prostitute - played by Anna Karinna, was a Brooks lookalike who the director described as “a young and pretty Parisian shop girl who gives her body but retained her soul.”
But, by the time Godard’s film was out, Brooks had become a recluse who only ventured out to ether doctors or dentists. “I would drink a pint of gin once a week and became what Dickens called ‘gincoherent’ sleep and drowse for four days and read, write and see the odd visitor for the other three, but no priests I gave up on the Church in 1964.”
Eminent critic/playwright/scriptwriter Kenneth Tynan, after seeing a Brooks season, tracked her down in 1979, and wrote about her in The New Yorker where he described her as ‘The Ravishing Hermit of Rochester.’ “You’re doing a terrible thing to me,” she told him. “I’ve been killing myself off for twenty years and now you are bringing me back to life. This ushered the publication of her book, Lulu In Hollywood, that became an international bestseller and a documentary entitled Lulu in Berlin, helmed by Richard Leacock. Undoubtedly, the film won over audiences all over the world for the enormously pragmatic and down to earth Brooks, and secured her ‘car crash’ status alongside the likes of other destructomaniacs James Dean, Judy Garland and Orson Welles. Art house cinema’s screened her movies relentlessly at late night screenings all over the world creating another Brooks renaissance - her look, uninhibited sexual proclivities, suggested bisexuality (a result of her penchant for men’s suits in the twenties, Pandora’s Sapphic scene and admission of sex with Garbo) and candour was a huge hit with a generation brought up on David Bowie, Warhol and Roxy Music. “When I am dead, I believe that film writers will fasten on the story that I am a lesbian,” she wrote. “I have done lots to make it believable. All my women friends have been lesbians. But that is one point upon which I agree positively with Isherwood. There is no such thing as bisexuality... Out of curiosity, I had two affairs with girls – they did nothing for me…I only loved men’s bodies.”
But even though her amazingly prescient and thoroughly refreshing attitude towards sex was always a draw, it was also her unimpeachable sense of style, particularly her eponymous hairstyle known as the Louise Brooks Bob, amazingly, almost 70 years after she first adopted it, was deemed incredibly stylish, its sharp androgynous lines allowing its wearer an altogether Devilish edge. Indeed, said cut has been adopted by the likes of Cyd Charise (in Singing In the Rain), Brigitte Bardot (In Mepris) Melanie Griffiths (in Something Wild) Audrey Tatou (In Amelie) and Cate Blanchett (in Indiana Jones) while Isabell Rossellini, Madonna, Winona Ryder, Halle Berry and Lady Gaga have all taken to the style off camera. Undeniably, if a lass wants to look a little bit naughty, independent and certainly dangerous, they go for the Brooks Bob.
But, of course Brooks was much, much more than a pretty haircut. She was incredibly modern. A beautiful loser who marketed her superior defeatism, dazzling recalcitrance, stubborn masochism and rejection of material wealth and won ceaseless cult love in the process. She was without doubt her own singular creation, her own walking work of art, decades before the idea was even considered. It might be said that her life was her art, both of which converged in Lulu, but never met again.
Louise Brooks, maverick, hedonist, bohemian, bibliophile and dyed in the wool socialist who positively refused to accept the restrictive role that women had in American society, died in 1985, aged 78, just two years after her best selling cult memoir was published.
As she said, ”If I ever bore you it will be with a knife.”
Sam Cooke – Jocks and Nerd
It’s always puzzled me how or why Sam Cooke, that impossibly smooth skinned, supremely suave, Ivy League clad singer of sweet soul music, came to such a shockingly ignominious end. The personification of debonair and the natural successor to, Nat King Cole, it seemed as if butter wouldn’t, couldn’t and certainly shouldn’t melt in his mouth but, as events transpired, it surely must have.
Indeed, it was fifty years ago on Friday December 11th 1964 that The King of Soul, was found, by police, sitting, back against the wall, on the floor of a hotel apartment, naked, except for an over coat and one shoe. He had a lump the size of an egg jutting out of his crown while a 22-calibre bullet nestled in his chest having careered through his lungs and heart. The room, in the sleazy three bucks a night Hacienda Motel - known as ‘a prostitutes’ paradise’ - on Figueroa St. (between Watts and Compton), belonged to its manager - one Bertha Franklin, an exceedingly portly 55 year old black woman with a face like a slashed arse. Outside the sleaze bag flop house; a brand new red Ferrari sat empty except for a bottle of whisky and a copy of Muhammad Speaks (a Black Muslim periodical) on its seats. The car had belonged to Sam Cooke. He had no use for it now. He was dead as a plate.
