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November 14, 2021

Rarely Seen Childhood Photos of Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks’ artistry is her gift to the world. She led a remarkable life, one filled with as many twists and turns as there were ups and downs. She possessed ravishing good-looks, plenty of talent, and smarts — and could have achieved so much more… but because of a knack for self-defeating behavior, she would end up snatching obscurity from lasting fame. Brooks was something of a lost soul. She once said, “Somehow I have avoided being found.”

Mary Louise Brooks was born in Cherryvale, Kansas on November 14, 1906. She was the second of four children, the daughter of Leonard Brooks and Myra Rude. Cherryvale was a small town of only a few thousand residents. Nevertheless, it produced another noted entertainer, the slightly younger Vivian Vance. She was one of Brooks’ childhood friends, and years later went on to play Ethel Mertz, Lucille Ball’s sidekick on the TV sitcom I Love Lucy.

Brooks’ mother was a cultured woman, a participant in Chautauqua (a popular self-improvement and educational movement), as well as a pianist who played Debussy and Ravel for her children. Above everything, Myra inspired in little Louise a love of books and the arts. Her upbringing, as well as her father’s large library, had a profound influence on Brooks’ lifelong love of reading. In fact, Louise read voraciously from a young age. As a teen, her favorite magazines were Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair. In each she could envision a life beyond Kansas.

Louise also loved the movies, which were then called “flickers”. She and her brother went to the local movie theater to watch westerns, serials and melodramas starring the likes of cowboy actor Tom Mix, vamp Theda Bara, and serial star Pearl White. Young Louise was especially enthralled by young Gloria Swanson, the most exciting new actress of 1915.

Brooks’ life was profoundly shaped by something else that happened when she was young. When Louise was about 9 years old, a neighbor known as “Mr. Flowers” sexually abused her. The assault left its indelible mark on Brooks’ psyche. In later years, she commented that she was incapable of real love and that this man “must have had a great deal to do with forming my attitude toward sexual pleasure.” None of her two marriages or many affairs ever lasted long.

In 1919, at the age of 13, the Brooks family moved 10-miles south to the larger Independence, Kansas. With her bobbed-hair, captivating looks, and a personality that turned heads, boys began to focus their eyes on Louise. In 1920, the Brooks family moved again, this time to nearby Wichita, Kansas, a larger and more metropolitan town. There, her father expanded his law practice and pursued his ambition of becoming a United States District Judge. Meanwhile, Louise pursued her dream of becoming a dancer.

Throughout her childhood, Brooks had performed at events across southeastern Kansas. She made her first public appearance at age four playing a pint-sized bride in a church production of Tom Thumb’s Wedding. By the age of 10, she had become in her own words what “amounted to a professional dancer,” appearing before community groups, men’s and women’s clubs, local fairs, and at various social gatherings in neighboring counties — sometimes as far away as Missouri. By age 11, she was dancing in public on a regular basis, performing at recitals and in programs held in meeting halls and at the local opera house.

Brooks also studied dance with the best local instructors, and choreographed pieces that were performed at her high school in Wichita. Brooks was serious about her art. While a student, she traveled to see the great ballerina Anna Pavlova, who was performing in a nearby town. She also attended a Wichita performance by the famous Denishawn Dance Company, led by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. There, backstage, she met its principals. The meeting proved pivotal.

(via Louise Brooks Society)


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