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But beneath the flamboyance and excess of the Roaring Twenties lay age-old prejudices about gender, race, and sexuality. These flappers weren’t just dancing and carousing; they were fighting for recognition and dignity in a male-dominated world. They were more than mere lovers or muses to the modernist masters—in their pursuit of fame and intense experience, we see a generation of women taking bold steps toward something burgeoning, undefined, maybe dangerous: a New Woman.
"Judith Mackrell's Flappers is a juicy, energetic exploration of six dazzling iconoclasts who all flared to fame in the Roaring '20s. . . Flappers reminds us of the enormous, lasting cultural impact of gutsy, vibrant women who managed to shine in unexpected ways. In jumping between six dishy, hyper-charged, often frenetic life stories in one lively volume, Mackrell not only captures ‘the restlessness of a generation’ — she does so in a fast-paced, no-holds-barred form particularly well suited to the restlessness of this generation." —Heller McAlpin, Los Angeles Times
"The book is beautifully structured. . . [a] reader-friendly history, adorned with fascinating details. . . Ms. Mackrell doesn't force theories. She lays out the lives with a deft strategy of parallels and overlaps so that connections and comparisons float up."—Laura Jacobs, Wall Street Journal
"Sprawling and addictive. . ."—Anne Helen Petersen, Slate
"This spellbinding group biography tells the stories — sometimes independent, often intertwined — of six women of the 1920s who epitomized the word flapper, in all its complicated meanings. . . Mackrell’s book bubbles with the giddy energy of the era, filled with parties, affairs, cocktails, and cocaine — and captures its inevitable dissolution as well."—Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe
"Captivating . . . . Much has been written about these avatars and their era that ended with The Crash and prefigured the Sixties, but Mackrell, a winning stylist, presents them afresh. She makes us want to know more. Any author who does that has served her subjects and the reader well."—Jane Sumner, The Dallas Morning News
"Mackrell portrays, with vivid facts, sexual candor, and incisive analysis, six intrepid, stylish, headline-grabbing women artists who exemplify the flapper revolution. . . Avidly researched and deeply inquisitive, Mackrell’s prodigious group portrait is spectacularly dramatic and thought-provoking." —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
"Fascinating and compulsively readable. . . Mackrell’s fabulous Flappers lovingly captures the manic glitzy dream girls of the 1920s, paving the way for their feminist granddaughters." —Catherine Hollis, BookPage
"Sober and sure-footed." —The Times Literary Supplement
"Flappers eruditely illuminates the daring lives of a group of 1920s Jazz Age trailblazers." —Elle
"In a cool, glittery style that mirrors the roaring decade she delves into, British dance critic Mackrell (Bloomsbury Ballerina) breathes new life into the stories of a few of the most culturally important women of the 1920s. . .Through these marvelous portrayals, Mackrell reminds us why these women continue to fascinate and why their lives had such impact." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“With guts and swagger, the six nervy and glamorous women of Flappers took risks, defied convention, and defined the Jazz Age. Judith Mackrell’s rollicking, poignant, and trenchant history of their yearning for equality, their romantic and erotic adventures, and their struggle to ‘live as I like always’ is sprinkled with stardust and feels thoroughly modern. Flappers is a gripping look at the complicated challenges facing women in the Downton Abbey era.” —Kate Manning, author of My Notorious Life
“What an extraordinary, high-level hen party this book is! Lively and elegant. The old feminist maxim was that the personal was political, but in these women’s lives the reverse is equally true: the political—the twists and turns of the twentieth century, its changing attitudes and movements—is personal.” —Amanda Vaill, author of Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy; A Lost Generation Love Story
“Flappers is all good, dirty fun . . . Mackrell is an engaging storyteller with a deceptively light touch.” —Cressida Connolly, The Daily Telegraph
“It’s in the bringing together of these highly diverse women under the ‘flapper’ umbrella that Mackrell’s real genius lies, showing us the relationship between an age and the very different individuals who shone during it.” —Lesley McDowell, The Independent on Sunday
“Judith Mackrell can tell a story—and she has some very provocative stories to tell. The myths that for the past century have surrounded the six legendary women at the center of Flappers are nothing at all compared to the reality revealed in this fascinating book.” —Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Appropriately, Zelda Fitzgerald is one of the 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 an F. Scott 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. Mackrell writes 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."
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."
Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at The New Yorker's Book Bench, NPR,The Economist, The Daily Beast, Time Out New York, Bookforum, and more. Find her at www.jessicaferri.com.
Reviewer: Jessica Ferri
Posted February 28, 2014
Although I have not finished the book, I am fascinated and I intend to continue reading to the end. Also, being interested in outstanding women, I intend to find the movie "American Hustle" on DVD and collect it.
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