When the police arrived at the scene they found Miss Franklin covered in blood but unharmed. Her 22 sat nearby with three bullets in the chambers and three casings nearby. She told the police that the dead man had arrived at 2.35 a.m. with a female companion. “I told him.. I saw her, and, ‘You will have to put ‘Mr. and Mrs.’” Cooke had appeared on The Tonight Show and Ed Sullivan many times, and was as famous as any black man in the world, yet felt no compunction in registering using his real name after which he and his lady friend then sloped off to their room.
Twenty minutes later he was back, knocking on old Bertha’s door, dressed in just an overcoat, looking for his lady friend. The manager who was on the phone to the motel owner Evelyn Carr told him she wasn’t there.
Meanwhile, at 3:08 a.m. the police were called by one Elisa Boyer “Will you please come down to this number? I don’t know where I am. I’m kidnapped,” she said.
A little while later Franklyn claimed that the ‘man’ came back asking for the girl but, when told she wasn’t there, smashed the door in, searched the pad then grabbed her by the wrists and demanded to know where the ‘girl’ was. They then fell to the floor wrestling.
“I tried to bit him through that jacket,” stated Franklin. “Biting, scratching and everything. Finally I got up, when I kicked him, I run and grabbed the pistol off the TV and I shot.. at close range.. three times.”
By her account, even though the bullet went through his heart, he came at her again, so she whacked him hard over the head him a broom handle.
Apparently, his last words were: “Lady, you shot me.”
Carr, still on the other end of the telephone hung up and phoned police at about 3:15 a.m. “I think she shot him,” Carr said
In the meantime, just a half block away, the Cops had found the rather moon faced, supposedly kidnapped, 22 year old Eurasian, Boyer. She showed them where she’d thrown the man’s clothes but failed to mention the thin wallet in which Cooke carried his credit cards, his wad of cash or his driver’s license, which were never retrieved. She was then taken to the precinct where she told her side of the story.
She said she’d met Cooke for the first time that night at a dinner party in Hollywood. They adjourned to PJ’s nightclub where she claimed he got in an argument with a man so she asked to be taken home. But, instead of taking her North to where she lived, he went south towards Watts. At the Hacienda Motel, he left her in the car as he registered then ‘dragged me into that room,” she told the police.‘ And pulled my sweater off.. and ripped my dress off. I knew he was going to rape me.’ According to Boyer, in the midst of his attack the rapist then undressed and decided to go to the bathroom. ‘I picked up my clothes and bag and ran out,’ she maintained. She said she then banged on the manager’s door to no answer so pulled on her jumper walked up the block and got dressed only to then discover that she had his shirt, trousers and sports jacket tangled amongst her clothes. The police logged the man’s body in the morgue at 4.15 am and performed an autopsy at 11 that showed he had 0.14 percent drinking alcohol (0.08 is the legal driving limits) in his blood stream and no sign of drugs.
By 3 pm the corpse was lying in the People’s Funeral Home on South Central. By the inquest on the 16th some 60,000 weeping teenagers and elderly gospel fans had queued to view the body. The evening the police now realised that this wasn’t, as one observer remarked “just another nigger shooting on the south side.”
In essence the inquest was criminal in itself. A sham that, hurried through at just over two hours, seemed contrived to conceal another murky agenda. The coroner disallowed the Cooke family lawyer from asking prostitute Boyer (also known as Crystal Chan Young, Jasmine Jay and Elsie Nakama) what she did for a living because he thought it might prejudice the jury. Boyer left without cross-examination. The coroner then declared that, as Franklin had no lawyer present she couldn’t be questioned either and she also left. A policeman then stood up and, by telling the court that they had both passed lie detector tests, verified their stories. Basically the notoriously racist LAPD thoroughly upheld both women’s spurious accounts no matter how absurd they seemed. The inquest never established why the singer was in such a rage or why Boyer didn’t run away or how a fifty-five-year old fat woman could overpower a fit 33-year-old man or where his money, wallet and ID went. The jury thus bought the image of a drunken rampaging, rapist Negro without question.
The shooting was ruled “justifiable homicide,” by the 15 man jury who never thought to question the police version. Case closed.
And America’s black press went ballistic with banner headlines lambasting the injustice, exposing Boyer as a prostitute of four years standing, accusing the openly racist LAPD of a cover-up while the white press largely ignored the debacle.
