Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation

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9780374156084: Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation

By the 1920s, women were on the verge of something huge. Jazz, racy fashions, eyebrowraising new attitudes about art and sex―all of this pointed to a sleek, modern world, one that could shake off the grimness of the Great War and stride into the future in one deft, stylized gesture. The women who defined this the Jazz Age―Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Tamara de Lempicka―would presage the sexual revolution by nearly half a century and would shape the role of women for generations to come.
In Flappers, the acclaimed biographer Judith Mackrell renders these women with all the color that marked their lives and their era. Both sensuous and sympathetic, her admiring biography lays bare the private lives of her heroines, filling in the bold contours. These women came from vastly different backgrounds, but all ended up passing through Paris, the mecca of the avant-garde. Before she was the toast of Parisian society, Josephine Baker was a poor black girl from the slums of Saint Louis. Tamara de Lempicka fled the Russian Revolution only to struggle to scrape together a life for herself and her family. A committed painter, her portraits were indicative of the age's art deco sensibility and sexual daring. The Brits in the group―Nancy Cunard and Diana Cooper― came from pinkie-raising aristocratic families but soon descended into the salacious delights of the vanguard. Tallulah Bankhead and Zelda Fitzgerald were two Alabama girls driven across the Atlantic by a thirst for adventure and artistic validation.

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.

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About the Author:

Judith Mackrell is a celebrated dance critic, writing first for The Independent and now for The Guardian. Her biography of the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, Bloomsbury Ballerina, was short-listed for the Costa Biography Award. She has also appeared on television and radio, and is the coauthor of The Oxford Dictionary of Dance. She lives in London with her family.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
 
