What exactly is a flapper? According to Zelda Fitzgerald, one of the most vibrant and troubled of the six women in this book: ‘Flappers are brave and gay and beautiful.’ She said she hoped her daughter would be a flapper rather than a genius.
Interviewed by an American reporter about her attitudes to modern women, Zelda commented: ‘I like the jazz generation and hope my daughter’s generation will be jazzier. I think a women gets more happiness out of being gay than out of a career that calls for hard work, intellectual pessimism and loneliness.’
But by the time Zelda made these comments, although only 26, she was close to the breakdown that would destroy her once starry existence as the illustrious wife and muse of the novelist F Scott Fitzgerald and was far from feeling brave, beautiful or high spirited. For as this informative and deeply moving study shows, Zelda and her fellow flappers were required to be beautiful; that was partly what brought them attention and kept them in the spotlight. But it was never enough to sustain them. Unquestionably they were brave, but that cost them dear as well.
Being a flapper has often been defined as a rather superficial matter of style to do with clothes, hair and makeup. But Zelda was not alone in realising that the hours spent perfecting their flapper style were often more of an oppression than a liberation. Behaviour was equally important as looks since these women constantly pushed boundaries, including experimentation with drugs and sex. What some readers may find surprising is that the six chosen by Judith Mackrell – Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tamara de Lempicke, Tallulah Bankhead and Josephine Baker as well as Zelda – were all incredibly hard working career women, supporting themselves as well as families and husbands in some cases, determined to find fulfilment through creative work and not merely to ape the lives their mothers led. In fact, defining themselves in opposition to their mothers was often a prime motivation. These women had grown up in the shadow of the trauma of world war one which hardened their resolve to give their lives more meaning than they felt their mothers had. But it was a hard and lonely road.
Lady Diana Cooper, née Manners, one of the most beautiful women of her generation, volunteered to work as a nurse at Guy’s hospital during the war partly in order to escape the strict chaperonage of her mother, Violet Duchess of Rutland. After the war she had to tell her mother she was marrying ‘that awful Duff Cooper,’ a man her mother considered of such mediocre character and prospects she once said she would prefer to see her daughter die of cancer. Diana then worked to support her husband’s new career in politics and for two years toured America playing Madonna in Max Reinhardt’s production of ‘The Miracle’ winning rave reviews as well as a handsome salary. She retired after giving birth in 1929 to the couple’s only child, John Julius, later Viscount Norwich.
Nancy Cunard was the daughter of the American heiress, Maud (later Emerald) Burke and the rather ineffectual Sir Bache Cunard. Maud soon a long-term lover, Sir Thomas Beecham, established herself as one of London’s pre-eminent cultural hostesses and was better at showering Nancy with expensive clothes rather than love. The arguments between mother and daughter, trivial at first, grew in number and severity and were almost all about freedom. In the end Nancy decided that marrying someone she did not love, Sydney Fairburn, was the only route to an independent life without curfews allowed to write poetry. The marriage was a short lived disaster and, as Paris became her adopted home in the 1920s, she launched into a number of affairs, culminating with a serious procedure in a Paris hospital from which, aged 25, she nearly died. What may have started as a termination of a pregnancy ended with a hysterectomy.
Nancy had a unique fashion style of wild turbans, scarves from specially commissioned fabrics, enormous African earrings and ivory bangles but she needed a cause. Once she fell in love with the black American jazz pianist, Henry Crowder, she began to understand the appalling discrimination suffered by American blacks and from then on was consumed by her project to publish a wide ranging anthology, called simply ‘Negro’. This led indirectly to a commission for her to report on the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Mackrell believes that ”Knowing she had done something however small to mitigate the sub human conditions of these (refugee) camps brought Nancy an unusually solid sense of achievement.”
The greatest terror for these women may, in their youth, have been boredom. But freedom brought other terrors in its wake, such as unwanted pregnancies, which at a time of unreliable contraception most were to face. Tallulah Bankhead found a discreet nurse who undertook the dangerous and painful procedure of aborting a pregnancy. She lost so much blood that she needed to remain bedridden for weeks. Nevertheless she underwent at least four abortions before she was thirty. Although none of these women looked to motherhood to provide their fulfilment yet both Zelda and Diana might have had more children if they had not had such difficulties conceiving. Josephine Baker also suffered acute gynaecological problems which prevented her having any children of her own but she still could not shake off the maternal urge and, as she toured the world from 1954 onwards, she gathered a dozen underprivileged children and babies from Africa, Asia and South American and taking them all back to a chateau she had converted in rural France created a chaotic and unruly family that she called her ‘Rainbow Tribe’. The strength of this compelling book derives from the cumulative effect of so much pain and suffering endured by these once hopeful young pioneering women.
Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman A life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor (Phoenix paperbacks £7.99)