Flappers: An introduction to six women who roared through the 1920s

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Josephine Baker had the sweetest ride in Paris.
  • Josephine Baker had the sweetest ride in Paris.
The six subjects of Judith Mackrell's new group biography, Flappers, were notorious celebrities in the 1920s, though mostly forgotten today, which is as good a reason as any to pick up the book and start reading. In her introduction, Mackrell attempts to state her case that all six were emblematic of the 1920s, in eternal competition with the 60s to be the Decade That Changed Everything.

They were independent women, Mackrell argues. They lived as they pleased, to the distress of their elders. They drank and danced in nightclubs and slept with whomever they wanted. They were early adopters of bobbed hair and short skirts. They preferred their careers to marriage and motherhood. They liked jazz!

I'm sure Mackrell felt she had to emphasize these broader trends in order to give her book a sense of cohesion and historical importance. But the fact is, the six women she profiles would probably have stood out in any era. Some of their activities wouldn't seem so scandalous now, but at least four of the six were determined to be celebrities and willing to do or say whatever it took to get attention. (They were the spiritual ancestors of Miley Cyrus.) The other two happened to be born into the British aristocracy.

Whatever. Flappers is not a work of serious history or trenchant social commentary. It's merely very entertaining.

The six women are, in order of appearance:

Lady Diana Manners, later Cooper, the first "Lady Di," was a celebrity by default since she was the daughter of a duke and also a great beauty. Her rebellions were fairly mild: she found the life of a debutante terribly dull and defied her parents to become a volunteer nurse during World War I, then drank and danced a lot in order to forget what she'd seen. In the 20s, she scandalously became an actress in order to support her playboy husband, Duff Cooper, though her most famous role was a silent Madonna.

Man Rays portrait of Nancy Cunard, 1926
  • Man Ray's portrait of Nancy Cunard, 1926
Nancy Cunard, another daughter of British aristocrats, ran away from home to live in London as a bohemian poet (albeit one with a generous allowance). She became more notorious for her prodigious drinking and drug consumption and active sex life, which included lovers of both genders, though the great love of her life was an African-American man. She later became a political activist, a newspaper correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, and the author of Negro, an 850-page tome on African culture.

Tamara de Lempicka came from a wealthy Russian family that ended up on the wrong side of the Russian Revolution and had to flee the Bolsheviks. De Lempicka ended up in Paris where, in order to support her husband and daughter, she taught herself to become a painter. Her sensual deco portraits made her quite well known in the art world (though she would be largely forgotten after 1930), and she hung out with just about everyone you would imagine an artist in Paris in the 20s would know (Isadora Duncan, Colette, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Natalie Barney, etc). Her personal credo was, "It is an artist's duty to try everything." And she did.

Talllulah Bankhead is best remembered now as the woman who launched a thousand drag impressions, but in the 20s she rebelled against her conservative Alabama family and became a stage actress and eventually a star on both Broadway and in London. She specialized in playing unconventional young women and attracted a devoted following of young female fans. She became famous for saying things like, "My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine." It was even more outrageous because it was true.

Zelda Fitzgerald in ballet class, 1928
  • Zelda Fitzgerald in ballet class, 1928
Zelda Fitzgerald's life is an American literary legend by now: the Montgomery, Alabama, belle who married the ambitious young novelist who used her as a model for many of his female characters, who were, by turns, free spirits, smart-asses, spoiled brats, and totally irresistible to the heroes. Scott and Zelda were famous and rich and partied in New York and on Long Island and in Paris and in the south of France until they crashed, just like the stock market. Zelda tried, unsuccessfully, to create her own identity separate from her husband—she painted, wrote novels, and danced obsessively—but she suffered a major breakdown in 1930 and spent the rest of her life in and out of psychiatric hospitals.

Josephine Baker is the outlier here. While Mackrell's other subjects came from privileged backgrounds—which gave them plenty to rebel against, but also financial support and, in some cases, valuable contacts to help their careers—Baker was born in a slum in Saint Louis and escaped by becoming a chorus girl. It was a brutal life: the work was hard, the pay was crap, black performers were banned from hotels and department stores (yes, even in New York), and the girls were expected to "entertain" producers and their rich friends. Baker escaped this clusterfuck by moving to Paris, where racist attitudes were less ingrained; she would live there for the rest of her long life. Although she became famous for doing a "jungle dance" in a skirt made out of bananas, her true brilliance, Mackrell argues, was that she was actually subverting stereotypes. "The glitter of the performance," Mackrell writes, "came, principally, from its confident spirit of mockery: Josephine was playing with this jungle imagery, rather than letting it play her." Perhaps because Mackrell is a dance critic (she writes for the Guardian), the sections of the book about Baker and her work are its best, its most lively and vivid.

The cover of Flappers is also a self-portrait of Tamara de Lempicka driving a Bugati.
  • Farrar Straus and Giroux
  • The cover of Flappers is also a self-portrait of Tamara de Lempicka driving a Bugati.
Flappers isn't quite a group biography so much as a series of profiles. The women don't really have much in common besides being unconventional, famous, and involved in the arts during the same decade. Though they were familiar with one another's work and reputations—Cunard, for instance, was a huge fan of Baker's—they very rarely were unconventional and famous together. (Cooper and Cunard's careers as London debutantes overlapped, and Bankhead and Fitzgerald had been friends as little girls in Montgomery.) So each story is told in isolation from the others. For some reason, Mackrell decided to divide the book into two sections of six chapters each. The first half describes her subjects' early years; the second their adventures during the 20s. This means that there are 150 pages between Tallulah Bankhead's first exit and her reappearance, and unless you have an exceptionally good memory, you'll be spending some time flipping back and forth trying to remember who the hell everyone is. (It's times like this where an e-reader's search function would really come in handy.)

In the end, Mackrell devotes 60 or 70 pages to each woman, not counting the group epilogue that briefly summarizes each of their lives after the early 30s. (Spoiler: it's sad.) That doesn't leave room for the depth or scholarly analysis of a full biography. Instead she concentrates on a few main themes, mostly exploring, as she puts it, "the spirit of audacity with which they reinvented themselves." (This audacity probably made her research a lot harder than it should have been; many of her subjects, Baker and de Lempicka especially, had a tendency to embellish their life stories, or tell outright lies, and although Mackrell does the best she can, there's not much documentation to prove what actually happened and what didn't.) She relies heavily on previous biographies instead of original research, and she takes a chatty, gossipy tone, referring to each of her subjects by her first name, the way people talk about famous people they don't know, but feel they do. It's popular history, no question.

But all that's not necessarily a bad thing. Mackrell has assembled a group of smart, fascinating women, most of whom have been forgotten or overshadowed by the men in their lives or turned into caricatures. Flappers wasn't meant to be the last word on their lives. Instead, it's a quick and breezy introduction, and if she leaves her readers wanting to know more about at least one (for me, it was Baker and Cunard, whose life seemed to get more interesting after the roaring 20s), she's done her job, and provided a nice bibliography.

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.

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