DIANA
 
 
Two months after Britain went to war against Germany Lady Diana Manners was being chauffeured across London towards Guy’s Hospital and her new vocation as a volunteer nurse. It was barely four miles from her family’s Mayfair home to the hospital in Southwark, yet Diana was conscious that, to her distraught mother sitting in the car beside her, it was a journey into the wilderness.
During tearfully protracted arguments Diana had tried to convince her mother that enlisting as a VAD (member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment) was not a lone, wilful act. Among the thousands of women who were queuing to serve their country, a number were Diana’s own friends, and some were volunteering for much more arduous duties: driving ambulances, working in munitions factories or nursing at the Front.
Yet to the Duchess of Rutland, the idea of her daughter working in one of London’s public hospitals, making tea and washing patients, was barely less squalid than her volunteering to walk the streets as a prostitute. As the family Rolls-Royce crossed Southwark Bridge and began to nose its way through grimy cobbled streets, jostled by crowds, assailed by smells from the docks and from the piles of festering rubbish, the Duchess’s worst fears seemed justified. Years later Diana could still recall the detail of that stiff, silent drive. The dark drizzle spattering against the car’s windscreen; the stricken expression on her mother’s face; the momentary faltering of her own courage as they pulled up outside the gaunt, grey façade of Guy’s.
It was not a welcoming scene. A huddle of nurses was crossing the wide courtyard, heads bowed against the blustery wind, skirts whipped around their legs. Equally drear was the expression worn by the elderly housekeeper as she opened the door and led the way silently upstairs to the room where Diana was to sleep. There was nothing as frivolous as a full-length mirror among its bare furnishings, yet as she changed into her nurse’s uniform the look in her mother’s eyes told Diana that, to the Duchess at least, she appeared hideous.
She felt guilty at the pain she was causing, but she was exhilarated, too. Even though the collar of her mauve and white striped dress was starched to a punitive stiffness and the coarse, regulation cotton felt harsh after the chiffon and silk to which she was accustomed, these discomforts brought a sense of transformation. When Diana tied her shoelaces and tightened her belt it was with the knowledge that for the first time in twenty-two years she was asserting some control over her life.
Apart from the death of her older brother Haddon when she was two, and the misery of being confined to bed when she was ten by a rare form of muscular atrophy,* Diana had known little beyond family parties, seaside holidays and servants whilst growing up. But there were constraints as well as privileges. Her family’s expectation that she would marry into money and rank required the dowry of an unblemished reputation, and even when she regarded herself as adult, every hour of her waking life remained, theoretically, under scrutiny. She wasn’t permitted to spend a night away from home, except at the house parties of approved friends; she wasn’t supposed to walk by herself in the street, nor dine alone with a man. She’d developed a hundred ways of dodging her chaperones and keeping certain activities secret, yet such deceit had long ceased to be amusing. It was simply demeaning.
Life at Guy’s would be very hard, with long days of menial drudgery hedged around with dozens of petty restrictions. But still it spelled deliverance. Not only would Diana be living away from home for the first time, but during her precious off-duty hours she would be free to do what she wanted and see whomever she chose.
This hunger for independence was shared by many of the other 46,000 British women who signed up to become VADs,* and by millions of others around the world. When the European powers declared war they inadvertently held out to women a momentous promise of freedom. The American journalist Mabel Potter Daggett spoke too optimistically and too soon when she declared, ‘We may write it down in history that on August 4, 1914 the door of the Doll’s House opened’, but for many that was the great expectation and the hope.1In Britain, the flood of recruits to the Volunteer Aid Detachment was a phenomenon of enormous interest to the press, with stories and photographs of the richest and most beautiful regularly featured in society columns. And Diana would rapidly become one of the most prominent. She seemed to the public to be practically a princess, having been born to one of the oldest families in Britain (the Rutland title dated back to 1525, the Crawford title on her mother’s side to 1398), and also to one of the richest. In 1906, when her father, Sir Henry Manners, had inherited his dukedom, he took possession not only of thousands of acres of land, but of country houses, farms, coal mines and dozens of entire villages.
The idea of Diana emerging from this palatial life to nurse the poor and wounded was enormously appealing to the British, and throughout the war she was showcased in many, mistily sentimental press photos. D.W. Griffiths featured her in his 1918 propaganda film Hearts of the World because, he said, she was ‘the most beloved woman in England’;2 she was enshrined in a wartime adaptation of the music-hall song ‘Burlington Bertie’ with the lines, ‘I’ll eat a banana/With Lady Diana/Aristocracy working at Guys.’
Yet even more fascinating to the public than Diana’s ancestry was her life as a socialite. Ever since she had come out as a debutante in 1910, the suppers and nightclubs she attended, the outfits she wore and the amusing chitchat attributed to her were regularly reported in magazines like The Lady and in the gossip columns of the press. Her reputation extended far beyond London: the Aberdeen Journal confidently informed its readers that ‘no fancy dress ball was complete without the presence of Lady Diana’ and across the Atlantic, the New York American described her as a necessary embellishment to smart and artistic circles.3Diana’s originality, her perceived cleverness and beauty were all that her mother Violet had hoped for. Despite her public commitment to family tradition, the Duchess had artistic, almost bohemian instincts, which she had passed on to her daughters. If Diana, in 1914, was restless for a life beyond her allotted destiny, it was her mother who was partly responsible.
As a young woman Violet had been a willowy beauty, the dark, pooling intensity of eyes and the pale auburn cloud of her hair lending her a dreamy, otherworldly distinction. She was sympathetic to the Aesthetic movement in dress, disdaining the elaboration of bustles and puffed sleeves for a simpler style of gown, and affecting a Romantic spontaneity, with lace scarves fluttering at her neck and wrists, posies of wild flowers pinned to her waist, the family tiara worn back to front to hold up her mass of hair. She was clever about the things that concerned her. As a key member of a group of late nineteenth-century intellectuals, nicknamed ‘the Souls’*, Violet talked about art and berated the philistinism of the Victorian age. She was also much admired for her own amateur gifts, with several of her busts and her silver-point and pencil portraits exhibited in London galleries.
