Louise and Martha
Catalytic Characters
A CultureMap®
by Lisa Jo Sagolla
Published on 2/5/14

We’re familiar with the “Great Man” theory of history. Yet when extraordinary women make history, it is usually less about their personal power and more about inventive acts, playing roles or, perhaps most intriguing, creating characters. A woman’s catalyzing impact on our cultural landscape often involves her dramatic physicality, sexuality or fashion statements. This map looks at the accomplishments of rebellious women through connections to silent film icon Louise Brooks and modern dance genius Martha Graham.

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Louise Brooks  (1906–1985 | American actor and dancer)
to  Martha Graham  (1894–1991 | American choreographer and dancer)

Louise Brooks rose to fame in Hollywood’s flapper comedies of the mid-1920s, but her screen-icon status rests largely upon her work in three European films, most notably her magnetic characterization of beautiful femme fatale Lulu in Pandora’s Box (1929). A symbol of Weimar Era decadence, her playfully sexual Lulu is a bewitching blend of Brooks’s own minxish persona and the seductive character created by playwright Frank Wedekind, whose work inspired the G.W. Pabst silent film. Possessed of no formal acting training, Brooks had a powerful role model for her embodiment of Lulu’s destructive powers in one of America’s greatest creators of menacing female characters, Martha Graham.

Brooks began her career as a dancer with the Denishawn company, commonly considered America’s first modern dance troupe. When Brooks joined Denishawn in 1922, its ranks also included Graham, the woman who would soon invent a revolutionary dance technique that placed her on a par with Pablo Picasso as a modern artistic genius. A rebellion against the decorative attractiveness of ballet, Graham’s ferocious physical lexicon conveyed with intense honesty the universal psychological forces that drive human nature. Brooks later claimed, “I learned to act by watching Martha Graham dance.”

Martha Graham  (1894–1991 | American choreographer and dancer)
to  Betty Ford  (1918–2011 | American first lady and activist)

In 1976 Martha Graham was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the first time the prestigious prize was granted to a dancer or choreographer. She was given the award by President Gerald Ford, whose wife, Betty, was a former Graham dancer. As a young adult, she had studied with Graham for two summers at Bennington College and then in New York City, where she was invited to perform several times with Graham’s professional company as a student dancer.

Though Graham remained the most influential woman in her life, Ford achieved her own place in history not as a performing artist but as first lady. Using the influence and visibility this position afforded her, she called national attention to the problem of substance abuse and fostered remarkable advances in its treatment. A recovering alcoholic and pain medication addict herself, she established the Betty Ford Center, a rehabilitation clinic in Palm Springs, California, in 1982. Designed to address the gender inequity Ford had experienced in treatment programs, the center devotes half its space to men and half to women. In 1991 it was Betty Ford who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her work as first lady.

Betty Ford  (1918–2011 | American first lady and activist)
to  Bloomer Girl  (Harold Arlen (music), E.Y. Harburg (lyrics) | musical | 1944)

The future wife of Gerald Ford, 38th president of the United States, Betty Ford as a youngster was the Bloomer girl, the only daughter of Hortense and William Bloomer. A tomboy who relished playing football and ice hockey with her older brothers, Betty Bloomer eventually took up dancing, drawn not to ballet but to the freedom of movement offered by modern dance.

As first lady, Ford generated heated controversy over her highly public support for ratification of the women’s Equal Rights Amendment and her outspoken advocacy for a woman’s right to choose. Her activism followed the feminist footsteps of an earlier Bloomer girl, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, publisher-editor of the 19th-century women’s-rights newspaper The Lily. (Ford failed to discover any genealogical connection between them.) Bloomer staunchly defended women who, rebelling against the era’s restrictive fashions, sported loose-fitting trousers that became known as bloomers.

Her life inspired the first Broadway musical about feminism, Bloomer Girl (1944). Starring Celeste Holm as the defiant daughter of a hoop-skirt manufacturer, the hit show also featured dancer Joan McCracken, who, as a flighty maid worried about alienating her boyfriend by joining the suffragettes, performed a show-stopping nightly striptease down to amusingly modest period underwear.

Bloomer Girl  (Harold Arlen (music), E.Y. Harburg (lyrics) | musical | 1944)
to  Agnes de Mille  (1905–1993 | American choreographer and dancer)

With a story line sprung from the life of 19th-century feminist Amelia Jenks Bloomer, the 1944 tuner Bloomer Girl was the Broadway musical’s first foray into feminism, but the show’s place in women’s history rests in equally large part on its choreography by Agnes de Mille. Set in 1860s America, the musical culminates with a Civil War ballet. Defying the director and producer, who expected glorious soldiers, upbeat parades, flag waving and marching, de Mille created a dark, agonizing ballet featuring an ensemble of women. Through anguished gestures and tense pacing, the choreography expresses the fears and anxieties of the women waiting at home. Although it ends with the soldiers’ joyous return, focus is squarely placed on the quiet movements of a lone woman whose husband did not come back.

De Mille’s bold choice to depict a landmark historical event through the eyes of women is only one example of her groundbreaking portrayals of women in Broadway choreography. For musicals such as Oklahoma!, One Touch of Venus, Carousel and Brigadoon, instead of continuing the tradition of employing women’s dancing bodies for titillation or spectacle, she used them insightfully to express the thoughts, feelings and viewpoints of the shows’ female characters.