It was a national outrage.
Consequently, at the first of Cooke’s two funerals a visibly moved Muhammad Ali told the assembly, “I don’t like the way he was shot. I don’t like the way it was investigated. If Cooke had been Frank Sinatra, the Beatles or Ricky Nelson the FBI would have investigating yet and that woman [Mrs. Franklyn] would have been sent to prison!”
At the time Cooke was as big as Sinatra. Only Elvis outsold him on RCA Records.
Cooke’s second funeral service took place in Mount Sinai Baptist Church, Los Angeles. By 5pm 5000 people had surrounded the church and folk were a fighting and a jostling while hawkers sold Cooke memorabilia on the pavement. Inside, Billy Preston played the organ prelude followed by Lou Rawls singing and Bobby Bland singing hymns while the congregation wailed and shouted “You can’t take Sam Lord!” And then Ray Charles walked down the aisle, touched the casket, turned around with tears streaming down his face and said, “Sam baby this is for you,” and sang a slow version of the old spiritual Angels Watching Over Me. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
None of this was of course surprising. This was the Sam Cooke - who many claim invented soul music and whose whole life seems dedicated to the conceit.
Cooke was born, the fifth of eight children, on January 2nd 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the same vicinity that spawned many of America's most legendary bluesmen, including Robert Johnson, BB King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf. His mother was Annie Mae and his father was Charles Cook who turned from cotton picking to preaching for the Church of Christ (Holiness). In 1934, the Cooks joined the migration from the depression ravaged South to the more prosperous North and moved to Chicago. Cook senior found a position preaching Christ Temple Church in Chicago Heights and started a family religious act, Rev. Cook and His Singing Children. Sam was lead tenor.
The family settled on the South Side in Bronzeville - the centre of a new growing black musical culture where the likes of singer Billy Eckstine, sax giant Gene Ammons and a youthful Ella Fitzgerald regularly displayed their talents. A tough neighbourhood, Cooke too joined a ‘club’ (or gang) known as The Junior Destroyers. “We used to fight quite a bit,” he once explained. “And we all had our territory.”
The butter in Cooke’s mouth started to melt at an early age.
After singing professionally for 5 years, Cooke, now aged 15, formed his own gospel quintet, the Highway QCs. In 1950 he became the lead singer for The Soul Stirrer’s - the countries number one Gospel act - and promptly went on the road and sang with the group for six years, performing more than 1,000 concerts all over the US whilst clocking black pop artists such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry who attracted "chessboard" audiences of both whites and blacks. This was where Cooke needed to go.
In 1957 he recorded his first single under his own name (he’d added the extra E for some unknown reason) - the sublime, Summertime, written by Gershwin. But, notably, it was the B side, You Send Me, that got the DJ’s juices flowing and on December 1, 1957, Cooke sang the song on CBS' The Ed Sullivan Show. The platter subsequently sold 2 million copies and was No. 1 on both the R n’ B and Billboard Chart. Sam Cooke had arrived. He was 26 and had sung professionally for 16 years.
Over the next seven years, Cooke became perhaps the biggest soul singer in the world. Thirty of his songs hit the charts globally including the still enormously familiar, Only Sixteen, Everybody Likes to Cha Cha Cha, Wonderful World, Chain Gang, Cupid, Bring It on Home, Havin' a Party and Twistin' the Night Away. He was the biggest crossover artist of the day who, loved by both black and white, received a 100,000-dollar advance from RCA who allowed him to retain ownership of all his work. He then started his own record and publishing companies. This was unheard of in the fifties and sixties, particularly amongst black artists. Sam wasn’t one for lying down for the man.
Certainly, this was another reason why Cooke was held in such high regard in the US of A. He was vehemently vocal regarding Afro American common liberties. His rise to fame had run parallel with the burgeoning Civil rights movement and, as a young singer, he’d suffered the prejudices of the South. He and his band traveled hundred of miles to find lodgings that would accept them, washed in truck stop toilets and were refused service in restaurants and diners all over the South. He was close by when fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, who like Cooke hailed from Chicago, while visiting relatives in Mississippi (just 20 miles from where the singer was born) was kidnapped, tortured and murdered because he allegedly whistled at a white woman, and was touring the South when Rosa Parks was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat on a municipal bus to a white man.
No wonder then that he spoke out.
As a result, in 1960 he wrote a nationally syndicated editorial that encouraged black people to ‘have the courage to stand up and be counted.' He refused to play to two different audiences in Little Rock, Arkansas, so performed to a crowd separated down the middle by a rope and started cancelling shows that were segregated.
