May 2013

Margaret Howie

nonfiction

Flappers: Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell's Flappers: Women of a Dangerous Generation promises a study of a "dangerous generation" of the 1920s. It attempts to summon up that most giddy and glamorous of eras with a gathering of six remarkable women to bring the world of the flapper to life. Tamara de Lempicka, Josephine Baker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, and Lady Diana Cooper (née Manners) make up Mackrell's collection of infamous profiles. Cooper was a member of the British aristocracy whose notoriety as a socialite earned her a cameo in one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's flapper stories, "The Jelly-Bean," as was Cunard, who left England to become absorbed in the avant garde of Paris just when Baker was setting the city on fire with her nightclub appearances. Zelda's partying prowess and famous marriage make up a sizable part of the flapper myth, while her childhood friend Tallulah became an actor, kicking up her heels from New York to London and getting every sort of available excess under her belt. So did the hard-working, hard-partying de Lempicka, whose ambitions were very modern, as she sought fame and fortune through her lush Art Deco paintings.

The six women profiled get two chapters each, one outlining their triumphs at harnessing those gilded moments between the wars, and one that fills in their post-twenties existence. This is sandwiched between brief outlines of just why the flapper was considered so dangerous -- the establishment shuddering at the prospect of "being overrun by a generation of unpredictable, untamed single women," and an examination of how the stories of these first modern girls reflect the challenges of women now. It's an ambition that risks being too sweeping and simple, and all too easily the book stumbles over itself to sink down into clichés and textual sogginess.

The goal is to put these lives into the context of this generation and the surrounding social turmoil. But were all of these women even really flappers? The foreword suggests that these women had "similar ambitions" and shared "the quirks of their generation's collective personality," but the book never gets to any substantial connections between them. Unless the spirit of the Roaring Twenties was no more than just a fondness for drinking, partying, and glorious outfits? Aside from those standard markers, the book doesn't provide much overlap between the coolheaded ruthlessness of a de Lempicka, the well-meaning slumming of a Cooper, or the dizzying hedonism of a Bankhead.

They didn't have that much to do with each other, their lives occasionally intersecting in time and key spaces -- London, Paris, New York, and inevitably Hollywood. Aside from some Kevin Bacon-style connections, Mackrell doesn't show any prevailing psychic or philosophic common ground between their personalities. The book insists that "[although] Diana's palatial upbringing had been a world away from Josephine's ghetto childhood, she too had fought for her life against the destiny of her birth. She'd shown the same instincts of self-determination that had made Josephine run away from the ghetto when she was thirteen," as though the volunteer nursing work that Diana undertook in the war was all that similar to Josephine Baker's climb from poverty in St. Louis to stardom as a dancer in Paris. It's a clunky comparison to make, let alone to stretch the point and pronounce that "like Josephine, Diana's flight had been symbolic of the entire flapper generation."

Baker's dancing pulled her out of a life where she was working at seven and married at fourteen. Her life was markedly different from the devil-may-care capers of Clara Bow's It Girl or Fitzgerald's ne plus ultra flapper Ardita Farham in "The Offshore Pirate." De Lempicka, a woman who survived being exiled from Russia in 1917, was almost the antithesis of what Fitzgerald called his "very romantic and curious and courageous" creatures who lived for the moment. Living almost destitute in Paris, Tamara's enormous sense of entitlement and drive was worlds away from the "mental baby vamp," as he described Zelda and her ilk. Tamara used social connections not for sport but for self-advancement.

Like Tamara's evasive maneuvering between social scenes, the book wants to avoid tangling with ideas and focus on the parties. Describing the female-dominated salons of Nathalie Barney that several of Mackrell's protagonists attended, Mackrell quotes William Carlos Williams, who found that the ultrafemme environment "made (him) feel unsettled and self-conscious... 'I went out, and stood up to take a good piss.' It seemed the only way for a man to assert himself." The book asserts itself with a similarly stagey indifference. There are descriptions of the tiny cakes and cucumber sandwiches that Barney served to Colette, Isadora Duncan, and Mercedes Acosta, but no interest is taken in what they may have talked about. World-shaking ideas are absent from the book, interest in the philosophies of the era ignored in favor of pretty dresses and updates on who knocked boots with whom.

