Before the Crash

Though it’s too soon to tell whether or not the twenties of the aughts will be roaring — our interest in the original decade shows no sign of waning. Director Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, released last year, prompted a resurgence in “flapper style” weddings and celebrations despite Gatsby’s nature as a cautionary tale.  

Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People approaches the era with the same trepidation, taking its title from Nick’s condemnation at the end of The Great Gatsby: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures then retreated back into their money or vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together.” And though Churchwell claims in her introduction that Fitzgerald was inspired specifically by a real-life double-murder in 1922, Careless People is, in actuality, a passionate close-read that tracks nearly all of Fitzgerald’s activities and influences, down to every gin-soaked weekend leading up to the publication of his masterpiece.

Inside this book the reader will discover that words like extrovert (1918), teenage (1921), motherfucker (1918), and many more were all creations of the Jazz Age. Additionally, “Jordan” was the name of a popular brand of cars in the early 1920s, perhaps the namesake for Daisy’s golfer friend. Unbelievably, swastikas were displayed on a fleet of cabs in New York in 1922, as their owner, a former bootlegger, considered them a good-luck charm. But of course, as Churchwell points out, the swastika had yet to be appropriated by Hitler, just as Nick’s description of the “holocaust,” at the end of the novel after Gatsby’s murder, meant “sacrifice” rather than genocide.

Occasionally, Churchwell goes a bit far in her speculation of Fitzgerald’s intentions. Describing the scene when Daisy exclaims over Gatsby’s beautiful shirts, Churchwell writes that as Fitzgerald was working on the book at “the Hôtel des Princes in Rome, he certainly knew that Jay Gatsby’s chromatic array of bright shirts provided a marked contrast to the Black Shirts in control of the city.” Maybe. Maybe not. That said, one would be hard-pressed to find a book more dedicated to pursuing every detail behind the creation of this classic novel.

Unsurprisingly, Zelda Fitzgerald plays a large part in Careless People, and she’s one of only six women chosen by Judith Mackrell to represent Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation in her book of the same title. Mackrell roots her conception of the “flapper” in distinctly literary  soil, drawing on a remark made by Ardita Farnam, a character from a Fitzgerald short story, who is “motivated by a single aim: ‘to live as I liked always and to die in my own way.’ ”

World War I had opened the door for men and women to lead more independent lives, but it was an uncharted world. Mackrell makes good work of reminding the reader that Zelda, along with the five other women, each profiled in their own chapter (Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, and Tamara de Lempicka), had no example to follow in the pursuit of a life of their own, and the results of living loudly were not always ideal. As Bankhead famously quipped, “My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned anything about women and cocaine.”

It’s not all frivolity and wit: the remarkable acts of bravery presented in Flappers are nothing short of revelatory. Josephine Baker was married off at thirteen and then again at fifteen, yet went on to become an international superstar. Baker, Bankhead, and Lady Diana Cooper would all make transatlantic voyages to pursue their dreams of stardom, with no connections or assurances. Nancy Cunard wrote and published Negro, an anthology of black achievement, at a time of rampant, unbridled racism. Tamara de Lempicka pursued her husband with verve, though she was just fifteen when she set eyes on him, then decided to become a painter, abandoning any kind of domestic obligation under the belief that “the artist must try everything.”

In one delightful anecdote, Mackrell tells of Tamara’s dedication to her art, even at lunch. “Tamara suddenly halted the conversation. She was struck by the quality of light as it slanted through the window. . .she swept aside their plates of food, sending antipasti flying, and snapped imperiously to the startled diner opposite to get out of her line of vision. ‘There is an unforgettable light coming through the window opposite. Please move, monsieur, so that I can study it.”

Unlike the other five women, Zelda spent nearly all of her young adult life as Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, with no identity outside her marriage. It wasn’t until her late twenties that she began to write — but when the Chicago Tribune published her short story “Our Own Movie Queen,” it was under her husband’s “infinitely more commercial byline.” She took up ballet at twenty-seven, determined to become a professional ballerina, though it was obvious to most that she had begun the journey too late in life. In both books, Churchwell and Mackrell write that at times Scott openly mocked her, despite the fact that she had been his champion, even his trusted editor, throughout their marriage. In one letter, he wrote, “[Y]ou are a third rate writer and a third rate ballet dancer.” Zelda’s downward spiral into madness coincided with the end of a decade of excess. Scott wrote in his diary: “Crash. Wall Street. Zelda.”

But his own crash wasn’t much further down the road, as his alcoholism led to a heart attack in 1940. Churchwell reports, “The Great Gatsby had earned a total of $2.10 in royalties and Fitzgerald had not sold a single book outside the United States in the last twelve months of his life, and all of his books combined had earned him an unlucky total of $13.13.” Celebrity was novel, but its perils were obvious.

Though today the word flapper is usually associated with fashion, to these women it was about confidence, ambition, and, as Mackrell puts it, “nerve.” The decision to live one’s life as one chooses, without ambivalence or distraction, is easier said than done. As Zelda wrote to Scott in one of her last letters to him, “Nothing could have survived our life.”