Thursday 19 April 2018

Good girls gone bad in the '20s

Cressida Connolly enjoys an engaging tale of six women whose lives personified the Gatsby era

Flappers were entertainers who embodied the excess of the era. (Photo by Tom Kelley/Getty Images)
Flappers were entertainers who embodied the excess of the era. (Photo by Tom Kelley/Getty Images)
Tallulah Bankhead (1902 - 1968) the American theatrical leading lady of stage and screen who worked in London and on Broadway during the 20s. (Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)
American-born dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker (1906 - 1975). (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Cressida Connolly

The jazz age is in the news once again, thanks to Baz Luhrmann's new film version of The Great Gatsby. In its wake come a shoal of books: two novels reimagining the marriage of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, an academic study, Careless People, by Sarah Churchwell, and Flappers, a partial biography of six women who personified the era.

Flappers is all good, dirty fun. Judith Mackrell makes no bones about the vigorous sex lives of her subjects: legendary cabaret artiste Josephine Baker gets through two husbands by the time she's 15 and later includes Georges Simenon and Le Corbusier among her lovers, male and female.

Heiress and poet Nancy Cunard has flings with writers Michael Arlen and Aldous Huxley, but finds Huxley too tentative a lover, describing the experience of sleeping with him as "like being crawled over by slugs".

Actress Tallulah Bankhead is hardly ever out of bed, famously quipping: "My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine."

Artist Tamara de Lempicka prefigures the excesses of Eighties' merchant bankers, serving food at her parties off the bodies of naked women. As Mackrell notes, drily: "It was difficult to be shocking in mid-Twenties Paris."

Only Lady Diana Cooper and Zelda Fitzgerald abstain from the orgiastic, but even they succumb to the odd adultery.

This catalogue of slap and tickle is amusing and illustrates how different the Roaring '20s were from the fusty Edwardian era.

But Flappers isn't only fluff. Mackrell is an engaging storyteller with a deceptively light touch which allows her to introduce serious details of social history, like vitamins into breakfast cereal, without altering the flavour.

She is especially good on the correlation between music and morals: "Jazz represented a threat . . . its warping rhythms and melodies sounded like the music of a drug addict, and the frenetic sexual angularity of its dances was no less disturbing."

She attributes the unconventional brio of her young women to the usual suspects: the "social derailment" caused by World War One, suffrage, rising hemlines, improvements in birth control (improvements, but not complete safety: two or three of the women endure unpleasant illegal abortions).

"The Twenties were a decade on the move: there were passenger flights between London, Paris or Berlin: the Train Bleu whisked fashionable holiday-makers down to the French Riviera; ever faster, more luxurious liners criss-crossed the Atlantic," Mackrell writes. This is an interesting aspect of her book, explaining some of the cross-pollination of fashions and ideas between America and Europe.

Diana Cooper spent several years in America working as an actor and adored it, especially refrigeration and cafeterias, "where you can see what you eat before you eat it".

The Fitzgeralds told Cooper that they had hired an English nanny so that their daughter would grow up with an accent like hers. Bankhead brought the brashness of America to England, playing up her outspokenness in a bid to find work on the London stage. Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald and Baker settled in Paris.

I had always thought that it was Baker who introduced the Charleston to France, but Mackrell (a dance critic) ascribes it to a white American dancer called Bee Jackson, in 1924; jazz and the jitterbug were brought across earlier, by American servicemen.

One of the plays in which Bankhead appeared (Let Us Be Gay, by Rachel Crothers) had her say the line: "Women are getting everything they want now, but are they any happier than when they used to stay at home?".

These wild girls had (in some cases sporadic) jobs which gave them economic freedom, as well as drugs, lovers, travels, exotic pets and entourages of eccentric friends and followers. But were they happy?

Cunard and Cooper's early lives were both blighted by the deaths in World War One of young men they had loved, Cunard and Fitzgerald were unstable at best and Tamara de Lempicka and Bankhead were let down by unfaithful men.

In light of this, their antics take on a desperate quality, like moths dancing too close to a flame.

As Fitzgerald wrote in her novel, Save Me The Waltz: "They hung about the city like an indigo wash . . . girls in long satin coats and coloured shoes and hats . . . it was just a lot of youngness."

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