Heroines of the Jazz Age

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, March 28, 2006


A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern

By Joshua Zeitz

Crown. 338 pp. $24.95

The flapper is as dead and gone as bathtub gin, Texas Guinan, the tin lizzie and all the other oddities of the 1920s. In fact, most people today under the age of 50 probably need to have "flapper" defined for them. Here's how Joshua Zeitz does just that: She was "the New Woman of the 1920s [who] boldly asserted her right to dance, drink, smoke, and date -- to work, to own her own property, to live free of the strictures that governed her mother's generation." She "experimented openly with sex," but:

"The history of the flapper isn't just about America's first sexual revolution, though certainly the New Woman of the 1920s represented a dramatic break with traditional American values and ethics. Indeed, the flapper's importance ranged far beyond the bedroom or the dance hall. Her story is the story of America in the 1920s -- the first 'modern' decade, when everyday life came under the full sway of mass media, celebrity, and consumerism, when public rights gave way to private entitlements, and when people as far and wide as Muncie, Indiana, and Somerset, Pennsylvania, came to share a national standard of tastes and habits."

All of which is true, but it needs to be emphasized -- far more strongly than Zeitz does -- that the flapper was strictly white. In passing, Zeitz devotes a couple of pages to the racism that characterized white America in the 1920s ("White Americans were citizens. Black Americans weren't") and the ways in which advertising and commercial cultures reinforced black stereotypes ("Aunt Jemima, the Gold Dust Twins, and the Cream of Wheat Uncle"), but there's more to the story than that. Though Zeitz, who teaches history at the University of Cambridge, gives due emphasis to various influences that helped produce the flapper -- Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Prohibition, Coco Chanel, the movies -- he almost completely ignores music, which may well have had a greater influence than anything else.

The music of the 1920s was jazz, and it was black. To be sure, the best black music of the period invariably was covered by white musicians who got the most money and publicity, but the beat that drove the decade was African American. Beyond that, though the flapper certainly was white (as portrayed in newspapers, magazines, advertisements and the movies), a parallel social and sexual awakening was taking place among black women. To say this is not to gesture toward the multicultural pieties of the present day but a simple statement of fact; as a result, Zeitz has told only part of the tale, and one does well to bear that in mind while following his narrative.

Zeitz is right, though, to insist that while the flapper was strictly a creature of her own decade who vanished into the darker realities of the 1930s, her influence was significant and remains highly visible. The "sexual and romantic revolutions in which the flapper was a starring player never really subsided," the "vast change in morals and manners . . . continued in the cold war years to undermine the already shaky basis of Victorian-era morality," the "curious cycle of celebrity and style" continues unabated and much accelerated. To say that the flapper initiated all of this would be oversimplification, but she was indeed a very important player.

Today's reader can scarcely grasp the rigidity of the social and sexual order against which the flapper rebelled. A friend of Zelda Fitzgerald described the "axioms of Victorian etiquette" in which their mothers had been drilled: "No lady ever sits with her limbs crossed (and limbs it was; legs was still a four-letter word); no lady ever lets her back touch the back of a chair; no lady ever goes out without a clean linen handkerchief in her purse; no lady ever leaves the house until the last button on her gloves is fastened; no lady ever lets her bare foot touch the bare floor, and so forth." And, of course, no lady ever permits a person of the opposite sex to touch her where she should not be touched, much less permits him to take his amatory advances to their logical conclusion.

The flapper changed all that. She tossed her corset into the trash, bobbed her hair, wrapped herself in the androgynous style pioneered by Chanel, drank in bars and smoked in public, went to work in an office and swore with all the guys, and just generally behaved in ways calculated to drive her elders stark, raving bonkers. What Zeitz says of Zelda Fitzgerald was equally true of all flappers: "She belonged to the first generation of Americans who were raised on advertisements and amusements rather than religion and restraint. They rejected many Victorian-era values and redefined the pursuit of pleasure as a noble goal unto itself."

Zeitz claims that the Jazz Age in which the flapper was so prominent "began in July 1918 on a warm and sultry evening in Montgomery, Alabama" when "a strikingly beautiful woman named Zelda Sayre sauntered onto the clubhouse veranda and caught the eye of First Lieutenant Francis Scott Fitzgerald." This borders on poppycock, but it is true that Fitzgerald was the period's most notable chronicler (his second collection of short stories was called "Tales of the Jazz Age") and that after he and Zelda married they became, in the eyes of many, the couple who defined the decade: "Young, handsome, exuberant, and risque, they seemed to embody the confident spirit of the postwar era. Lillian Gish, the silent screen star, once claimed that the Fitzgeralds 'didn't make the twenties; they were the twenties.' "

Of course, Scott ended up a battered alcoholic and Zelda's last stop was a mental institution, and one can draw any number of conclusions and morals from that, but it was indeed their "good fortune to come of age in a country that was increasingly in the thrall of celebrity." That the celebrities in this case were a writer and his wife will seem positively astonishing in the America of the early 21st century, but eight decades ago -- a time when mass-circulation magazines were an important source of entertainment -- writers enjoyed an eclat they have long since lost. That the example of Zelda Fitzgerald inspired many young women to take up the flapper's garb and behavior seems entirely reasonable.

Zeitz is right to call the 1920s the decade when "modern" America began to take shape: when an "information revolution" brought news and advertising to the mass audience, when the movies established and popularized whole new standards of everything from female beauty to sophisticated behavior, when a nation that had hoped to elevate its morals through Prohibition found them instead permanently corrupted. The world we live in now started to take shape then, and the flapper played an important role. The young women of 2006 who wear smart business suits to work, listen to iPods on the subway, drink fancy martinis after hours and insist that their sexual behavior is entirely their own business are the lineal descendants of the flapper, even if none of them has ever heard the word.

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