Agnes de Mille  (1905–1993 | American choreographer and dancer)
to  Louise Brooks  (1906–1985 | American actor and dancer)

Hollywood has always used young women to bring sex and sensation to the screen. In the mid-1920s, when the film industry was caught up in a fervent youth-worship craze, Paramount boasted a stable of new “junior stars,” including the alluring Louise Brooks, who had just accepted the studio’s offer of a five-year contract. A 1927 article in Photoplay, then a prestigious film publication, reported Paramount’s excitement over its fresh talent, noting the studio had only one dissenter: Cecil B. DeMille. A major force behind Hollywood’s establishment as a moviemaking center, the powerful Paramount director, also known for his mammoth spectacles, opined that a young player needs seven years’ training before being ready for stardom.

Yet when he hired his young niece, the still unknown Agnes de Mille, to create and perform dances for his 1934 film Cleopatra, she got only seven days. Charged with performing a solo astride a live bull, instructed not to turn her head or open her mouth (because of her unattractive nose and imperfect teeth), and glued into a jeweled costume that caused her second-degree burns, de Mille was promptly fired when her uncle decreed her dance lacking in sex appeal.

Agnes de Mille  (1905–1993 | American choreographer and dancer)
to  Martha Graham  (1894–1991 | American choreographer and dancer)

Agnes de Mille enjoyed a 58-year friendship with Martha Graham and wrote a respected biography (Martha, 1991) of the choreographer. As a young woman, de Mille was devastated by Graham’s refusal to accept her as a dance student. Yet Graham recognized that, while de Mille was not an appropriate performer of her work, she possessed a unique dancer’s gift, one Graham commanded her to develop on her own. Graham’s characters were largely of the tragic ilk, but de Mille had a bent for comedy. Her initial successes were in poignant solos, satirical portrayals of Degas-inspired ballerinas, that prompted the New York Times dance critic in 1928 to compare her to Charlie Chaplin.

De Mille eventually made her mark on Broadway by firmly integrating dance into the dramatic fabric of American musical theater. Unlike other Broadway choreographers, who had included dances mainly to advance the plot, de Mille employed dance psychologically, in “dream ballets” to express what was happening inside the characters’ minds. As dancing cannot realistically be woven into a narrative that isn’t about dancers, de Mille’s pioneering use of choreography to enrich character development secured a lasting place for artistic dance in the Broadway musical.

Martha Graham  (1894–1991 | American choreographer and dancer)
to  Clytemnestra  (Greek legendary figure)

Many of the most awe-inspiring modern dance masterpieces Martha Graham choreographed depict strong, sexualized, sometimes terrifying female characters, often drawn from history and mythology. The two-hour-long Clytemnestra (1958), Graham’s only full-evening work, tells the tale of the murderous wife of King Agamemnon by drilling deep into the title character’s inner landscape. Significant for its radical portrayal of events concerning the doomed House of Atreus from Clytemnestra’s perspective, the choreographic psychodrama also represents the most complex example of Graham’s pioneering portrayal of time. Well before flexible approaches to time became commonplace in cinema and theater, Graham had been experimenting with memory as a dramatic structuring device; she tells Clytemnestra’s story through a complicated amalgam of violent narrative action, flashbacks, memories and dreams.

Graham typically created the starring female roles in her works to be danced by herself, and Queen Clytemnestra, which Graham premiered at the age of 65, was no exception. Though critics demanded her retirement, she continued to perform the physically challenging role for years afterward, afflicted with arthritis and often relying on partners to lift her off the floor when she was unable to get up. Graham finally stopped performing in her mid-70s.

Clytemnestra  (Greek legendary figure)
to  Louise Brooks  (1906–1985 | American actor and dancer)

Mariticide—murder of one’s spouse—is the pivotal act in stories of the formidable characters Lulu and Clytemnestra. The temptress immortalized on-screen by Louise Brooks in the silent classic Pandora’s Box, Lulu kills her husband somewhat accidentally, as they grapple with a handgun when he demands she shoot herself. Clytemnestra’s slaying of her husband, Agamemnon, is an act of revenge after he kills their daughter as a sacrifice to the gods before sailing off to the Trojan War. A reviled character in Greek legend, Clytemnestra also commits adultery and approves a plot to kill her son, who murders her instead. But writers and artists grew to appreciate Clytemnestra as a powerful female victim, her infidelity blamed on Aphrodite’s curse, and her murder of Agamemnon understandably provoked.

The passage of time also resulted in a reassessment of Lulu—or at least of Brooks’s portrayal. Upon the film’s release, in 1929, Brooks received scathing reviews from critics who described her performance as inanimate and decreed she could not act. When film enthusiasts rediscovered Pandora’s Box in the 1950s, however, Brooks was deemed a remarkable performer whose naturalism, in what could have been a purely melodramatic role, reinvented the art of screen acting.

Louise Brooks  (1906–1985 | American actor and dancer)
to  Liza Minnelli  (b. 1946 | American actor and singer)

A strong fashion sense often helps create a catalyzing character, and Louise Brooks’s calling card was her distinctive hairdo. A dark, severely short bob that earned her the moniker “girl in the black helmet,” it was shingled up the back, cut into long, straight bangs across the front and bent to unmistakable cheek-length points that framed her face. Not coincidentally, the idiosyncratic ’do Liza Minnelli sports for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Sally Bowles in Cabaret (1972) looks a lot like an homage to Brooks.

When preparing to play the role and envisioning how Sally should look in the film, set in 1930s Berlin, Minnelli asked her father for advice. An eminent director of Hollywood musicals, Vincente Minnelli was a master stylist, celebrated for his elegant sense of color, movement and design. He discouraged his daughter’s plan to convey Sally’s glamour by emulating blond German vamp Marlene Dietrich. As an American nightclub singer enamored with prewar German decadence, Sally, he said, must be strange and extraordinary—and should be modeled after Louise Brooks. During rehearsals, Minnelli cut the bangs of her bob into a point, giving a nod to Brooks while making the hairstyle her own.