The Magazine

Funny Girls

The case for devouring two modern comic classics.

Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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In the course of the four months covered by the diary, Lorelei manages to convince Gus to finance an “educational” trip to Europe, during which she meets a succession of besotted admirers. In England she inveigles a diamond tiara out of the stingy Sir Francis Beekman; in France she and Dorothy pal around with a father and son duo named “Louie” and “Robber” (who have been hired to retrieve the tiara). The two women find French customs puzzling: “I mean Louie is always kissing Robber and Dorothy told Louie that if he did not stop kissing Robber, people would think that he painted batiks.” While in Paris the two friends take in all the famous historical sites and names, “like Coty and Cartier.”

Eventually, Lorelei casts her spell over a rich social reformer named Henry Spoffard. When Spoffard proposes in a letter, Lorelei naturally has “quite a lot of photographs taken of it because a girl might lose Henry’s letter and she would not have anything left to remember him by. But Dorothy says to hang on to Henry’s letter, because she really does not think the photographs do it justice.” There’s nothing naïve about Dorothy.

Once back in New York, Lorelei grows convinced that if she is going to marry into Society, she needs to have a debut, a coming-out party. So she throws one for herself, inviting the wealthy drones of the Racquet Club, the bootleggers of the Silver Spray Social Club of Brooklyn, numerous reporters, at least one judge, and all the chorus girls from the Follies. Lorelei’s diary entry for June 19 opens this way:

Well, it has been three days since my debut party started but I finally got tired and left the party last night and went to bed because I always seem to lose all my interest in a party after a few days, but Dorothy never loses her interest in a party and when I woke up this morning Dorothy was just saying goodbye to some of the guests.

Anita Loos wrote other books, including a semi-sequel to this one—focused on Dorothy—called But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, as well as a memoir nobly titled A Girl Like I. To most readers, however, Loos remains a one-book author. But since Gentlemen Prefer Blondes looks to be immortal, she can hardly complain.

Stella Gibbons, though, came to feel that the immense success of her first novel prevented people from giving her later work its due. There’s truth to this. But then Cold Comfort Farm would overshadow almost anything; it’s as refreshing and sparkling in its way as Pride and Prejudice. Listen to the Austen-like opening sentences:

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is, in some measure, an example of dialect humor. Lorelei Lee descends from Huckleberry Finn and Mr. Dooley; her transatlantic cousin is A. P. Herbert’s breathlessly gushing debutante Topsy, and her progeny include such screwball blondes as Jean Hagen (aka Lina Lamont) in Singin’ in the Rain and the Valley Girl played by Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. Yet while Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is funny and even rather sweet, Cold Comfort Farm is supremely witty. Like Beatrix Potter and Georgette Heyer, Stella Gibbons is one of the head girls in the School of Jane.

Yet this is Austen tinged with naughtiness. Take Flora’s friend, the 26-year-old widow (of, it turns out, the racketeer “Diamond” Tod Smiling), whose hobbies are collecting men and brassieres: “She was reputed to have the largest and finest collection of these garments in the world. It was hoped that on her death it would be left to the nation.” Even more surprising, we learn that the well-bred Flora is capable of instructing a country slattern in the elements of contraception, what she calls “the precautionary arts.” (I feel sure that Lorelei Lee would find such topics shockingly indelicate.) But then Cold Comfort Farm addresses throughout the various ways that the natural and instinctive may be converted into the civilized.

After her parents’ funeral, Flora writes to several relatives, asking if she might come stay with them. The first three letters in reply sound quietly off-putting—“there was some most interesting bird-life to be observed in the marshes which surrounded the house on three sides”—but the fourth is positively ominous:

Dear Niece,