MY AUNT MONNIE may not have been a prototype of the Twenties, but that's the way I remember her. The long cigarette holder held at a jaunty angle, the dramatic gestures bespeaking a certain crisp assurance, the clothing, loose and flowing and decorated with long strands of pearls, were as much a part of her times as they were her own. "I'd rather be dead than out of style," she'd say, with a kind of ironic and slyly self-deprecating air.
What she really seemed to be saying, as she would strike her poses, a bit daringly and defiantly, was, "There. Look at me. I'm different."
She was from the South originally, but had come to New York in 1925 in time to be jostled and shaken in the ticker-tape parade for Lindbergh up Broadway, to go to the Cotton Club in Harlem and the speakeasies on the East Side in Midtown, and to dispense bathtub gin at the Murray HIll Saturday night parties. She was a New Yorker and totally modern.
Now that's not the heavy, significant historical view, but it's at least as good a way as any other to start looking at the Twenties. After all, it's our personal attitudes about the remembered past that count - what we think we knew and felt, how deeply we believed we loved and lost, what pains we took to preserve and treasure our vanished moments, wrapped in fading or false memories. Despite how much we seem to want to invest our decades with distinctive identities, uniquely standing apart like enduring sphinxes built on sands of time, they aren't really all that different. We just want them to be. And, for Americans particularly, we work at creating them as special cleavages in time. We even give them names, along with myths to make them special. The Twenties were Roaring. They were the Era of Wonderful Nonsense. They were the Jazz Age.
I should say that although I'm literally a child of the Thirties, born after the great bull market had gone bust ("Wall Street Lays an Egg," the famous headline in Variety read), it was the Twenties that shaped me.
My father was also a Southerner who journeyed North to Manhattan. He would speak of coming of age in college when everyone, supposedly, carried a flask of gin in one back pocket and a copy of H.L. Mencken's The American Mercury in another, when irreverence and iconoclasm reigned, when talent flowered in extraordinary profusion, when youth led a breathtaking rebellion against the old manners and morals. It all seemed terribly romantic - a great, gaudy period of experimentation and promise that culminated in a tragic, spectacular crash. Sad? On yes, it had to be that to assure the romance, you see. Sad and lost, that was the self-conscious theme: The Lost Generation, celebrated in story and song, and coming to a predictably melancholy end.
There'd be an orchestra
Playing for us
To dance the tango,
And people would clap
When we arose,
At her sweet face
And my new clothes.
Scott Fitzgerald's lines. He was only 24 when This Side of Paradise was published. The year was 1920, the book became a Bible for "Flaming Youth," to put it in the headline writers' lingo. As the contemporary history Mark Sullivan writes, that book "had the distinction, if not of creating a generation, certainly of calling the world's attention to a generation." Fitzgerald's hero was a young man of great beauty and sensitivity who found himself facing a postwar period in which, as he said, all gods are dead, all wars fought, and all faiths in man shaken. Echoes of these words would ring throughout the decade.
Seemed romantic. That's the problem, because now, in a hard retrospective look, something else stands out amid the shadows of that past.
The first sense is one of shock. How primitive everything appears. As the decade began, the America of 105 million persons was still far more rural than urban. Women could not vote. Working conditions remained appalling. Racial and religious hatreds were taken for granted. You couldn't legally buy a drink, or a bottle of alcohol, anywhere in the land. There were no talking pictures or television. Indeed, there was not even a single radio broadcasting station. Nine out of ten cars had no tops: they were open touring cars, as they were then called. But the idea of touring by autombile was a misnomer. There were hardly any concrete roads, and the average speed limit was twenty miles an hour. If you lived in Illinois, and many other places, it was less: fifteen miles in the "residential" areas (we didn't speak of suburbs) and ten in the "built-up" sections. If you were going around a curve, a cop could get you if you went over six miles an hour. The airplane, that flimsy thing held together by baling wire, was for stunt pilots: there were no commercial routes. Smoking was practiced, but it was distinctly bad form if you were a "young lady." For older women it was unthinkable.
Just to complete the picture, consider the world into which the new President had been born. When Warren Harding was born at the end of the Civil War, the only sources of power available to humans - other than their own muscles and beasts of burden - had been the wind, falling water, and steam. And the steam engine was still crude. There had been no gas power, no oil power. The first oil well itself had been drilled only six years before.
