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Hear Them Roar – Michele Magwood Reviews Flappers

By Michele Magwood for The Sunday Times

Judith Mackrell (Macmillan)
**** (4/5 stars)

Baz Luhrman’s risible, Disneyfied Gatsby has introduced the Jazz Age to a whole new generation and suddenly it’s Deco everywhere. Fashion networks are popping with faux onyx necklaces, silk-like shifts and plastic pearls; if they were being historically accurate they would be advising readers on how to bandage away their breasts and shoot up elegantly with morphine. Few historical epochs are as readily conjured as the Roaring Twenties, the bare arms and bracelets, the dropped waists and cloche hats and the jittery chug of the Charleston, but its surface sheen disguised the tectonic social plates shifting beneath it.

Judith Mackrell has chosen six singular women who personified this “dangerous generation”. The term “flapper” originally referred not to ditsy, screeching, tipsy girls but to young women such as these who resolutely – and with inordinate courage – defied the mores of the day. Ravaged with grief from the war, they radically altered the social compass. “In their various attempts to live and die in their own way, the flappers represented a genuinely subversive force,” writes Mackrell. But their stories are shadowed by drugs and depression, Sapphic scandals, promiscuity, abortion and madness.

Diana Cooper and Nancy Cunard were aristocratic proto-celebrities, alluring young women who despised their snobbish mothers and were determined to escape their control. Diana, routinely described as the greatest beauty of her generation, and tipped to marry royalty, instead married beneath her and shocked society by taking to the stage to pay the bills. Nancy fled to Paris and took a black lover, and with her bold, idiosyncratic dress sense became a leading figure in the European avant-garde. At the same time, the dazzling Josephine Baker had Paris in her thrall. The raw girl from the St Louis slums metamorphosed into an erotic phenomenon, one of the most famous entertainers in the world, be-furred, bejewelled and with a string of male and female lovers.

“My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine,” said actress Tallulah Bankhead, who had a flock of groupies, young women who attended every performance, swooning and shouting out her lines from the gallery. When Tallulah shingled her blonde hair, the girls hacked off their own tresses, throwing them down onto the stage.

Fellow Southern belle Zelda Sayre wrote herself into literary mythology by marrying F. Scott Fitzgerald. She was his muse and inspiration; he mined her diaries and letters for his novels and blithely stole her witticisms. Of the six women here she is probably the saddest, her considerable talents crushed by her husband’s ego, her quick mind unhinged by alcohol.

Lastly, there was Tamara de Lempicka, born rich but forced to flee the Russian Revolution. She fetched up in a dingy apartment in Paris with a small child and a feckless husband. Penniless and starving, all she could do was paint, and paint she did, perfecting a bold style that became the stamp of Art Deco and eventually earned her immense riches. Glamorous and brittle, Tamara staged sumptuous parties, serving food off the bodies of naked women, and for every painting she sold she bought herself a diamond bracelet to remind herself of the family jewels seized in the Revolution.

This manic decade imploded in 1930 and our six heroines blazed or sputtered into middle age, some surviving, some not. Their stories in Flappers will keep you rapt. While you’re at it, order up The Great Gatsby – the book – too. – @michelemagwood

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