Review: Flappers - Six Women of a Dangeous Generation, By Judith Mackrell

Lives of the real Gatsby women

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"My candle burns at both ends/ It will not last the night/ But ah my foes, and oh my friends/ It gives a lovely light", wrote Edna St Vincent Millay in 1920, in a poem that Mackrell acknowledges was an "anthem to flapper recklessness." That "lovely light" was also reflected in the sparkling dresses, shiny new automobiles, fancy hotels and cocktails of a glamorous age that brimmed with consumerism.

Six women were irresistibly drawn to that light: Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Tamara de Lempicka, Nancy Cunard, and Diana Cooper. But, as Mackrell shows, it wasn't long before the light dimmed, doused by the excesses of the age. De Lempicka, Bankhead, Baker, and Cunard all had damaging reputations for promiscuity and Fitzgerald endured long bouts in mental hospitals. Only Cooper settled down, in a marriage that saw her betrayed over and over again.

Mackrell enjoys the biographies of her six flappers too much, I think, to want to over-analyse the social and cultural implications of the phenomenon: her main conclusion about this figure is that she was a rebel in thrall to youth, a playful daughter defying her strict mother, as Diana Cooper and Nancy Cunard did so spectacularly. But she also shows a figure experimenting with her sexuality by having affairs with women, as Baker, Bankhead, and de Lempicka did. What she stresses less, but which does emerge from each woman's biography, is their astonishing ambition.

De Lempicka was an emigrant White Russian in Paris, who had to work to support her tiny family after they lost everything in the revolution; Baker grew up in the slums of St Louis; Bankhead headed off to New York at 16, chaperoned by a hapless aunt and supported only by her own "excitement and ambition". Even those from wealthy backgrounds, such as Cunard, Cooper, and Fitzgerald, had a desire to escape the constrictions of their society, and refashion themselves into something new. Cooper volunteered as a nurse during the First World War, Fitzgerald threw her lot in with a penniless writer, and Cunard married young to get away from her mother.

None of these women was very good at marriage, though, which suggests that the flapper's focus on the individual sat uneasily alongside the notion of partnership. Josephine Baker perhaps showed the extreme of this focus when success hit her – her Paris audience adored her, but it took a long time, argues Mackrell, for her to "relate" racist imagery and racist attacks "to issues larger than herself."

It's in the bringing together of these highly diverse women under the "flapper" umbrella that Mackrell's real genius lies, showing us the relationship between an age and the very different individuals who shone during it. As a type, the flapper was much emulated and desired but she paid a high price for her freedom from social mores. The modernity of the age should have rewarded her better than it did.