Detail from Judith Mackrell's Flappers Courtesy of FSG Books

Insights Into the Twenties: Book Reviews

I am cocktailly. Very cocktailly.” – Eugen Boissevain

For more insights into the Twenties, I’ve started reading research books about flappers – which focus mainly on Zelda Fitzgerald, of course. As one of the reviews below points out, Zelda defined and encompassed the decade. Her escapades may have started in 1914 or 1915 in Alabama, but she came to New York in 1921 and made an impression on everyone she met, partied through Paris and the South of France, then crashed pretty much as soon as the market did.

I don’t know if I would have liked her very much, I can’t help but realize how important she was to both defining and being defined by the decade.

Insights Into the Twenties From American Writers

Bobbed Hair and bathtub gin by Marion Meade which gives insights into the twenties from american writers

I found Bobbed Hair & Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties by Marion Meade through a subject search at my library – the amazing Multnomah County Library, of course – and was immediately smitten. It’s rare that I laugh at a non-fiction research-type book (this is very serious business, after all), but this one made me laugh.

Several times. Out loud.

Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (the “Fitz”) are included, of course, because both of them were writers, despite what Scott said about it. However, the stories about Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, and Edna St. Vincent Millay are the ones that really shine. Nights of drinking in speakeasies, only to emerge into a snow-covered New York to find the bizarre sight of a chain of elephants walking tail-in-trunk down the street. The solution? Back inside for another round to steady the nerves, of course.

I can’t decide if I would prefer an afternoon with Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin, or a dinner party at Edna Ferber’s amazing apartment at the Prasada. They were rivals (according to Dorothy, anyway) so I feel like I’d have to pick one. I keep thinking Edna, but probably only because I would want the apartment for myself. “Spark Plug” (as Ring Lardner called Dorothy) would most likely appeal more to me simply because she’s so fascinating to me in the train-wreck sort of way.

Yes. And dear Ring Lardner, who would stockpile several weeks worth of columns so that he could go on a drinking binge. This is the true magic of the book: it reveals insights into the Twenties through the four major female authors that Ms. Meade highlights, but it also tells stories of other authors as well, and gave me a completely different perspective on several of them. Edmund Wilson was called “Bunny” and treated a little bit like a lap dog by Edna St. Vincent Millay because of his crush on her, while H.L. Mencken, after being cornered by Sinclair Lewis and reluctantly reading the proofs for Main Street, wrote to George Jean Nathan and said, “Grab the nearest bar rail and brace for a shock, because the idiot has written a masterpiece.”

One of the most telling incidents in the book for me was reading about Harold Ross, who was married to the amazing and inspiring Jane Grant. Ross clearly knew how strong and independent his wife was – she kept her maiden name after marrying, helped him establish The New Yorker (which even he admitted wouldn’t have happened without her), and was a brilliant writer and journalist. Yet Ross still becomes offended when one of his friends accuses him of allowing “a skirt” to push him around. I found the dichotomy of attitudes so odd, yet such a sharp reminder of the drastic changes in society that happened over the first few decades of the 20th century.

Insights Into the Twenties From Across the Pond

flappers by judith mackrell which gives insights into the twenties from across the pondI discovered Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell through a New York Times review that a friend recommended to me. Also from the library, this one had a wait list on it, so I figured it had to be awesome.

It’s very good, but not awesome. Like the reviewer in The Guardian, I’m not sure what’s so “dangerous” about the generation. The six women seemed sometimes reckless, annoying and/or not very smart, but never really dangerous.

At first, I thought the arrangement of the book was interesting – one chapter over each woman that reveals their background leading up to the Twenties in the first half of the book, then the second half that ties it all together in Paris. Unfortunately, I simply got confused at times in the second half. The pattern isn’t the same as it was in the first half, and – while it might not sound like much – it threw me off.

It’s a long book, and I wasn’t able to read it all in one sitting, so I would forget names and relationships, and at one point even mistook Nancy for Diana. I used the Index a lot to remind me of who someone was, which was definitely tricky since all I had to go on most of the time were first names. Just a little hint to remind me of relationships at the beginning of the second half chapters would have been nice.

(Maybe it was all just me not working hard enough at reading it, but honestly, I don’t want to work that hard to read a book. I don’t think I worked that hard in college to read a critical essay by Bunny – I mean, Edmund – Wilson, and he was usually source material for a paper.)

I loved how it all centered around Paris, however, and the city tied everything together. Ms. Mackrell pushes it at times when she points out that one of them “might have seen” another of them at a café. It seems like the women interact and have enough mutual friends that she doesn’t need to invent other situations where they may have encountered each other. But I get that she was making the connections and links in timing.

And I had never read much about the three European women, or about Tallulah Bankhead, so I absolutely enjoyed learning more about them. Nancy Cunard was especially fascinating, and I loved finding all of Tamara de Lempicka’s art online as I was reading through the descriptions of her paintings. I wish I could afford one of her paintings for myself.

All in all, I really enjoyed both books, and they definitely gave me more insights into the Twenties (and confirmed my dislike, yet again, for poor Ernest Hemingway), while surprising me (also again!) with how similar our attitudes and struggles are today. From reading about Edna Ferber battling it out with her publisher (and almost winning!), to Ms. Mackrell’s Epilogue/Conclusion about flappers breaking boundaries, I’m simply awed by these women. They came from a time even less liberated than we come from now, yet we still battle sexual inequality. And faced with what they faced, and the society that they came from, I’m not sure I would have been able to do what they did.

I suppose all we can do is thank them for the major strides they made.

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