Yet what suprises about the Twenties as they developed is how strangely contemporary that decade now appears. Contemporary, that is, as distinguished from what had gone before.
So it was more than myth, after all. It's just that the myth wasn't so romantic.
Forget, for a moment, the foolish artificial boundaries of the decades, and still you come back to this: no sharper line has been drawn in our experience than that between the ending of World War I and the ushering in of the Twenties. And for good reason. We were truly moving irrevocably into something new. The driving engine, of course, had been the war - the Great War, everyone termed it - which had left behind a staggering set of statistics: 65 million under arms, 8.5 million slain, 21 million wounded, with old values and nations torn apart. America did not escape. We sent more than 2 million soldiers overseas, and we didn't come back the same. Soldiers never do; but American soldiers had always fought their wars on their own soil before. Now, they were part of an utterly alien scene. it was as if the war, terrible as it was, with its relentless advances in technology, harnessed our energies and then freed them.It made us look beyond our immediate sleves, and set us on a path from which we have never turned back.
"How are you going to keep them down on the farm?" was the way Tin Pan Alley popularized the question. The answer was we couldn't, and didn't.
Movement, speed, acceleration - faster, faster, faster - these were the hallmarks. Old conventions had been broken. A hunger existed for new tastes, sights, sounds - and new gadgets to experience them. Before the decade was out the number of automobiles in service had risen from fewer than 7 million to more than 23 million. National radio broadcasts joined farm and town, city and state, as nothing before. Everyone listened . . . to national conventions . . . to Charleston contests . . . to football games . . . to the World Series. It was the national craze: radio sales in America reached nearly $900 million in 1929.
Tenement roofs were covered with forests of antenas. Television was in the wings: the first public TV trial came toward the end of the Twenties, with the President himself participating. It was the same with the movies. They talked in the Twenties - and drew millions.
The issues themselves have a familiar ring: inflation, the role of women (they were voting and asking for greater independence), sexual freedom, political corruption extending into the White House and Congress (Harding and Teapot Dome), violent crime (the rise of the mobsters and the Leopold-Loeb case), and the influence of the new mass media (the tabloids, the front page, and broadcasting). The art of ballyhoo - we now call it "hype" - was perfected. With it, we could sell anything by mass marketing ("Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet"). We could also manufacture giants.Sports stars became super heroes: Ruth, Dempsey, Grange, Tilden, Jones.
But in no way was it all wonderful nonsense. Always beneath the surface, and often breaking through, were the old problems of poverty, class and race. The Ku Klux Klan was on the rise, in fearsome proportions, and barbarities were committed. There was, too, the clash of ideologies, often violent: the Red Scare, political persecution, Sacco and Vanzetti. And something else - an underlying pervasive cynicism about public issues and public life.
The point is not how naive that flippant sarcastic tone seems now - the "Oh, yeah," "Sez, you," kinds of remarks - but how fashionable it was to believe you can't fight City Hall. Along with the craze for heroes, we even glorified gangsters. "Scarface Al" Capone of Chicago, as he was romanticized, was certainly as much a part of popular lore as "Silent Cla" Coolidge in the White House.
Still, a decade that produced such real talent as the novelists Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Wolfe, the critics Edmund Wilson and Mencken, the poets Cummings, Eliot, Benet, Millay, the playwright O'Neill, the musicians Gershwin and Whiteman can't be all bad.
It was energy, I submit, energy unleashed, for good and ill: Einstein won the Nobel prize as his discoveries laid the foundations for the atomic bomb, the crumbling old societies in Europe threw up men like Stalin and Hitler to lead the new isms, communism and fascism. And that other great "ism" - capitalism - cracked and plummeted the world into a great economic depression. If the Twenties were a coming of age, they also were an end to innocence. But the energy remained.
My Aunt Monnie became a dress buyer. She would sweep in and out the clothing establishments in the garment district and theatrically pick the latest fashions for the great department stores. As a boy, I relished accompanying her on those rounds. She was remarkably brisk walker. "Come on, Sprout," she would say, "you've got to go fast to keep up with me." I've been trying ever since, but I'm not so sure now that a fast pace is always the best course. Age, you know. It changes everything, even the way we look at decades.