The lesbian culture that Tamara and Tallulah were engaged with is described as little more than networking opportunities, a sort of Sapphic LinkedIn. While the book is not coy when it comes to the matters of illegal abortions or preferred sexual positions, it is disinterested in what queerness meant in this era. Cunard was a passionate fan and supporter of many key artists, but if the reader is unfamiliar with the landmark works of modernism there is no enlightenment to be had in the offhand references to Eliot, Pound, Tzara, or Cocteau. Radical ideas seem here to be no more than accessories to be picked up and played with, a slightness of approach that short-changes the biographical subjects. Baker's rise to stardom may have been couched in a gross fetishization of black women's bodies, but she was much more than simply "the heroine of her own Cinderella story."

As they get older and the messy realities of their lives resist the overarching narrative being forced on them, a noticeable frustration with the subjects creeps into the writing. Tallulah, in particular, has to suffer for the flapper's sins -- if at the outset of the book she's derided for being "silly," by the epilogue she has been cast into the role of fallen woman. "Too gamey" in her professional life as an at best "competent" talent apparently burdened with a young gay fanbase, she is sketched in her personal life with even more glib callousness:

When she had been forced to have a hysterectomy in 1933, after being diagnosed with an advanced case of gonorrhoea, it had felt like a tragedy... Rumours circulated that she had caught the disease from the "divine" Gary Cooper, whom she had claimed that she had always been determined "to fuck." If so, this sexual conquest had deprived her of the beautiful babies she had imagined for herself, and for several months afterwards she was too depressed even to work.

And there we have that virgin/whore complex that our flappers had tried to evade in the beginning of the century. Unlike the popularity of ragtime or dancing the maxixe, it seems that slut-shaming never goes out of style.

A similar finger-waving hovers over the assessment of Zelda's tragic mental decline, the writer wondering "what work she might have produced if she had made other choices when she was young." It reads as a swipe at that youthful impetuousness which made the flapper image so vital. Zelda herself had written a tongue-in-cheek "Eulogy" for the flapper in 1922, years before she had to cope with the disintegration of her inner life. The idea that Zelda had "forged a Faustian pact with celebrity" seems to be both too brittle and too superficial a conclusion to her story.

Perhaps the author really wanted to write about Diana -- the writing jolts to life in the chapters dedicated to her. It is her story that frames the book, even though she's arguably the least historically significant figure in it. While Nancy Cunard's story gets dropped abruptly as her political awakening occurs and her last great scandal dies down, Diana's move from famed actress and personality into being a diplomat's wife and becoming a mostly harmless part of the British Conservative Party's establishment is tracked with disproportionate importance. That her "subversive" spirit was expressed in leaving sassy notes for parking wardens doesn't quite make her a match for Cunard's activism, Baker's infamous banana skirt dances, or Tallulah's attempts at reinvention in Hollywood and Broadway.

The epilogue makes out that these women were connected by "the quintessentially contemporary conundrum: how to combine career and family, self-interest, marriage and love." Slapping a one-size-fits-all narrative on this bunch strips their lives of any nuance and leads the book down a dead-end. Ultimately it has all the penetrating depth of a "Bad Girls in History" bathroom book. The biographical sketches are too rushed to be insightful, and there's little light cast on the surrounding political and social upheaval of the age.

The 1920s provides lots of juicy material for social analysis in 2013. You could easily pull in a quick comparison with the characters of Girls -- sexually active white women living large the big city. Or you could go the economics route, with words like recession and depression ringing in our ears while the 1 percent considers hiring Beyoncé to spice up their next party. There's new-money swagger all over the trailer for the upcoming The Great Gatsby adaptation, which regardless of its quality will work up a gleeful lather among cultural commentators for either its prescience or atonal clumsiness. But you can ask Sheryl Sandberg about just how hard it is to structure an argument around women "having it all" at any point in history. It's too much for one woman, or even six, to shoulder.

Flappers: Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell
Macmillan
ISBN: 978-0230752337 
480 pages