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Flappers

In brief and provocative biographies, Judith Mackrell explores the lives of six influential women of the Jazz Age.

By Carlo Wolff / January 16, 2014

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, by Judith Mackrell, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512 pp.

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The Jazz Age is the backdrop for the six brief biographies Judith Mackrell orchestrates in Flappers, her suggestive social history of a type sometimes seen as shallow. But in the case of "Flappers," several of Mackrell's subjects are dead serious, like the cultural maven Lady Diana Cooper and the steamship heiress Nancy Cunard, a poetess intimate with such literary lights as Ezra Pound and the disdainful T.S. Eliot.

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Other subjects are more frivolous, like the transgressive actress Tallulah Bankhead and the imperious, biographically revisionist art deco artist Tamara de Lempicka. Zelda Fitzgerald was above all damaged and Mackrell tells the sad, starry story of how difficult it was for her to walk the line between self-destructiveness and self-aggrandizement – especially given her marriage to a literary lion of a similar bent.

The entertainer Josephine Baker, who caps the book, is that rare Mackrell subject able to age graciously, self-awareness and militancy slowly accreting within her psychological portfolio.

The chapters Mackrell devotes to these emblematic women do multiply interesting duty. They’re also mildly titillating. These women were sexually adventurous and their bite – especially Bankhead’s – at least as sharp as their bark. Mackrell doesn’t hold back on detail, marbling her inquiry with the right amount of dish. In giving piquant tastes of these fearless women through their affairs, Mackrell properly raises their profile, suggests how the issues they sparked still resonate, but also demonstrates how women of such buoyancy can fizzle out over time.

While they knew of each other, only rarely did they intersect, though some shared lovers. At the same time, they shared a background informed by World War I, which robbed several of them of those lovers even as it roiled society so they gained economic and political opportunity, if not commensurate power. Enabled by newspapers, radio, and increasing mobility, they effectively created a community of celebrity in a period when sex and race weren’t proper topics of discussion.

That small community, Mackrell demonstrates, moved the conversation forward, changing notions of femininity, race and, above all, self-determination.

Cooper was born into nobility and money, Cunard into money, and both had to break through barriers of class and tradition. The woman born Zelda Sayre was Scott Fitzgerald’s damaged muse, and, Mackrell underscores, frequently the source of his best fictional lines. Bankhead and Baker shared Zelda’s Southern roots but had vigorous, problematic careers of their own. Of the six, Baker – who let celebrity go to her head but ultimately came to view herself as a tribune of racial liberation – seems the most courageous and daring. The St. Louis waif certainly had the most to overcome, starting with a childhood of poverty and abuse. Baker also is the only one to start life with no advantages; even Zelda came from a close-knit, bourgeois family.

Throughout Mackrell attempts to explain what these women had in common. Above all, she suggests, it was courage.

“Although Diana’s palatial upbringing had been a world away from Josephine’s ghetto childhood,” she writes in the Epilogue, “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 and carry on running until she became a star. And like Josephine’s Diana’s flight had been propelled by the restlessness of a generation.”

Mackrell brings the 1920s and then some to vivid life by linking her subjects to their times – and each other. “The ragtime moves being mastered by Nancy Cunard and Diana Manners in London were equally liberating to Montgomery teenagers,” she writes of Zelda, who grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. (Lady Diana Manners was married to Duff Cooper.)

Mackrell also sprinkles her history with asides about secondary players like Ernest Hemingway and Michael Arlen, a writer who had an affair with Cunard and, as Fitzgerald did with Zelda, leveraged private, painful material to fictional ends. Hemingway’s authenticity comes into question in a footnote citing Picasso, who considered Hemingway’s “pose as a bullfighting ‘aficionado’ and left-wing radical to be fake.”

Well-researched and perhaps too soberly written (Mackrell dwells far more on the difficulties these women dealt with in private than on the joy they expressed in their public roles), “Flappers” is nothing if not provocative. These are stories of women determined to beat the male-dominated odds of their times and transcend their origins, reinventing themselves to make a mark on a rapidly modernizing society. 

Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.

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