Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Flappers" by Judith Mackrell

A young aristocratic woman with no experience of life of the lower classes (except servants) volunteers as a nurse in a public clinic during World War II. Her mother converts their palatial country home to a hospital for returning officers, and she also volunteers there. Other adventures in the 1920s: life in London clubs, an affair with a black Jazz musician, relationships with high-profile newspaper owners. And more. Sounds like Downton Abbey, doesn't it?

No. Not made-for-TV fiction, but incidents from the real stories of two aristocratic trend setters, Lady Diana Manners (later Diana Cooper) and Nancy Cunard. Author Judith Mackrell in Flappers describes how these and four very different other women of their era, through their personal searches for success, fame, and adventure, contributed to the image of the flapper -- icon of the Jazz Age and the 1920s.

The stories of these women are in fact pretty well-known, but this book offers much that's new to me. In addition to the aristocratic heiresses Diana Cooper and Nancy Cunard, she tells the history of Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Tamara de Lempicka.

Each one experienced World War I and the 1920s in a different way, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, and living or working variously in New York, London, Paris, St. Louis, Alabama, Hollywood, and more. The book has a few illustrations, but the visual appeal of these women was and still is enormous, so I've looked for photos that seem to reflect the spirit of Flappers.

Privileged Diana Manners, after being a nurse during World War I,
acted on the stage among other things,
becoming famous enough to make the cover of Time Magazine in 1926.
Later in her life she and her husband Duff Cooper were diplomats.
Heiress Nancy Cunard developed an original style
that was loved by photographers (this by Man Ray)
and thus influential in setting visuals for the 20s.
She was a poet, had many famous lovers (including a Jazz musician),
and became an advocate for equal rights for minorities. 
Josephine Baker was born and raised in the poorest black area of St.Louis.
Her force of personality and ability to sing and dance made her a sensation on the stage in
New York and especially, later, in Jazz-Age Paris, where her race put her
in a special position. She was among other black ex-pats who enjoyed
the openness of the French towards other races, in contrast to American attitudes.
Actress Talullah Bankhead's family were  upper-class members of Alabama society.
Her rebellion was to become a stage actress, film star, and
personality in New York, London, and later Hollywood.
The role of Zelda and F.Scott Fitzgerald in creating the myth of the 1920s
is very well known, but Flappers effectively puts it in the context of these other women.
Zelda was in fact from the same Alabama community as Talullah Bankhead.
Painter Tamara de Lempicka belonged to the Polish and Russian aristocracy.
Thrown into poverty by the Russian Revolution, she applied herself to
becoming a successful artist and portrait painter in Paris.
This self-portrait shows the Art Deco style of her work, a style she helped to define.

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