Jazz Age Tales

They Were So Fabulous: The Flapper Generation in Two New Books

They danced all night, drank non-stop, ran naked through the streets, slept with whomever they wanted to—meet the Fitzgeralds and the Flappers. Two new books make you earn for their parties and explore the origins of The Great Gatsby writes Lucy Scholes.


In June 1922, an article in the New York Times denounced the popular new gatherings known as “cocktail parties,” at which, due to the numbers of “inebriate” members of both sexes, “animosities develop, quarrels arise, and not infrequently the end of the ‘party’ is some sorry form of the tragical. Somebody gets shot or stabbed, or private disgraces become public because of a death over which the Coroner’s jury ponder long in an effort to determine whether it was ‘natural’ or a murder.” The king and queen of the cocktail party were F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, and Scott’s infamous Jazz Age novel The Great Gatsby was the biggest party of them all, with the most tragic of endings.

The Fitzgeralds arrived in New York in the early autumn of 1922—after a rocky start working as an ad man in his bachelor days, Scott was finally making headway as a celebrated author. They checked into the Plaza and began partying, not even sobering up to go house hunting, but then what was the point, they weren’t going to be sober while they lived there. Zelda was an incorrigible flirt when drunk and she also had a habit of taking her clothes off and dancing naked in fountains or parading down railway tracks. Scott, although less of an exhibitionist, was equally out of control. In December of the same year the couple’s ‘house rules’ for weekend guests at their home in Great Neck, Long Island included a polite directive “not to break down doors in search of liquor, even when authorized to do so by their host and hostess,” and warned that “the invitation to stay over Monday, issued by the host and hostess during the small hours of Sunday morning, must not be taken seriously.” They needed the occasional sober Monday, if only to write the letters of apology they constantly had to send excusing their drunken antics and bad behavior, but in many ways the Fitzgeralds could do no wrong. They were young, beautiful—Dorothy Parker described them as looking “as though they had stepped out of the sun”—and fast. In a complex case of life imitating art, and vice versa, they both typified and immortalized the Jazz Age—their extravagant lifestyle funded by the handsome payments Scott received from the magazines that published his flapper fictions and the publishers who bought his novels. That he plundered his and Zelda’s lives for his work is old news, so too is the fact that he’s widely acknowledged as the chronicler of the period, but in her new study of the Jazz Age couple, the Jazz Age novel, and the historical moment, American-born, British-based academic Sarah Churchwell proves herself a master mixologist combining meticulously researched historical detail, equally tantalizing biographical tidbits and a subtle reading of Gatsby—the resulting cocktail is an intoxicating biography of a novel.

Fitzgerald lived grandly and he wrote grandly—he wrote Gatsby with every intention of it being his masterpiece—although he began writing it while living in Great Neck (famously fictionalized as ‘West Egg’ in the book) in the summer of 1923, progress was slow due to the pull of other writing and incessant partying. It was only after he and Zelda found a modicum of calm in France the following spring that he was able to begin work in earnest, and the novel was published in April 1925. Gatsby is set in the summer through autumn of 1922, a year, Churchwell reminds us, that is canonically significant—“the annus mirabilis of literary modernism”, loudly proclaimed to be “Year One” of a new literary epoch by Ezra Pound, heralded by the publication of both James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ — but also personally so for Fitzgerald. Cloistered away on the other side of the Atlantic, Fitzgerald drew on his memories of his and Zelda’s salad days of two years ago, the wild eighteen months they spent in Great Neck. So it’s to 1922 that Churchwell turns—to the parties the Fitzgeralds hosted and attended, to the people they spent time with, to the details of the world they inhabited, and, most instructively, to the stories in the newspapers they read—and one in particular. In September 1922, the Reverend Hall of New Brunswick, New Jersey and his lover Mrs. Eleanor Mills were found murdered—both shot through the head then their corpses arranged in a gruesome tableau under a crab-apple tree, their love letters artistically scattered around them. There are enough echoes between this real-life affair and murder mystery (police bungling saw that the case was never solved) and the relationship between Tom Buchanan and Myrtle in Gatsby, not to mention proof that Fitzgerald (like most of America’s news reading public) was following the increasingly convoluted trial, for Churchwell to devote a substantial amount of her book to its coverage.

