Tallulah, Zelda, Josephine: The Real Story of the Flappers

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 9 2014 7:49 AM

Endless Charlestoning

The flappers of the 1920s and the society that made them—and unmade them.

Illustration by Matthew Roberts.

Illustration by Matthew Roberts

For most, the “flapper” evokes images of fingercurled bobs, drop-waisted dresses, and endless Charlestoning, like a scene from Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby on continuous repeat. She’s the spirit of the “Jazz Age,” with its connotations of excess and indulgence, a drunken decade before the sobering years of the Depression. A caricature, in other words, and at least in her manically dancing iteration, a false one. In reality, the flapper was a rarefied figure, limited to the urban and moneyed areas of 1920s America.

The Jazz Age was, indeed, a time of tremendous change for women. The advances of modernity made it easier for women to leave their traditional realm (the private sphere) and enter into the world of men (the public sphere). On trolleys, at the movies, in the massive new department stores, women were out of the home and, most importantly, consuming, which, in a capitalist country, is what really marks you as a citizen. Young women were leaving their rural homes in droves and moving to urban centers, where they lived with other women, worked as shopgirls, and spent money on themselves. Most would eventually marry and return to domesticity, but this experience of independence was what truly marked them as “New Women.”

But these women weren’t flappers, or at least not flappers in the way we think of them. Many bobbed their hair; almost all took off their corsets. But few had the means to wreak the sort of societal havoc that sparked widespread anxiety amongst the Victorian generation. So where did the figure of the flapper come from? From the media, of course—as with the hippie or the goth, the media used several high-profile women to amplify the flapper’s existence and the anxiety that accompanied it. A very small selection of women possessed the means, the visibility, and the gumption to act out the sort of social and cultural rebellion that millions of women would modify and apply, on a much smaller scale, to their own lives and sensibilities.

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Six of these highly visible women form the core of Judith Mackrell’s sprawling and addictive Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation. They hailed from all echelons of the 1920s social sphere. Tamara de Lempicka, who would make her name painting the New Women of Paris in the 1920s, was a Polish-born refugee of the Russian Revolution. Stage actress Tallulah Bankhead, she of the wit to rival Dorothy Parker and the dirty mouth to rival a sailor’s, grew up a Southern belle before getting herself kicked out of a string of boarding schools and rejecting a traditional debut for the chance to appear in a silent film.

Lady Diana Manners was born to one of the oldest families in Britain, and battled the expectations of her royal birth, first as a member of the “Corrupt Coterie,” staging “exhibitionist stunts”at highfalutin parties, then stubbornly insisting on working in surgery wards during World War I, and finally as an acclaimed actress. The similarly well-born Nancy Cunard grew up in thrall to her neglectful and manipulative mother; a fiercely intelligent yet emotionally starved girl, Cunard rebelled by flunking out of debutante society, offering herself to soldiers, and marrying and swiftly divorcing a man who’d promised to offer some semblance of stability.  

Zelda Fitzgerald is the most recognizable name of the group, but most know her exclusively as the somewhat-crazed wraith from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But before she was a Fitzgerald, she was Zelda Sayre, with a beauty and vivaciousness so powerful that when she showed up at a dance, all the other girls would give up and go home. After marrying Scott, she not only became his primary muse but the source of many of his most lingering descriptions of 1920s life: He regularly culled her journals, letters, and everyday conversation for the phrases that would gradually become the language with which we describe the ’20s.

But not all of these flappers were white and wealthy: African-American Josephine Baker grew up dirt poor in St. Louis before her mother arranged her marriage, at age 12, to a man twice her age in order to circumvent her burgeoning sexuality. Baker would flee that husband and marry another at 15, but the men were just a means to an escape, the stage, and freedom. Baker, however, was no ordinary showgirl: Even when performing the role of a black stereotype, she inflected it with a complexity that made her, in one producer’s words, “stand out like an exclamation point.” But it wasn’t until she went to France that Baker truly made her name and experienced what it meant to not only be venerated, but (relatively) free from prejudice based on the color of her skin.

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