Anything Goes, By Lucy Moore

Joy-ride with mobsters
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The Independent Culture

Dressed in a pink apron and slippers, Al Capone was cooking pasta for journalists when he announced his retirement from bootlegging. "Snorky" (as his friends called him) explained he was simply a regular guy providing a service but, if he wasn't appreciated, Chicago could go thirsty. The pinafore was an unexpected touch (despite the mobster's taste for tangerine or violet suits), but menace parading as innocence was his trademark. Capone, like many in the 1920s, understood the manipulative value of publicity.

Lucy Moore's Anything Goes, subtitled "a biography of the Roaring Twenties", concentrates its gaze on America. While the roar wasn't heard just there – this was the decade of Ulysses, and Surrealism – it was in the US that the popular culture and politics that came to dominate the 20th century took off. The Tramp, the Vamp, the Flapper, the rich boy with his narcotics and tattooed feet slumming it in Paris, the "Empress of the Blues" who poured her anguish into her music and anguished those around her with her drunkenness and promiscuity – all of them star in Anything Goes.

In "a subjective survey", Moore rolls out the heroes and villains of Prohibition, big business, sport, the Harlem Renaissance, the entertainment industry and journalism. She looks at key events: the political corruption surrounding the hopeless President Harding; the Scopes trial, where science battled creationism "to prevent bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education system"; the show trial of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.

With its fetishisation of material goods, its cult of youth and instant celebrity, 1920s America resonates today, as Moore points out. With profit as a new religion, easy credit and affluence flourished in a climate where the president stated what the country needed was "less government in business and more business in government".

Even Christ was reinvented in a best-selling book as "the founder of modern business". Set against this rush towards the new was a rising xenophobia, a backward-looking religious fundamentalism and an increasing division between the haves and have-nots, the urban and the rural. The author shows how these nine years offered extraordinary opportunities to transform lives. Never before had a fight brought in a million-dollar box office take, as when Jack Dempsey stepped into the ring in 1921. Nor had prize-fighters enjoyed the celebrity status which studded his audience with billionaires, movie stars and royalty. "America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford metamorphosed from "shanty Irish" to movie mogul. It was the first time a daughter of slaves could become a millionaire, like the cosmetics entrepreneur CJ Walker.

Energetic reinvention shaped the language, bringing us "sob-sister", "loan-shark", "frame-up", "joy-ride", "highbrow", "lounge-lizard" and "has-been". Makin' whoopee, meanwhile, was about as reckless as it could be.

The under-the-counter glamour of illicit drinking added an extra frisson. If you weren't arrested in a raid on a speakeasy, chances are the moonshine served would cause internal bleeding or paralysis - if it didn't kill you. Embalming fluid, iodine, fuel oil and mercury were among the ingredients which created such drinks as Jackass Brandy.

But while Bernice bobbed her hair and did the monkey glide in Harlem's Plantation Club, others went for a different kind of excess. Ordinary men and women embraced organisations which promised to restore their pride at the expense of Blacks, Catholics and foreigners. For some, intolerance became an American virtue. In 1921, 4,650 Chicago citizens were initiated into the Ku Klux Klan in a single day.

Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the excesses but also of the "miracles" of the Jazz Age. Many were technological: 1920 marked the first commercial radio broadcast; Lindberg completed his 33-hour solo flight across the Atlantic seven years later. That year, 1927, the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, thrilled movie-goers. Yet it was the many small miracles that changed forever the way Americans lived, from affordable mass-market cars to frozen food and bubblegum. Other discoveries would also have long-lasting consequences. It was in 1923 that oil was discovered in Iraq.

Anything Goes is full of detail, anecdote and colour – although not much material which cannot be found elsewhere. The pleasure comes from Moore's fluid and elegant writing and her well-judged use of quotations. It's a pity she didn't add a concluding chapter to tie everything together and provide her own overview. At the beginning of the decade, people were still reeling from the horrors of the First World War. In 1929, Black Thursday brought the party to an abrupt end. But in the meantime, in the between-time, didn't they have fun?