A reputation for being different, even mildly rebellious, had attached itself to her. While Violet deferred to the formal duties of a Duke’s wife, she clearly preferred intimate suppers to grand dinners and court events. More subversively still she counted actors like Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and his wife Maud among her intimate friends. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, this was odd behaviour for a duchess. However elevated the Trees might be within their profession, they were still theatre people, whose circle had included the scandalous Oscar Wilde. Lord and Lady Salisbury, who lived one door away from the Manners’ London home, in Arlington Street, were certainly wary of moral contagion. They refused to let their children visit the house, because of the ‘foreign actresses and people like that’ who might be encountered there.4In the raising of her three daughters – Marjorie, Violet (Letty) and Diana – Violet also raised eyebrows: she took the girls on regular trips to the London theatre and encouraged in them a precocious independence of spirit. Diana, the youngest, had been born in August 1892 and for several years had been a plain, but interestingly fanciful child. She’d imagined herself a ‘necromancer’, filling her bedroom with bottles that were ‘coloured and crusted with incandescent sediment from elixiral experiments’,5 and because her mother liked ‘only the beautiful in everything’6 she’d been encouraged in her fancies. The governesses who’d educated Diana and her sisters (their brother John was sent off to boarding school) had been instructed to skip over ‘commonplace’ subjects like mathematics and geography and focus instead on poetry, singing, embroidery and art.
History was also favoured, especially family history, and from childhood Diana’s imagination had been shaped by stories of her ancestral past and by the imposing enchantment of Belvoir Castle, the Rutland family home. From early childhood she had played among its castellated towers and labyrinthine passage-ways, its vaulted roomfuls of Gobelin tapestries and Dutch paintings.* She had grown up inside a privileged kingdom, buffered by centuries of entitlement. And despite the romantic informality of Violet’s influence, the amateur theatricals she organized, the artistic guests she entertained, Diana and her siblings knew both the glamour and the burden of feeling themselves to be a breed apart.
By the time she approached her fourteenth birthday Diana had developed into a pretty, spirited teenager, and the clarity of her pale skin and large blue eyes promised she might even become beautiful. That summer she was invited to holiday in Norfolk with the Beerbohm Trees and their three daughters; to her joy, a group of Oxford students were also staying in the same village. Maud and Herbert tolerantly gave permission for shared suppers and picnics, and for three weeks Diana revelled in the company of these clever, good-looking boys. There were games, quizzes and flirtations, during which she ‘showed off madly’, and she slipped out to the chemist for a bottle of peroxide to bleach her hair a silvery gold. Even though she felt she was ‘spinning plates’ in her desperate need to impress, she knew that among these boys she had found her métier.
Afterwards she wrote to one of them: ‘Brancaster was heavenly, wasn’t it. I nearly cried when I left. Do for pity’s sake let’s all meet again soon … When one makes friends, I think one ought to go on being friends hard and not let it drop.’7 Further letters were exchanged, there were meetings in the houses of mutual acquaintances and Diana, who had always been so passionately attached to family and home, now hugged to herself the knowledge that she had acquired a circle of her own friends. ‘I wanted first to be loved, and next I wanted to be clever,’ she recalled, and to make herself worthy of her boys she began begging her mother for lessons in Greek and music,* while alone in her bedroom she practised clever, romantic bon mots in front of her mirror.8
Inspired by vanity and hope, she matured fast. There were appalling blanks in her knowledge (it was left to Iris Tree, four years her junior, to give her the most basic instruction in the facts of life), yet Diana’s brain was teeming with poetry, impressions and ideas, and sometimes she could appear obnoxiously forward. One evening, playing after-dinner guessing games with her mother’s friends, she grew impatient with the slowness of one of the players. ‘Use your brain, Mr Balfour; use your brain,’ she snapped at him.9 He was the former prime minister and she was about fifteen.
When Diana met Vita Sackville-West at a country house party, she desperately envied the older girl for her literary talent. ‘She is an aristocrat, rollingly rich, who writes French poetry with more ease than I lie on a sofa.’10 Feeling that she had no extraordinary gifts of her own, she aimed instead to develop an extraordinary style. At Belvoir she painted her bedroom walls black to contrast with her crimson bedspread; she made artful groupings of candles, religious paintings and dried flowers; she also transformed her clothes. In 1907 ‘all things Greek’ were in fashion, and dutifully Diana experimented with sandals and draperies, pinning a silver crescent moon in her hair. Dissatisfied with the appearance of her naked feet she tugged hopefully at her second toe, attempting to induce a more ‘Grecian’ length. Her new bible was L’Art et la Mode, the French magazine to which her sisters subscribed, whose pages were filled with the revolutionary designs of Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny.
With a yearning intentness, she studied pictures of languid female models, their fascinatingly uncorseted bodies draped in silks and diaphanous gowns. She thrilled to the element of theatre in Poiret and Fortuny’s clothes, their jewel-bright colours and suggestive flavour of the Orient. Most British girls her age were still aspiring to the fresh and curvy style of the Gibson Girl – hair piled high, waist cinched tight to emphasize a full bosom – but Diana was determined that her new adult self should be far more avant-garde.
Around this time her mother was visited by the playwright Henri Bernstein and his companion Princess Murat. Diana was entranced by the Princess and her stories of sophisticated French society, which were ‘totally different from anything we knew’,11 and she was even more entranced by her wardrobe. Obligingly, the Princess allowed Diana to examine her Fortuny dresses, created from brilliantly coloured, exquisitely pleated silk that shimmered to the touch. But what Diana coveted most was the Princess’s Poiret-designed tunic, and she was determined to make a copy. It was a simple enough design for Diana’s schoolroom sewing skills, and the result was so successful that she made others to sell to her friends, each with a different trim of ribbon, braid or fur. It proved to be a profitable enterprise and Diana squirrelled away the cash she earned: despite the family’s ancestral wealth, the Manners children received no pocket money of their own.
Diana continued adding to her wardrobe, designing clothes that were sometimes eccentrically experimental, but to her eyes rivetingly modish. As she refashioned her appearance, however, she became self-consciously critical of her figure. These new fluid fashions from Europe were liberating women from the corset, but they followed the line of the body so closely that they imposed a new tyranny. ‘Banting’ or ‘slenderizing’ were becoming de rigueur, and when Diana studied herself in the mirror she despaired at the ‘round, white, slow, lazy and generally … unappetising blancmange’ she saw reflected there.12Edwardian Britain was collectively embracing the idea of physical fitness. Cycling, golf, tennis and bathing were much in vogue, part of the brisk tempo of the new century, but Diana’s regime of self-improvement was unusually strenuous. She went for long runs around the grounds of Belvoir, jigged furiously to the gramophone – a precious acquisition given to her by the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba – and pounded away at an old punch bag. The following year she discovered a more creative discipline in dancing. London was newly inspired by Isadora Duncan, the radical American dancer who had become as famou...

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