Then on Oct. 8, 1963, Cooke - at the height of his fame - along with his wife, his brother and friend and Soul Stirrers' manager, S.R. Crane were denied rooms in the whites-only Holiday Inn in Shreveport, Louisiana. They kicked up a royal fuss, were arrested for disturbing the peace, taken to the cells and later freed on bail.
Spurred on by the incident and inspired by Bob Dylan’s, Blowin’ In The Wind over Christmas, 1963, he wrote, A Change Is Gonna Come, and then recorded it in January. The song celebrated and championed the efforts of the mushrooming Civil Rights movement and was a risky release for the pop artist. Nevertheless, when he appeared on Johnny Carson’s hugely popular, The Tonight Show on Feb 7th 1964 he steadfastly refused to sing any of his million selling hit songs, and insisted on debuting the song which instantly became the anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, is said to have been played at the funeral of Malcolm X, and at President Obama’s inaugural celebration in Washington.
Everything was thus set for Cooke to become a leading campaigner in the fight against racism in sixties America. On February 25, 1964 he’d met with friends Malcolm X and Cassius Clay in Miami (where Clay was set to fight heavyweight champion Sonny Listen) to discuss politics and religion and in the summer of 1964, Cooke donated, A Change Is Gonna Come, to the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) after which Dr. Martin Luther King asked him to participate in the biggest civil rights benefit concert to date. In July 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed that outlawed racial discrimination and Cooke’s enormously prescient song was triumphantly blasted out all over the US.
Curiously then, that the lead headlines in the papers on that fateful Friday 11th December 1964 should tell of the release of nineteen white males suspected of killing three civil rights workers in the bucolic Mississippi heartlands while the second lead spoke of Dr. Martin Luther King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize and his immortal acceptance speech just days before: “I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events that surround him," declared the good Doctor.
And while said newspapers were delivered Cooke laid dead - battered to a bloody pulp and shot. But was he a victim of ‘unfolding events,’ the work of outside agents or was his death purely of his making?
Incontrovertibly, the anomalies surrounding Cooke’s death fifty years ago are legion. To begin, Boyer said on oath that she’d first met Cooke at a Hollywood party where he’d got up and sang but in fact they hooked up at Martoni’s Italian restaurant in Hollywood where he was dining with producer Al Schmitt and Schmitt’s wife, Joan where witnesses said they acted like old friends. She claimed the singer “kidnapped” her. But, Boyer was left alone in the car when Sam went to register so she could’ve escaped or yelled for help. Also if Cooke intended to rape her why did he register using his real name? She said that she accidentally took Sam’s clothes from the room when she grabbed her own but, surely, she would have noticed a shirt, sports jacket and trousers wrapped up with hers? And why wasn’t her ludicrous account questioned? A month later she was arrested in Hollywood for prostitution and in 1979, Boyer was found guilty of killing her boyfriend.
And then there was Franklin - a fat 55-year-old ex-madam with her own extensive criminal record, who claimed that she’d wrestled off this athletic 33 year old man in his prime. She claimed she shot him at close range (the powder burns suggest one and a half inches away), but two of the three shots hit the wall. How could she miss from that range? To add, after this man who’d been shot through the heart rushed her instead of shooting him again she put the gun down and hit him with a broomstick. Franklin, who had previously shot a man six months earlier at the Hacienda under suspicious circumstances moved to Michigan and died 18 months after Cooke’s passing.
And both had a motive. Witnesses at Martoni’s said Cooke had a wad of perhaps $1,000 that Boyer (who, a private detective employed by Cooke’s manager, Alan Klein, stated was ‘well known among the cheap night club hangers on as being a professional roller’) had seen the money, but it was never recovered.
But the intrigue does not end there. In her book, Rage To Survive blues chanteuse, Etta James, revealed that when she viewed Cooke’s body in the funeral home he was so badly beaten that his head was decapitated from his shoulders, his hands were broken and crushed, his nose was smashed and he had a two inch bump on his head. These injuries were never explained or even questioned.
Some, such as Ike Turner, apparently claimed that Franklin made arrangements with Elisa Boyer to scoop Sam up and bring him back to his motel. As he and Boyer entered the room Sam was hit from behind, knocked cold and robbed. He then awoke, without most of his clothes and wallet, dashed to the office, saw the conspirators and, when they refused to open the door, he battered it in. Franklin then shot him and told Boyer to call the police from a phone booth. When the police arrived, since the fille de joie had stolen his wallet, they didn’t know who he was and regarded it as a routine justified homicide in the ghetto. As one of the most famous Afro Americans in the world there was no way Bertha didn’t know who it was, especially after he signed his name. She withheld this because that would have prompted a deeper investigation there and then.
