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.

If these stories sound tantalizing, it’s because each flapper’s early rebellion and rise to prominence reads as swiftly, and juicily, as the best celebrity gossip, punctuated with lusty affairs (with men and women alike), casual drug use, and the jubilant pleasures of youth. Relaying (perhaps a bit too heavily) on previously published biographies and memoirs, Mackrell tells these women’s stories as if they were her intimates, referring to them exclusively by their first names.

Author Judith Mackrell.
Author Judith Mackrell

It’s no coincidence these narratives resemble today’s celebrity gossip, as these women—socialites, actresses, and artists—were celebrities par excellence, with images that were an uneven accumulation of their own (often progressive) intentions and actions and the ways the press chose to frame them: usually a mix of the superficial and the titillating, with little room for context or nuance. Once these images were formed, they could become paralyzing: Mackrell describes the Fitzgeralds as “captive to their own image” of excess, frivolity, and Jazz Age living, leading to perpetual problems with money and, by extension, their relationship and Zelda’s mental health. (159).

When you become such a public figure, do you live your own life or the life others want for you? It’s an existential question, no less pertinent today than it was in the 1920s, but these women’s struggles to find an answer would, in many ways, tear them apart. The first six chapters of Flappers tell the intoxicating tales of each woman’s rise, but the next six chapters track their respective declines, as predictable as a rerun of E! True Hollywood Story, replete with depression, heartbreak, drug abuse, and loneliness. Particularly striking is the disgust with which several of the women greeted news of pregnancy—as a threat not only to their bodies, which would no longer fit the svelte, boy-like fashions of the time, but to their social relevance. Sex could be liberating, but it was also destructive: Several women endured painful, dangerous abortions; others suffered from chronic STDs; nearly all tried to negotiate the balance between an “open” mind toward sexual adventure and partners who manipulated and betrayed them.

These women’s images were rooted in scandal—not for any single action, but for their sustained violation of ideological norms of what a woman should do, how she should act, and what she could dream for herself. Historically, scandal has functioned as a wedge-driver: When someone violates the status quo, we get up in arms, but we also make the scandalous act speakable. Yet even as scandal opens the door to eventual change, it always demands immediate redress: someone must be punished, however symbolically. Nancy Cunard may have changed minds when she dated a black jazz musician, but not the ones closest to her; she was effectively banished from her family and high society.

And as glamorous and fancy-free as these women were at the height of their powers, they were also punished, often hideously so. After a comeback in the ’50s, Bankhead withered away to nothing, a shell of her formerly vigorous self and resentful of her camp following. Baker, after years of dancing and straightening her hair with noxious chemicals, was nearly bald and forced to bandage her legs tightly to make her way onstage. De Lempicka’s paintings went out of vogue, and she eventually retired to Houston, where she dominated and controlled her family much in the way she had been dominated and controlled herself. Fitzgerald went slowly mad in a North Carolina asylum. Manners fared the best of the six, but only because she gave up her progressive politics to become a relatively sedate housewife and hostess.

Mackrell works arduously to recuperate the third acts of these women’s lives—“even the bleak and blighted years of Zelda’s illness,” for example, “were in some ways more productive than the decade of her jazz age success” (420), and while Cunard’s “mind and body had been battered a point where she was barely recognizable, she had refused to conform to what others wanted for her,” and in this, “the terms on which she died had somehow remained her own” (418). The book’s selling point, after all, is the vivaciousness of these women—and it would be depressing to outline the ways in which they were ultimately beaten down by the society they had once so fascinated.

But the culmination of these stories is depressing, and Mackrell’s tidy codas do these women, and their memories, a disservice. For all of the book’s detailed attempts to contextualize the societal and cultural mores against which these women rebelled, it fails to situate these women’s fates within the Depression-era desire to pinpoint a cause for the market crash and the misery that followed. 

Of course, the Depression was the result of years of poor policy and investment practices, almost all of it on the part of white, wealthy men. Yet when it came to anointing a scapegoat, the highly visible flappers were easy and vulnerable targets. It was never as simple as a prosecution; rather, a turning of the cultural tide, a shift in the societal temperature, made their once celebrated lives into something denigrated and dirty, especially in the United States. Mackrell skates around this point in her explanation of the end of the era, but lacks the clarity and incisiveness that would give the conclusion some feminist teeth.

For these six beguiling women were indeed part of a dangerous generation, but what’s even more dangerous—and absolutely worthy of sustained, incisive attention—is the way they, and the sexual energy that fueled them, were put in their place, ushering in years of reactionary and regressive sexual politics. Therein lies the lesson of the flapper, equally as pertinent today as in their waning days: We map our most vivid fantasies on the bodies of our female celebrities, and as those fantasies begin to sour, those selfsame bodies come to bear the bruises of our confusion and regret.

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

Anne Helen Petersen teaches media studies at Whitman College. Her first book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, is forthcoming from Plume/Penguin Press in 2014.

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