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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Material Girl

Author Anita Loos imagines a female utility maximizer

Anita Loos. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. London: Penguin, 1998 [1925]. 120 pages.

Everyone knows that homo economicus (or Max U, as he has been christened by Deirdre McCloskey) is a fiction. He was born that way, in John Stuart Mill’s essay “On the Definition of Political Economy,” where Mill tells us that political economy “does not treat of the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging of the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end.” Mill is not interested, for the purposes of political economy, in a full vision of humanity, but in “an arbitrary definition of man” as a being who focuses only on getting the most stuff at the least cost.

The fastest way to drive economists crazy (after asking them what to do with your retirement savings) is to suggest that homo economicus is, or should be, anything other than a fiction. Max U is a useful construct for equations, but he would make a rotten neighbor.

As the main character of a novel, however, he — or rather she — makes for some seriously entertaining reading.

Anita Loos’s 1925 runaway bestseller Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the story of Lorelei Lee, and it’s possibly the single greatest literary depiction of a homo economicus. Out of respect for the unique qualities of what Lorelei would call “A girl like I” and for the specific methods she uses to attain the wealth she desires, it seems that a less gender-neutral term than homo economicus is called for here. Lorelei is an econometrix, out to maximize all possible utility. (The author would like to express her thanks to Pierre Menard for pointing out to her that “econometrix” is obviously the only possible feminine version of homo economicus.)

As Regina Barreca notes in her excellent introduction to a modern reprinting of the novel, Lorelei and her friend Dorothy are as horrifying as, but “more successful than Frankenstein’s monster. This is not, however, due merely to the fact that they are cuter.” Focused, to the exclusion of all else, on the collection of diamonds, the discovery of new places to wear jewelry, and the acquiring of a wealthy husband, Lorelei “manages her own affairs, financial and sexual, with great success.” And we are entertained and horrified as we watch her.

Here, for example, is Lorelei’s diary entry for her birthday, spent with Gus Eisman the Button King who “is interested in educating” her.

Well my birthday has come and gone but it was really quite depressing. I mean it seems to me a gentleman who has a friendly interest in educating a girl like Gus Eisman, would want her to have the biggest square cut diamond in New York. I mean I must say I was quite disappointed when he came to the apartment with a little thing you could hardly see. So I told him it was quite cute, but I had a headache and I had better stay in a dark room all day and I told him I would see him the next day, perhaps. …But he came in at dinner time with really a very very beautiful bracelet of square cut diamonds so I was quite cheered up.

Another friend “is a Greek gentleman by the name of Mr. Georgopolis who is really quite wealthy and he is what Dorothy and I call a ‘Shopper’ because you can always call him up at any hour and ask him to go shopping and he is quite delighted … and he never seems to care how much anything costs.” Indeed, getting gentlemen to take her shopping is one of Lorelei’s greatest skills. Her complaint about an ocean voyage to London is that “I do not see why the Captain does not ask Mr. Cartier to have a jewelry store on the ship as it is really not much fun to go shopping on a ship with gentlemen.”

But shopping and headaches are not the econometrix’s only means for accomplishing her ends, and she is not without long-term plans. While in Europe she gets her first look at a diamond tiara and resolves to buy it “because it is a place where I really never thought of wearing diamonds before.” She turns all her skills to obtaining the necessary money, cabling Gus Eisman from Europe with the subtle threat “that he does not seem to know how much it costs to get educated by traveling and I said I would really have to have $10,000 and I said I hoped I would not have to borrow the money from some strange English gentleman, even if he might be very, very good looking.”

Sir Francis Beekman, another friend whom Lorelei calls “Piggie,” is persuaded to send orchids to Lorelei every day, but that is only her short-term use for him. “By the time Piggie pays for a few dozen orchids, the diamond tiara will really seem like quite a bargain. Because I always think that spending money is only just a habit, and if you get a gentleman started on buying one dozen orchids at a time he really gets very good habits,” she says. Naturally, Lorelei gets exactly what she wants. Piggie is persuaded that she only feels worthy to be with him when she wears a tiara. He buys it for her. And Lorelei takes the next ship to Paris.

In Paris, however, Lorelei encounters some of the greater dangers an econometrix can face. First there is the jewelry store where she discovers the existence of rhinestones. What is an econometrix to make of a world where the actual value of a bracelet has nothing to do with how brightly it shines? “It really makes a girl feel depressed to think a girl could not tell that it was nothing but an imitation. I mean, a gentleman could deceive a girl because he could give her a present and it would only be worth 20 dollars.” If Lorelei is giving the gentleman in question the real goods, he should do the same for her.

She is equally distraught by the charming French gentlemen she encounters, as they flatter her endlessly but send her home with “a fan that only cost 20 francs and a doll that they gave you away for nothing in a restaurant. I mean, a girl has to look out in Paris.”

Our canny econometrix knows value when she spots it, though. When she meets Henry Spofford, American moralist and member of the social register, Lorelei works very hard to rein in her behavior in order to impress his mother and extract a proposal from him. Once he is safely landed, she engages in some quick calculations to determine his worth, “because it might really be better … if he should change his mind, and desert a girl, and then it would only be right if a girl should sue him for a breach of promise.”

But Lorelei is “capable of judging of the comparative efficacy of means” for obtaining her desired end. And the long run gains of marrying Spofford outweigh the considerable costs of having to be married to Spofford. So Lorelei goes through with it. And at the end of the novel, we are left with a vision of Lorelei married, wealthy, nominally respectable, and completely triumphant. That is some impressive maximization of utility.