Those involved in the Hall/Mills murder trial quickly ascended to the ranks of household names, indeed, when asked during one newspaper interview for a list of famous couples he admired, Fitzgerald named one of the case’s most notorious yet distinctly unreliable key witnesses whose increasingly wild stories about what she saw that fateful night had catapulted her into the limelight, Mrs. Gibson, commonly known as “the pig lady”, and her mule Jenny (who she’d been out riding the night in question). Though of course, the most legendary “celebrities” of them all were Scott and Zelda themselves, “in the Sunday supplement sense of the word,” according to Scott’s friend and fellow writer John Dos Passos, and “they loved it.”

So too, celebrity and notoriety go hand-in-hand in Judith Mackrell’s multiple biography Flappers: Women of a Dangerous Generation, an examination of the period through the prism of six infamous flappers: the aristocratic Lady Diana Cooper who married beneath her status and became the breadwinner in the relationship; the African-American dancer and siren Josephine Baker; English heiress turned Left Bank radical Nancy Cunard; the Polish-Russian artist Tamara de Lempicka; Tallulah Bankhead, the beautiful American actress; and, of course, Zelda Fitzgerald. Interviewed (by her own husband) on the subject of flappers in a Louisville paper in 1923, Zelda declares them, “reckless and unconventional, because of their quest in search of self-expression.” The “reckless” element can be seen long through the 1920s in the antics of the infamous Bright Young Things immortalized in Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel of the same name. But, as Mackrell points out, these “shrieking baby flappers and the exquisite drawling boys” were little more than “bored children […] indulging in nursery-room naughtiness with their treasure hunts, fancy dress parties and car races”, they’re no match for the women who blazed the way before them. Mackrell’s flappers lived and breathed a bohemian freedom that genuinely shook the establishment; their “quests in search of self-expression” broke all the rules.

Seventeen-year-old Tallulah was famous for her witty quips—“My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned women and cocaine”—shocking New York with the introduction, “I’m a lesbian, what do you do?”, but by the late 20s London’s Scotland Yard had a file damning her as a “sexual pervert” that seriously curtailed her visits to the UK. So too Tamara slept with both men and women, often trawling the brothels of Paris late into the night in search of one sexual adventure after another, desperate to be judged by the same standards as the men around her, the avant-garde painters of Paris who took mistresses and lived how they chose. She “believed it was her right, even her duty, to claim the same freedom.” Nancy’s sex life was also something that set her apart from the rest—she had a long list of lovers, shocking enough for the age, one of whom was even a black jazz pianist from Georgia. Although Paris was more liberal than most cities—indeed, many black soldiers who’d served in the war in Europe decided to remain in the French capital after the armistice rather than return to the institutionalized racism of America—the cabaret acts that made Josephine Baker a star depended on the presentation of the “Black Venus” as the exotic, primal “other.” Even so, of all of Mackrell’s flappers, it’s perhaps Baker who forges ahead the furthest, as by the end of her life she’d achieved an astonishing transformation from American street urchin to French national heroine and patriot, while so many of her other subjects blazed gloriously when they were young but burnt out fast. But each of these women broke new ground, even the least scandalous of them all, Diana, who flaunted the conventions of the age and the rigidity of the British aristocracy by earning her and her husband’s keep working as an actress, a profession then seen by many as only one step up from prostitution. Although her structure is less avant-garde than Churchwell’s, Mackrell’s study is no less engaging or enticingly written. Casting new spotlights on familiar faces, both books bring the Technicolor twenties to life in all their gaudy excess and extravagance.