Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald and Tamara de Lempicka are the marquee characters in “Flappers,” Judith Mackrell’s new account of the grand dames of the 1920s. I’m not sure I came away convinced that their generation was dangerous, as the subtitle argues, but they seem to have had a hell of a lot of fun. Mackrell, a British dance critic, chose as her subjects women of such antics and ambition that one can’t help but want to throw on a few baubles, walk the streets of Paris and sip a gin fizz in their raucous company.
Readers may be most familiar with Baker, Bankhead and Fitzgerald — and for good reason. If not necessarily the most talented of Mackrell’s cast, they’re certainly the most fascinating. Baker adopted France as her beloved home, but her story is uniquely American. Born poor and hungry in St. Louis, she escaped a childhood of domestic labor by dancing on street corners and auditioning for local theaters and traveling troupes. As her reputation grew and her name brightened up in the lights, she shipped off to Paris, where audiences saw talent, not just color, though she was never fully able to escape the racism that plagued her in the States. Baker, who became known as the “first black superstar,” fought for civil rights throughout her life and adopted a “rainbow tribe” of children from around the world in an attempt to create her own utopia — yet as Mackrell writes, “her true family had long been her public.”
Bankhead, too, loved her stardom as much as she loved any man or woman — and certainly she enjoyed her fair share of those. “My father warned me about men and booze,” the actress famously quipped, “but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.” The daughter of a prominent Southern family — her father served as speaker of the House of Representatives in the late 1930s — Bankhead had a tongue that, as much as her theatrical chops, earned her favor among magazine editors and young women looking for liberated role models.
TMZ was the better part of a century away, but “by the late 1920s, the public’s addiction to celebrity gossip had become consuming,” Mackrell writes.
And naturally that suited the career of Tallulah “I’m as pure as the driven slush” Bankhead just fine as she swung between lovers and nightclubs.
F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald offered the tabloids just as much fodder as they searched for contentment and inspiration on both sides of the Atlantic. Forever in the shadow of her husband, beautiful Zelda nonetheless made her presence very much known, flirting with other men, drinking herself into a haze and fighting dramatically with Scott. And though it’s his talent that history celebrates, Zelda was a skilled writer who also dedicated herself to dance and art. But the lasting happiness she sought was elusive, and it’s through her story that Mackrell best illustrates how creativity and the glare of the spotlight can intersect with madness.
With the exception of de Lempicka — an iron-willed painter determined to make her own way in the world — Mackrell’s lesser-known subjects prove to be the least interesting of her “flappers.” Cooper and Cunard were both born to wealthy British families and rebelled just enough to appall their relatives. They moved among glittering circles of artists and intellectuals and, with iconoclastic style and verve, became muses to the likes of Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley.
But I often conflated their stories and wondered if Mackrell’s characters would have been better served by a structure that allowed her to chart the whole of each woman’s path continuously, rather than jump back and forth among them.
Mackrell is a first-rate researcher and a fluid writer. If the book turned a bit dry at times, it also faltered from an overabundance of detail about the secondary characters who came and went in the women’s lives. The author wisely zooms in on her subjects’ heyday in the 1920s, when they were young, brash and nearly aflame from the sparks they gave off. I wish Mackrell had left herself a little more room to write about what happened as the fires began to dim. Some of the women turned to serious political or artistic work, others succumbed to personal demons, and at least one — Cooper — seemed to adjust with surprising calm to a happy family life.
See, Miley, there’s no knowing where the next few decades will take you. Lindsay and Kim, the world breathlessly awaits your next move. So think about it. And if you need inspiration, dahlings, look to your spirit guides from the past.
Ellen McCarthy is a staff writer in The Washington Post’s Style section.