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Flappers, by Judith Mackrell - review

15 June 2013

9:00 AM

15 June 2013

9:00 AM

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation Judith Mackrell

Macmillan, pp.488, £20

I’m never quite sure what the term ‘flappers’ means. How did these creatures flap, and why? Where did they flap? Did they flap all day, or only at night? Were theyin a flap, or being flapped, sad-flaps or flap-happy? Did they open flaps, or close them? Did they flap Jacks, or flip Jills, or both?

Reference books don’t help much. The OED says the word means a fly-killer, and you really don’t want to know the Dictionary of Slang’s definitions. So what was, in the accepted vo-deyo-do-ing, headache-band-browed, fancy-dress costume and Baz Luhrmanesque image, a ‘flapper’?

One might assume that in this substantial, erudite and detailed, but oddly humour-free book, Judith Mackrell would set out to enlighten us. But instead she focuses on six women, each renowned in their own way, ‘of a dangerous generation’, as her subtitle has it. The 1920s were essentially their early adult years, but surely that decade was less dangerous than the one before it, or those to come?

Like the relieving interval in some interminable opera, the author breaks her subjects’ stories into two five-year chunks apiece, in which each one’s life (practically day by day), parents, affairs, marriages, correspondence and thoughts are delved into in lengthiest detail, fleshed out by what we already know of them through several biographies, not to mention memoirs and autobiographies.

Admittedly these women were headstrong, original and groundbreaking — I fear the word ‘empowered’ lurks somewhere in Mackrell’s prose — but she somewhat arbitrarily pins the badge of flapper onto some really rather serious lapels. I mean, Diana Cooper, most unrufflable of characters, a flapper? Or the deeply, darkly, socially-conscious Nancy Cunard?

Nor, surely, did the term apply to Zelda, one half of the most irritating — pace their literary output — couples of the time. What with the Fitz-geralds’ falling out with each other and falling into bed with everyone else, their droning rows, their drinking bouts, their flocking to fashionable faces and places, there was little time for Zelda to flap, though plenty for self-dramatisation.

The book’s cover-girl, Josephine Baker, sleek in a slippery silken negligée at the Folies Bergère, was more famously near-naked in that bouncy banana kilt (suggested by Jean Cocteau — ‘on you’, he told her with typical irony, ‘it will look very dressy’). She moved with such lithe, wild-creature-like grace that both philosophers and playwrights agreed that she ceased to be merely erotic but ‘clothed in unselfconscious dignity’. When she did dance in all those feathers, it was on-stage at the Casino, though as the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet Flanner observed, ‘on that lovely animal visage now lies a sad look, not of captivity, but of dawning intelligence’. Off-stage, she was far too busy to flap, learning the lingo of her pays d’adoption (‘at first she couldn’t even speak American’, said her nightclub-owning rival, Bricktop) and later adopting a Baker’s dozen of orphans from other, far-flung, pays.

Less dignified was Tamara de Lempicka, a somewhat lumpen Russian refugee with a small talent for painting large, glossy, cubist portraits. Tamara dutifully studied with minor modern masters until a failing marriage and an obsession with glamour led her into the first of many lesbian affairs in the sapphic circle round Natalie Barney; eventually, scoring nul points in Gertrude Stein’s flapper-free salon, she had a go at the tiny, and probably gay, Risorgimento poet and tyrant, Gabriele D’Annuncio.

Of the six, one could make the most convincing case for Tallulah Bankhead being a sort of flapper, though that most rewardingly sophisticated of stars would never have been so banal as to fling strings of pearls over her shoulders while black-bottoming in satin kitten heels, like Clara Bow, Hollywood’s echt flapper — who does rate a passing mention. But Joan Crawford, who, while making her youthful fame and fortune dancing a frantic charleston on flickering celluloid, particularly in Our Dancing Daughters, and famously knickerless, rates none.

Incidentally, films of people doing the charleston are usually speeded up. Originally it was danced quite slowly, and often cheek-to-cheek, so perhaps our dancing aunties were not such lively hoofers as we fondly picture them.

Anyway, there’s hardly a hint of liveliness in these deathless pages, and despite its title, as a guide to the ‘It-girls’ of so many decades ago, the book falls all a bit — well — flap.

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