I’d wager that the truth is that, as The Hacienda Motel was known as a hangout for hookers, Cooke paid for sex with Boyer and, when he stepped into the bathroom, she slipped off with his credit cards and cash - a most common modus operandi for your common or garden lady of the night. “Most hookers during that day,” attests Henry Nash manager of fifties rhythm and blues band, The Upsetters. “When they would clip you they take your clothes and shoes especially your pants so you couldn’t chase them. Standard practice.”
But Cooke should have seen this coming as he had long let his raging concupiscence get him into hot water. As a teenage he served 90 days for handling pornography and, without doubt, had a clear history of an uninhibited sexual drive that had left offspring strewn along the path of his concert tours. In just the spring of 1953 he fathered three daughters to three different women, the last, Linda, to his longtime Chicago girlfriend, Barbara Campbell. Cooke married none of them at the time (he tied the knot with Campbell in 1958) but wed Dee-Dee Mohawk who left him in 1957 because of his infidelities. Then, after he hit a big, he apparently shagged himself senseless giving his manager the headache of fending off the countless paternity suits. No one knows for certain how many children he fathered out of wedlock, but his manager admitted to signing a lot of cheques.
This of course added massive strain to his marriage with Campbell with whom he had two more children - Tracey, born in 1960, and Vincent, born 12 months later. Tragically and most significantly, the latter drowned in the family's pool aged 18 months on June 7th 1963 after crawling out on his hands and knees. “He blamed himself, he blamed God and he blamed Barbara. He was never the same again”, asserted the great rhythm and blues drummer Earl Palmer after the singer’s demise. “He started to drink more that I’d ever seen him…[There was] a distinct change in his personality. He was very, very grief stricken.”
If anyone considered that Cooke on the night of his death acted out of character, then maybe this was why.
But still, the gospel fraternity wasn’t convinced that their golden boy wasn’t simply the victim of both a petty crime and his raging libido. Many firmly believed that the singer had been assassinated by the Mob, Cooke’s fellow band member Paul Foster clamed that he’d been battered and killed across the road from the motel and that Franklin was paid to take the heat. Curtis Womack thought that, after his run in with unions at the Apollo in New York, his business with the Mob at New York’s Copacabana and his cancelling of sell-out shows, he got too big for his boots and was executed.
“I believe Sam was killed because he was worth more dead than alive to certain parties,” Cooke’s nephew’s Erik Greene IV told journalist David Krajicek. “Franklin and Boyer were both compensated for their involvement, but neither one pulled the trigger.”
Others have thought his wife Barbara, who had threatened to shoot him in public, was complicit. But, in truth, her actions were so blatant, it’s doubtful. It was common knowledge that she’d been playing away with a bartender and then, to make matters worse, turned up at the singer’s funeral with Bobby Womack (a 21-year-old guitarist who Cooke had nurtured) who was wearing Cooke’s clothes and his big gold ring. She then married Womack just months after the death. The couple divorced in 1970 after Womack was caught creeping into his stepdaughter Linda’s room for illicit sex (he admitted such in his autobiography Midnight Mover) by Barbara who shot him and grazed his scalp with a 38-caliber bullet. Years later, Linda married Bobby’s brother, her stepuncle Cecil, and together became Womack and Womack.
Undeniably, many theories regarding Cooke’s death thrive but the question remains: why were the LAPD, the DA and the coroner so keen to believe the thoroughly implausible stories told by a known prostitute and a former brothel keeper even in the face of huge public consternation? Cooke was a HUGE star so why didn’t they investigate further? It just doesn’t make sense.
Was he killed by the Mob or was he killed because he was a little too active in Civil Rights or was it a botched robber? No one knows.
We do know that many were understandably outraged that the former gospel heartthrob and son of a preacher man, Cooke, was portrayed as an over-sexed potential rapist. For them, not only was this far from the truth, but also was almost impossible to disprove. He could get any gal in the world and had no need of harlots. I’d say he wanted to. It was his guilty pleasure. His Achilles Heel if you like. It’s like Bumps Blackwell once said, “Sam would walk past a good girl to get to a whore.”
