I stole the proof of this book off my co-worker’s desk after seeing Josephine Baker on the cover. I’ve loved her since seeing The Josephine Baker Story on TV in 1991 (with the luminous Lynn Whitfield, who in a better world would have at least as many Oscars as Gwyneth Paltrow). The book promised to be an exploration of being a young woman of the roaring twenties as seen through six extraordinary lives: Baker’s, plus that of Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, Nancy Cunard, Lady Diana Cooper, and Tamara de Lempicka.
Who wouldn’t have at least one of those names on their dream dinner party invite list? No one I’d deign to share company with. Although my eyebrow was raised at the title – could you really call de Lempicka, the Russian aristocrat who battled for her artistic and financial success in Paris, a flapper? Or Lady Diana, the Viscountess Norwich? Or Nancy Cunard, who desperately wanted to be taken seriously as a poet and was the patron to Ezra Pound, later to become an unlikely activist for racial equality?
Mackrell’s thesis is that these figures were models of modern girls is stretching it somewhat, but that could be made up for by vivacious writing. Unfortunately, the potted biographies of each women we get is rushed-through and shows reluctance to deal with anything too complex. The politics and philosophies of the twenties are fascinating, not that you’d get any idea what Dada or Surrealism was about in here, or any idea of just why the ‘fascinating’ young minds killed in the Great War were so fascinating.
Along the same lines, the queerness of the subjects is muted. Many lovers and some saucy details are ticked off, but aside from sweeping statements about ‘the new sexual mores’ and faff about Freud and Havelock Ellis being influential, there’s no sense that Tamara and Tallulah’s bisexuality meant anything different than, say, Lady Gaga’s does.
If you want to read about the dresses they wore, and work through a laundry list of people other people banged, Flappers does this. But it does a real disservice in trying to cram a shaky premise of ‘the difficulty of having it all’ on to these vibrant women, some of whom Mackrell doesn’t seem to approve of even as she claims to celebrate their ‘vitality’ but also calling them silly and deriding their choices – when the whole point of this shoddy work is that they were the first generation to deal with those choices. I was already over this book when she started slagging off Tallulah Bankhead’s talent as being ‘at best competent’. Balls.
It reads like it can’t work out what it wants to do, from assembling this amazing cast to trying to combine them into some Grand Sweeping Idea of 20th Century Ladyhood. And who is it for – a reader with no idea of the social and cultural milieu of the 1920s (who needs to have the basics of post-WWI social flux spoon fed to them) or a reader who will instantly recognise the many names dropped through the book, often with no explanation as to why, say, Samuel Beckett or Jean Cocteau was important? For instance, if you didn’t know that Duff Cooper was a significant figure beyond his marriage to Diana, this book won’t tell you. A frustrating read, and not worthy of any of these women.