Angry young women of the jazz age
The 1920s—that first foray into the Modern, that Age of Art—marked seismic shifts in the way we see (Cubism, Dadaism, et al.), hear (Hemingway and Hilda Doolittle, the poet known by the pen name H.D.), and interpret (psychoanalysis). It was the decade that forever changed American music and dance (Ethel Waters, the Charleston). Most important, though, that delicious, self-indulgent decade gave birth to the New Woman. These liberated women didn't just let down their hair; they cut it off.
Marion Meade's history, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, focuses each chapter on a single year, working us through the occasionally interlinked lives of Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber, from 1920 through 1930. Her meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch approach works, for the most part, effectively enough, moving us through the lives of these women and their good-for-nothing and often more drunken men. Meade is the author of several biographies, among them Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?, a full-length study of Parker, who once wrote that "[at] birth, the devil touched my tongue." It's the barbed tongue one misses here. Without the art, it was a hollow age, indeed; one's predilection for water-closet martinis and pansexual romps means little without the excuse of genius, and it is that the artist we sometimes see too little of. Bathing in Meade's gin-soaked chronology is a particularly delightful indulgence, nevertheless, and we are left with a far greater appreciation for the peculiar madness that follows sudden large freedom. Breaking every rule of polite society does have its price, however well deserved the rebellion may be, and each of these women paid it (though Ferber seems the odd one here sane, sober and solvent).
More fun is arts journalist Andrea Barnet's All-Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913-1930. Rather than rely strictly on chronology, Barnet focuses on one woman at a time and looks beyond just the poet (Millay) to include artists and models (Mina Loy), salon hostesses (Mabel Dodge), publishers (Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap), and divas (Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters) an eclectic collection, even for that most odd and fascinating of times. Barnet weaves a richer fabric than do the four repeating threads of Meade's chronology.
The soul of wit
Finally, one book reminds us why we care: Barry Day's Dorothy Parker: In Her Own Words. Though she remains one of the most quoted women of her age, the acerbic Parker left no intentional autobiography. So Day (author of similar books on P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes) organizes her famous witticisms into a kind of autobiography, walking us through her preoccupations women and men, love, death, art in a way that shows us she did indeed bequeath us reminiscence in the form of her own verse, short stories and those marvelously stinging reviews (when it came to celebrated writers, she lamented Americans' tendency "to mistake for the first rate, the fecund rate").
Day's effort suffers from an assumption that readers have no intention of starting at chapter 1 and reading through to chapter 10 (at least that seems a reasonable explanation for his tendency to repeat descriptive passages nearly verbatim). Ultimately, though, one reads Day not for the data, but for what his subject had to say. Mrs. Parker's calling down for room service before slitting her wrists is telling from the author of Enough Rope and that oft-anthologized ditty "Resume," but surely the value in providing a running count of her abortions lies merely in the opportunity to remind us of her response: "Serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard."
At its heart, Day's book cuts closest to the truth held most dear by those unfettered women: it is the Art that matters, not the messy minutiae of one's daily life, no matter how exceptional the life may be. Though these histories are a fine indulgence over a long weekend, they succeed best as hors d'oeuvre, leaving us hungry for the main dish. As Millay exhorts, "Take up the song; forget the epitaph."
D. Michelle Adkerson is a writing instructor at Nashville State Community College.