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  •   1920-1930
    The Gin Before the Storm

    Third in a series

         '20s illustration
    (By Paul Cox for The Washington Post)
    By Henry Allen
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, September 22, 1999;
    Page C1

    Assume, for a moment, the existence of a beautiful young wife sitting alone under a Japanese lantern on a country club porch.

    Her name is Joan. She is a little tight. She has just decided not to launch a smoke ring of gratuitous contempt toward the next table, which has elected, at this late hour, to play mah-jongg.

    Inside, an orchestra plays – the Clicquot Club Eskimos, the ones who are on the radio. They play "I Want to Be Loved by You," a song made unavoidable by Helen Kane, the boop-oop-a-doop girl.

    Joan sings along.

    "Just you, and nobody else but you ... "

    "Pung!" says a woman named Violet at the mah-jongg table. "Or am I supposed to say 'Chow'?"

    She turns and aims her cigarette holder at Joan.

    "Where's the divine George?" she asks.

    "Off in the men's grill, cornering the market in something," Joan says.

    "I saw him talking oh-so-quietly on the phone."

    "Don't be a cat, Violet. I've told him he can have all the girlfriends he wants, but he's so old-fashioned he doesn't want any."

    I wanna be loved by you, just you ...

    We're all boop-oop-a-doop girls now, Joan thinks. Even the girls back home in Ohio. They learn their manners from radio, magazines and movies: Flapper slang like "scram" and "lounge lizard," so people will say, "She's got a good line." Cute pouts. Cocked heads. Slouched shoulders. The open-mouthed kiss as performed by Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Shocking. Therefore modern. Or is it the other way around?

    Modernity, in any case, seems to grant the right to invent yourself. Bob your hair, raise your hems, roll down your stockings, paint your lips, do the Charleston and you're changed in a moment, the twinkling of a kohl-rimmed eye.

    ... you-oo-oo, boop-oop-a-doop.

    Fireflies lilt over the 18th fairway. Joan remembers fireflies on nights when she and her mother knitted sweaters for the boys fighting in France. What good did any of it do anyone – the war, the sweaters ...

    Back then, the place to be was the Army, making the world safe for democracy.Now it's a country club porch, drinking bootleg hooch, listening to jazz and being disillusioned. Who wouldn't be after the chaos in Europe and the strikes and bombs and Red Scare here, and the horrible Ku Klux Klan with its parades and lynchings? And the hypocrisy of Prohibition: Al Capone, with his army of bootleggers, is a bigger hero than the president. People get their souls saved by preachers you see in the tabloids, an ex-baseball player named Billy Sunday, and Aimee Semple McPherson, who pulled that stunt about being kidnapped.

    An Eskimo sings through a megaphone: "In the morning, in the evening, ain't we got fun?" A chorus of banjos answers yes, oh yes.

    Having fun might not seem such a duty back in Ohio, Joan thinks. Do people still have fun in Ohio? The farmers get poorer, the preachers rail about Darwin and evolution, and the Rotary Club is full of men going prematurely everything – bald, fat, sexless, smug. They build Kozy Kabin Motor Kourts. They recite lines from Bruce Barton's book "The Man Nobody Knows," about Jesus as the "founder of modern business" because he understood the concept of "service."

    Charles Lindbergh exemplified the manliness and almost-mythological heroism of the decade. (Smithsonian Institution)
    If only Jesus could service their Buick so it started in the rain.

    If only George would buy her a Jordan roadster so she could be the girl in the advertisement, racing against a cowboy who whips his horse with his hat.

    "Somewhere west of Laramie," the ad says, there's a car that's "built for the lass whose face is brown with the sun when the day is done of revel and romp and race. She loves the cross of the wild and the tame . ... " Yes: a car where she could feel reinvented every time she got into it.

    But no. George drives a Buick. Puts every cent into the market. He's working on his second million.

    He gets reinvented by reading the stock tables at breakfast. He's a self-made man. His life is an endless self-improvement course. He gargles Listerine to prevent halitosis. He reads books like "Masterful Personality," by Orison Swett Marden. He recites the words of Emile Coue: "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better." Strange how people act now as if they all need to be cured of something. Sexual repression. Boredom. Idealism. Cynicism.

    The Eskimos play the Charleston. Naked shoulders, pigeon toes and knock-knees flail away in dresses that hang from the shoulders instead of rising from the waist like the dresses her mother still wears. Her mother taught her that beauty was grace and presence. Now it's drape and cuteness.

    Men are cute, too. They have shiny hair and they chop away at the floor with their shiny shoes. They wear tuxedos. All men do now, even gangsters at those incredible funerals with tons of flowers.

    Joan watches George stride across the ballroom in his tuxedo. Who was he talking to on the phone?

    He shoots his jaw and looks manly, as if he were posing for an Arrow Collar ad. Not manly like Teddy Roosevelt, with big belly and bluffness. Manly like fighter pilots in the Great War, all angular youth. Mayor Jimmy Walker with New York showgirls on his arm. Ernest Hemingway sitting in a Paris cafe being ironic.

    "A bunch of journalists and critics and that crowd have crashed the party," George announces.

    "Sit down, darling, before everybody starts listening to you. What crowd?"

    "Oh, those people who write about how this country is savage and ignorant and then they put up sculptures that look like airplane propellers."

    "Shhh," she says. "They're sitting two tables down, saying how there are no more morals because Einstein proved everything was relative."

    "I'm not talking about Einstein," George says.

    "Is that H.L. Mencken with the cigar? He just said something about the 'drivel of idealism.' "

    "You're not listening to me."

    "I'm a little tight," says Joan. "Your bootlegger forgot to water the Scotch."

    "There was this couple out there in a Pierce-Arrow," George says. "In the back seat. Right there in the Piping Hills Country Club driveway. Like animals."

    "That's what you don't understand," says Joan. "We aren't like animals, we are animals."

    "That's that Freud bunk again," George says. "And the anthropologists too, Margaret Mead talking about free love in Samoa."

    "Margaret Mead doesn't say we're animals," she says. Oh, nuts to George. He won't answer anyway. He's being patient but firm, the way his father taught him to be with women, back when women didn't drive Jordan roadsters and get tight. My, she's tight.

    "I'm feeling a bit ossified," Joan says. "I need to move around."

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