YOU'D ASK YOUR MOTHER, "What was it like in the olden days?"
Not the cavalcade of treaties and earthquakes, the history book stuff, but what it felt like to be alive then.
How could she explain . . . the dusty heat of '50s television sets . . . men who whistled (with trills) and wore hats tipped to one side and got killed in wars . . . the champagne disenchantment of the '20s . . . what it felt like . . .
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."
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. Whom 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."
With the airy precision of a woman determined not to stumble in her high heels, she ambles to the porch rail, where the beautiful firefly darkness begins.
"Are you all right?"
" 'My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night,' " she says cheerfully. "Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote that. She went to Vassar like me. You know what they say about Vassar girls."
"Not my Vassar girl."
"I see a crusade for us, George," Joan says. "Yes, let's go be missionaries to flappers and flaming youth. Maybe we can save them from the Algonquin Round Table and Louis Armstrong and flagpole sitters and intellectuals making fun of the booboisie, and, well, everything."
Joan sees George is afraid she's about to make a scene. Well, why not make one, then?
"Who were you talking to on the telephone?" she pleads. "Please, George, tell me it was your girlfriend, a chorus girl named Vilma in a cold-water flat in Greenwich Village, and she's threatening to send your letters to the tabloids."
"It was that damn bootlegger," George says, patient but firm. "He wants me to settle up. Thinks the market is going to crash."
"It isn't, though," Joan says. "Everybody says it isn't."
"Except my bootlegger," George says.
Oh, well. What a beautiful night. Fireflies. The smell of cut grass. The smell of money. What more could you ask? But it's all so sad, somehow. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald saying: "All Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken."
She blows a smoke ring into the darkness. She notices the journalists don't quite listen to each other--they're too busy concocting their next quip. She suspects they're famous, but maybe they're just acting famous the way journalists do. Is that Harold Ross, the editor who said the New Yorker wouldn't be edited for "the little old lady from Dubuque"?
Joan watches a man raise large, confident lids over large, confident eyes. Walter Lippmann? With the authority of a man who seems to speak directly from his forehead, whoever-it-is offers an opinion:
"What most distinguishes the generation who have approached maturity since the debacle of idealism at the end of the war is not their rebellion against the religion and the moral code of their parents, but their disillusionment with their own rebellion."
"Boop-oop-a-doop," Joan says, with the startling loudness of a hiccup. Lippmann looks at her and leans back in his chair.
Leaning is the correct posture now. Flappers in unbuckled galoshes leaning against roadsters, Will Rogers standing onstage in that cowboy slouch with all his weight on one hip. As if people had listened to so much jazz they'd become personally syncopated. She thought about an Edward Steichen picture of Rudolph Valentino leaning about 17 degrees off vertical, with one hand in a pocket and the other holding a cigarette. Yes. Somehow leaning explained everything.
Better tell the journalists about it. Her duty, really. Like telling firemen about a fire.
"I've figured it out," she says. "You should write about it, you people. Here it is: This is an era in history when everybody seems to be leaning."
Eyebrows rise. Jaws drop.
"Leaning," she says. "Like the Prince of Wales with his Navy hat cocked over one eye, or all of you slouched down in your chairs. You can't imagine Teddy Roosevelt leaning . . ."
"She's right!" someone shouts.
"No," someone else says. "This is the era of flatness. All these women in dresses that look better on hangers. Flat chests. Flat hips. Everybody looking down at the Earth from airplanes and seeing that it's flat, flat, flat. Paintings as flat as the hieroglyphics on King Tut's tomb."
"Teddy Roosevelt was round," Joan says. "Fred Astaire is flat. Flat as a paper doll."
She feels hands on her elbows.
"Joan," says George.
She turns and kisses his cheek for the benefit of the journalists. "Am I making a fool of myself?"
"I'll tell you what everything is," George says. "I know I'm the capitalist sort you fellows make fun of, but everything wrong with this country can be summed up in two words: flagpole sitters."
"Oh, darling, how wonderful!" Joan says. "You're tight, too."
"I'm serious. Shipwreck Kelly sits on top of a pole for a few weeks doing nothing but sitting there and now he's famous. He's just famous for being there, is all. Like Texas Guinan gets famous for running speakeasies and saying 'Hello, sucker.' Or these athletes--the last time I heard, baseball was a team sport, but now all you hear about is Babe Ruth. Charles Lindbergh is a god now. For what? People have been flying across the Atlantic for years. But New York drops a ton of ticker tape and torn-up phone books on him because he did it alone and he's so damned good-looking. He just took his flagpole from New York to Paris."
"You can't make fun of Lindbergh," someone says. "I think there's a law against it."
"How about Coolidge?" someone snaps at George. "There's a flagpole sitter for you. Saying 'the business of America is business.' That's like saying the president of the United States is president."
They're starting to make fun of him, Joan thinks. She wants to protect him--there's something doomed and noble about his Republican earnestness. She considers blowing a smoke ring at the journalists but a breeze has come up. A cool breeze, just cool enough to make everyone on the porch seem stranded.
"I'm chilly," Joan says. "Do you know where I left my wrap?"
They escape. As they walk down the drive to their Buick, the club drifts away behind them like a cruise ship. The lovers' Pierce-Arrow has a flat tire, she notices. The lovers are gone.
"What would it mean if the stock market crashed and didn't come back?" Joan asks. "We'd have to live in a little house with only one servant and you'd have to get a job where you had to do something real, invent fire hydrants or something. We complain now that we're bored, but we'd be terribly nostalgic for these times, wouldn't we? We'd teach our children to be nostalgic, too. And they'd teach their children. America will be nostalgic for these days forever. Except it will be like a lost chord--nobody will be able to figure out how we made meaninglessness seem so meaningful. And the thing is, if you can figure that out, what else do you need?"
"A good market," George says. "Just till the end of the year. I'm getting out in 1930. I promise."
"Will you buy me a Jordan roadster then and make love to me in it? Right here at the Piping Hills Country Club? Just me and nobody else but me?"
With the immense delight of a dull man getting off a good line, George puts his arm around Joan and says: "Boop-oop-a-doop."
CAPTION: The modern woman and modern mores found expression in Margaret Gorman, Miss America 1921, right, and in the open-mouthed kiss of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in "Flesh and the Devil." Babe Ruth helped create the cult of the sports superstar. Panicked investors thronged Wall Street as the decade ended on a somber note with the stock market crash of 1929.
CAPTION: Manliness, music and almost-mythological heroism, 1920s style, found a wide range of embodiment, from bootlegger Al Capone to trumpeter Louis Armstrong, from wholesome aviator Charles Lindbergh to New York Mayor Jimmy Walker.