Herstory at its fucking finest.
The roaring 1920s were about much more than just fizz-fuelled parties, bouncy bobs, sparkly frocks and the Charleston. The decade was one of tremendous change, especially for women. Judith Mackrell’s new book, Flappers, charts what this change meant for six of the era’s most illustrious daughters: Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tamara de Lampicka, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker. “What made them emblematic of their time was the spirit of audacity with which they reinvented themselves,” writes Mackrell, “The young women of this era weren’t the first generation in history to seek a life beyond marriage and motherhood; they were, however, the first significant group to claim it as a right.” And claim it they did, each in their own way and on their own wits but it certainly wasn’t easy. “None of them had role models to follow as they grappled with the implications of their independence,” explains Mackrell in the Introduction, “Their mothers and grandmothers could not advise them how to combine sexual freedom with love, or how to combine their public image with personal happiness.” This goes some way to explain why most of these women lost their footing by the end of the decade as the spotlight waned, the work dried-up and the vertiginous highs turned to ignoble lows.
In their heyday, however, they all had immense success, hoards of admirers, infinite privileges and spoils. Spurred by personal adversity, a need for self-actualisation, new opportunities and sheer wantonness each one of Mackrell’s subjects excelled in her chosen field. Josephine Baker, for example, remains largely unmatched as a performer of skill and showmanship. Tamara de Lampicka’s art-deco paintings now embody everything the decadent era came to represent. Zelda Fitzgerald is still regarded as the most famous of all the Flappers, a woman of great ambition, wit and literary talent. Diana Cooper – though now seldom remembered – was a celebrated British stage actress, who took America by storm. Tallulah Bankhead sensationalised the theatre on both sides of the Atlantic, and Nancy Cunard used her connections and social-clout to fight racial discrimination and fascism. Mackrell documents meticulously each woman’s tortuous ascend, hindered by their personal circumstances and prevailing prejudices in the midst of a changing world. Cooper and Cunard, for example, came from considerable wealth and privilege and spent a large part of their lives trying to manumit themselves from the grip of their overbearing mothers; Baker fled from St Louis to Paris to escape poverty and racism; while Fitzgerald, de Lampicka and Bankhead sought success and recognition independently of the men in their lives.
For some liberation came easier than others. Fitzgerald, for example, was desperate to rid herself of the disparaging image of a “feckless, lovely and spoiled” Southern Bell but remained largely overshadowed by her literary husband. Mackrell explores their convoluted relationship, documenting how their youthful love turned sour, and how Zelda’s growing want of a vocation facilitated the breakdown of their marriage. De Lampicka on the other hand sidestepped her abusive spouse entirely to pursue her artistic aspirations. It was out of necessity, Mackrell explains, that she set her sights on a profession, faced with the prospect of destitution. Baker too had a deeply troubled home life, characterised by poverty and a sense of racial segregation which haunted her until the end. She was on her second marriage by the age of 15 and desperate to escape the desolate reality of the ghetto. Fascinated by the world of vaudeville, she resolved to become like the stage stars she so admired and fled to Paris – the only place she ever felt at home. It was also in Paris that Cunard made her name as a literary host and press mistress, publishing experimental writing and nurturing new talent. It was there that she had the majority of her love affairs and finally cut ties with her mother before embarking on her political activism.
Cooper strived to make a similar familial break and began to do so when still fairly young by volunteering at Guy’s during the war which made her part of “some larger, more collective experience”. This was something that the American starlet Tallulah Bankhead sought through her acting, which supplied her with a sense of belonging both professionally and personally. All six women in Mackrell’s fascinating study yearned for the same things: fun, love, sexual liberation, success and the freedom to make their lives truly their own. The latter, however, proved a far greater responsibility than most could have anticipated or imagined. Part of the trouble was, as Mackrell points out, that every one of these women lacked direction, navigating through a time of great transition with nothing but their guts to guide them. While Baker and Cooper, for example, both found a place in the public’s affections and died relatively content Cunard ended up “drinking too much, eating too little and obsessing over the political wrongs of the world” until it drove her mad. Similarly, Fitzgerald found herself mentally crippled by her inability to shuck-off her “girlish habits of dependency” for a more adult self. Bankhead too who, as Mackrell explains, “had lived her version of the flapper experiment with more public swagger than any of the other five women” died alone in dire circumstances. Ravaged by years of hard drinking, sexual and spiritual profligacy she eventually found herself out of synch with the new Hollywood, unable to sustain the role of a “darling ingénue”. And as for de Lampicka, she struggled to the end to resurrect her career which never quite managed to reach the dizzying summits of the 20s.
In many ways, Flappers is a book that reaffirms the notion that it is impossible to have it all. But it is also a book that demonstrates the polar opposite because its heroines did – at one point – seem to have exactly that. It was the common thread that bound them, this audaciousness, this desire for independence, for self-realisation, for something more from life than what it had offered the previous generation. Mackrell is right in saying that these women still remain very modern today in the way they broke taboos, puzzled out their own notions of freedom and claimed sexual equality with men. They did, in fact, make way for women’s liberation of the Sixties and the Seventies. Sadly, however, their own lives paralleled the trajectory of their generation, booming in the hedonistic 20s – defined by a wave of social insouciance and bootleg booze – and flat-lining with the advent of the financial crash. “Much of what this flapper generation wanted to become was stalled or deflected by events of the Thirties and Forties,” explains Mackrell, “…By the middle of the 1960s it was up to a new post-war generation to confront the issues that had been raised in the 1920s.” And it certainly did, but it is important to remember that those issues were first highlighted at the dawn of a new decade by the likes of Mackrell’s subjects. Obscure, forgotten and overlooked as some of them may now be, they did make an indelible impact on our social history as early feminists who belonged to a “dissident, often brilliantly wayward generation of women” whose aspirations and battles still resonate with us today.
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publication Date: May 2013
Hardback: 480 pages