Born in Cherryvale, Kansas, Louise Brooks was the daughter of Leonard Porter Brooks, a lawyer, who was usually too busy with his practice to discipline his children, and Myra Rude, an artistic mother who determined that any "squalling brats she produced could take care of themselves".
Brooks as a sophomore in high school, 1922
Rude was a talented pianist who played the latest Debussy and Ravel for her children, inspiring them with a love of books and music.
When she was nine years old, a neighborhood predator sexually abused Louise. This event had a major influence on Brooks' life and career, causing her to say in later years 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....For me, nice, soft, easy men were never enough – there had to be an element of domination". When Brooks at last told her mother of the incident, many years later, her mother suggested that it must have been Louise's fault for "leading him on".
Brooks began her entertainment career as a dancer, joining the Denishawn modern dance company in Los Angeles in 1922. The company included founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, as well as a young Martha Graham. In her second season with the company, Brooks had advanced to a starring role in one work opposite Shawn. A long-simmering personal conflict between Brooks and St. Denis boiled over one day, however, and St. Denis abruptly fired Brooks from the troupe in 1924, telling her in front of the other members that "I am dismissing you from the company because you want life handed to you on a silver salver". The words left a strong impression on Brooks; when she drew up an outline for a planned autobiographical novel in 1949, "The Silver Salver" was the title she gave to the tenth and final chapter. Brooks was 15 years old at the time of her dismissal.
Thanks to her friend Barbara Bennett, the sister of Constance and Joan Bennett, Brooks almost immediately found employment as a chorus girl in George White's Scandals, followed by an appearance as a featured dancer in the 1925 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. As a result of her work in the Follies, she came to the attention of Paramount Pictures producer Walter Wanger, who signed her to a five-year contract with the studio in 1925. She was also noticed by visiting movie star Charlie Chaplin, who was in town for the premiere of his film The Gold Rush. The two had a two-month affair that summer.