Book review: Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, By Judith Mackrell

Bold and daring, the new women of the 1920s did far more than show a glimpse of stocking

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The Independent Culture

Enervated by the massive loss of blood on battlefields, the West after the First World War was desperate for renewal. Nowhere was this more obvious than in women's new dreams for themselves. Hence the emergence of a new female icon: the Flapper.

Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of the author of The Great Gatsby, and one of the most famous example of the archetype, described the Flapper as "the girl who ignored the warnings that men don't marry girls who let themselves be kissed and instead put on their choicest pair of earrings, and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into battle". The Flapper was the product of women's repressed wilderness, their longing for adventure, as well as the desperate desire to escape the complex limitations governing their lives.

Inevitably, readers will choose their own favourites among the six women Mackrell explores in this book. So, although the gossip columns thrilled readers with stories of society hostesses like Diana Cooper and Nancy Cunard, I found them rather tame in comparison to self-made women like Josephine Baker and Tamara de Lempicka, who pulled themselves up their frilly garters and became famous. The former's story is given new energy by Mackrell's treatment.

Born in the slums of East St. Louis, to an impoverished black family who had moved north to escape the horrors of the Jim Crow south, Josephine Baker had an eventful story even before she left for Paris. Married twice before the age of 15, she had run off to New York to become a chorus girl. But it was in the City of Light, already obsessed by black culture, that she would find her spiritual home.

Josephine would become an icon of the Jazz Age as potent as the music itself. Her lovers would include the architect Le Corbusier and the painter Magritte. Every roué in the city would claim to have had an encounter with her: not least Ernest Hemingway, who described her as "the most sensational woman anybody ever saw… legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles".

De Lempicka was one of the many Russian refugees who fled to Paris after the war. Accompanied by a useless but handsome husband and a small child, she managed to become a notable painter within a decade. Her extraordinary paintings, primarily of women, would be the product of a tumultuous love life, nurtured in the seedy areas of the Left Bank.

My favourite of Mackrell's subjects, however, is Tallulah Bankhead. It is impossible not to become totally enmeshed in Bankhead's madcap adventures. According to a contemporary, "Tallulah had a force in her from her very childhood, and it was clear that force had to go somewhere." Her private life was as tumultuous as her time in showbusiness. As she quipped: "My father warned me about men and drink, but he never warned me about women and cocaine."

Basing her persona on a character in a play, she made herself notorious by outrageous stunts and jokes, "Launching into a string of cartwheels down a sidewalk or in the middle of a crowded room, displaying a flash of silk cami-knicker, or occasionally her naked bottom." Her quips too were unforgettable: She once drawled: "I'm as pure as the driven slush."

But underneath the heedless façade, Mackrell presents an assortment of women as anxious as they were daring, as vulnerable as they were brave. As Zelda Fitzgerald concluded: "The best flapper is reticent emotionally and courageous morally. You always know what she thinks, but she does all her feeling alone." These contradictions make Mackrell's Flappers so beguiling. For she is just like the woman of today: longing for freedom and excitement but also for safety and love. Cherchez la femme.

Andrea Stuart's family memoir 'Sugar in the Blood' is published by Portobello