Wanda Gag Day!
Wanda Gág Louise Brooks Hedy Lamarr
Wanda Gág, A Catalogue Raisonne of the Prints By Auður Helgadóttir Winnan, University of Minnesota Press, 1999
Pandora's Box (1929), directed by G.W.Pabst, The Criterion Collection, 2006
Femme Fatales Collection, Algiers, Dishonored Lady, The Strange Woman, Pop Flix, 2009
Even a cursory look at this trio, all of whom came to prominence in the late 1920s, shows some common threads underlying the fabric of their success as well as that of their enduring legacies. All three had German/Austrian connections, all were dancers in their youth, and all were creative in multiple fields. They were all sexually independent, in non-traditional ways.
Wanda Hazel Gág was an artist, writer, and translator, whose most famous work is represented in a series of illustrated children's books. She is also renown in the fine arts field for her stylized lithographs. Her coming of age diary Growing Pains was covered here before, Winnan’s book concerns itself with Wanda's later life, focusing on her prints and drawings, with pertinent excerpts from letters and diaries. As I was reading this material, I was struck by how modern it seemed. Wanda was a noted free-thinker who enjoyed a series of often-overlapping affairs with many men, but never allowed them to divert her from her one true love—Art. Indeed, she was inspired by these liaisons: “The aesthetic value of sin is not to be sneezed at... ” reads one of her diary entries. Although plagued with health issues in her later years (she died from cancer in 1946 at the age of 53) Wanda remained active until almost the end. Her final books and lithographs were published posthumously.
History has been kind to Mary Louise Brooks, the iconic film star with the famous hairdo (although she wasn’t the first to bob her hair, hers was the most influential example.) The Criterion release of Pandora’s Box includes a book, a filmed documentary, and an interview with Louise when she was in her seventies. Pandora's Box was shot in Berlin at the height of its post-war decadence. Silent film acting has its own set of conventions, some of which seem a little creaky now, but Brooks’ portrayal of Lulu remains fresh, striking and (here's that word again) modern. This is a fantastic set, one of the best DVD packages I’ve ever seen. The interview with Brooks shows her, in her old age, as a still fascinating woman with all her independence and fire intact. Her book of essays, Lulu in Hollywood remains the definitive text on Hollywood in the twenties and thirties. Her sexual exploits with numerous partners are legendary. Her later days were spent living alone (by choice) and contributing to The George Eastman House film archives studies.
Hedy Lamarr, (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1913) was a German film actress while still in her teens, escaped from her controlling husband (and Austrian Fascism) while in her twenties and became a top movie star in Hollywood during its "golden age." These three films (part of a budget DVD set) show Hedy mid-career, in a variety of roles. Lamarr’s films have not aged well, but she remains the best thing in them. By her own admission, she would not claim to be a great actress but she was stunning; the studios always made sure that she looked great and was dressed to match. Because she was so attractive, she was often typecast as being irresistible to men, with the results usually ending in tragedy. The exception to this rule is Dishonored Lady, where Hedy’s character, Madeline, is a ruthless fashion editor who suffers a nervous breakdown, recovers, then becomes accused of the murder of an infatuated admirer. The role allows Hedy to break out of her typecasting (wearing some really fabulous clothes), her character manages to regain her self-respect in the end. In real life, Hedy also had numerous husbands and lovers, but died impoverished and bitter.
But the stories of these women does not end with their deaths. Hedy had a brilliant scientific mind and was awarded a patent in 1942 for a “secret communication system” which was a direct predecessor to modern cell-phone and Wi-Fi technology. In German-speaking countries November 9th, Hedy’s birthday, is Inventor’s Day. Louise Brooks has become an Icon, whose image, attitude and style is endlessly copied and rediscovered by each new modern generation. Wanda Gág’s children's books are perennials and her finest prints regularly bring thousands of dollars at auction, but her most explicit diaries and drawings may never be seen—Wanda herself thought they might be a bit much—perhaps they will always remain just a little too modern.
UPDATE: Much more on Wanda…