Finally, it seems that so much of the singer’s life was so right but also so tragically wrong. Curiously, when he was finally laid to rest in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Los Angeles the bronze plaque above the grave said,
SAM COOKE, I Love You 1930 - 1964
Until the Day Break, And the Shadows Fell Away.
Sam Cooke was in fact was born in January 1931.
The White T-Shirt
The humble T-shirt was intended – by its designer or designers unknown – as utilitarian military wear, and was initially doled out to replace the sweaty wool undergarments of US Navy submariners in 1913. Soon after it became US forces PE issue and in 1920, “T-shirt” entered the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
That year, the University of Southern California stenciled “Property of USC” on its PE-issue T-shirts to stop football players misappropriating them to wear off campus. It didn’t work. The epidemic further spread after Life magazine displayed a soldier in a T-shirt printed with the Air Corps Gunnery School’s logo on a 1942 cover. The first recorded sloganeering T-shirt, proclaiming “Dew-it-with-Dewey” accordingly emerged for 1948’s presidential election, and in the early 1950s, Sam Kantor of Tropix Togs in Miami printed Mickey Mouse T-shirts for Disneyland Corp.
As the printed T-shirt evolved, the plain variety became hip. GIs attended US colleges sporting their army issue, and the plain T-shirt, like the chino and sweatshirt, was adopted by their younger beatnik acolytes. Elsewhere, it was purely a work shirt regarded as unsuitable for anything else. No surprise, then, that East Village hepcat Marlon Brando should wear a T-shirt on Broadway in 1947 and then on film in 1951 – as the blue-collar, belligerently coarse Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. A hugely divisive style statement, T-shirt sales still totalled $180m by 1953. Brando upped the ante, wearing one as a biker in The Wild One, while James Dean, as troubled and defiant teenager Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, struck a chord with his white T-shirt, blue Lee 101Z Riders, engineer boots and iconic red windbreaker. The T-shirt now suggested danger, drugs, gangs and insubordination, which was all that most self-respecting teenagers could wish for – and the gang connotation has never really gone away. In 2010, Philadelphia Senator Anthony Williams identified “white-T culture” as a major source of power among the city’s white-clad, corner-hanging crims. “We’re penetrating the veil of silence,” he said.
Meanwhile, the rebellious 1960s and the T-shirt were made for each other: Vietnam protestors daubed theirs with “Make Love Not War” and the peace sign, and tie-dyed them in LSD-friendly colours. In the UK, Tommy Roberts and Trevor Myles at Mr Freedom in Chelsea took inspiration from pop artists Andy Warhol and Peter Blake in 1969 with T-shirts featuring 1930s illustrations of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. In the early 1970s, the Rolling Stones, T. Rex and Pink Floyd all rolled out their own and the printed T-shirt became a rock merchandise standard. When Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren opened Let it Rock on Kings Road in 1971, they pursued a penchant for all things 1950s, as a reaction to the hippies. Over the road, designer Anthony Price created the tight cap-sleeve T-shirt that, though resembling those worn in Tom of Finland’s 1950s-inspired homosexual illustrations, became a nationwide craze. Westwood and McLaren, always against the grain, reinvented their shop in 1974 as Sex, and embarked on an anti-retro crusade, selling deliberately contentious T-shirts: Minnie and Mickey Mouse copulating; cowboys naked from the waist down. The T-shirt was now firmly in the hands of the punk.
In the 1980s, companies making use of screen-printing innovations spawned billions of T-shirts, displaying band names, generic statements (“I woke up today and feel GREAT”) – or just about anything. Certain elements opted for Katherine Hamnett’s oversized slogan shirts, whereas the groovy went plain T-shirt only. Nick Kamen wore one in his celebrated 1985 Levi’s ad while, in the US, the likes of Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon pushed the 1950s LuckyStrikes-in-the-sleeve white T-shirt, con Ray-Bans and Bass Weejuns.
In 1986, Barnzley Armitage launched a T-shirt range with pirated 1970s Chanel, Gucci and Hermès logos, followed by his Smiley T-shirt. DJ Danny Rampling bought one and used the logo for fledgling one-nighter Shoom, and the Smiley T-shirt was suddenly the emblem for a generation of ecstasy-mad ravers. Consequently, upstanding stylemongers went way back to the 1950s utilitarian (Dave’s Body Shop, etc) and plain worker’s pocket variety, such as Carhartt. And of late, the world has, of course, gone mad. Superlative Luxury sells an “eco-friendly” T-shirt with over nine carats worth of diamonds on its chest, for £250,000.