WEIRDLAND: Early Vanity Fair, Zelda Fitzgerald: Flapper of a Dangerous Generation

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Early Vanity Fair, Zelda Fitzgerald: Flapper of a Dangerous Generation

A collection of a wide range of Vanity Fair articles ranging from 1914 to 1936, when the Great Depression forced the magazine to merge with Vogue. Some of these pieces are curiosities, while others capture a peculiar zeitgeist: America during wartime, the Roaring ’20s, the Depression. Others simply provide an example of the range of powerhouse writers who contributed to a magazine that captured the tastes and travails of a certain kind of middle-class urbanite. Among the many eminent writers who provide contributions are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, D.H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, P.G. Wodehouse, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jean Cocteau, T.S. Eliot, Walter Winchell, Ford Madox Ford and Bertrand Russell. A series of Dorothy Parker “Hate Song” poems take aim at (and hit) targets ranging from men to actresses to relatives to offices. Whether read from cover to cover or dipped into occasionally, this collection serves as a fine primer to one magazine’s contribution to a golden age of American magazine writing. Source.

"Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation" (2013) by Judith Mackrell: A gripping biography of six extraordinary women who, in their very different ways, epitomise the decade they came of age - the 1920s. Glamorized, mythologized and demonized - the women of the 1920s prefigured the 1960s in their determination to reinvent the way they lived. Flappers is in part a biography of that restless generation: starting with its first fashionable acts of rebellion just before the Great War, and continuing through to the end of the decade when the Wall Street crash signal led another cataclysmic world change. It focuses on six women who between them exemplified the range and daring of that generation’s spirit. Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Tamara de Lempicka were far from typical flappers. Although they danced the Charleston, wore fashionable clothes and partied with the rest of their peers, they made themselves prominent among the artists, icons, and heroines of their age. Talented, reckless and willful, with personalities that transcended their class and background, they re-wrote their destinies in remarkable, entertaining and tragic ways. And between them they blazed the trail of the New Woman around the world.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald: Originally a small-town Southern belle from Alabama, her ‘slender supple’ grace and ‘spoiled alluring mouth’ had famously become the template from which her husband, the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, created his exquisitely modern heroines.

For birth-control campaigners like Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger, the key battle was for sexual freedom. Change was slow: pre-marital sex was still far from the norm for women in the 1920s, but while only 14 per cent of American women admitted to it in 1900, by 1925 the number had risen to 39 per cent. The fashionable chic attached to lesbianism in the 1920s might not have been a true reflection of public opinion, but it saw many more women daring to identify and acknowledge their sexual tastes.

One of the most brazen was Mercedes de Acosta, whose tally of lovers was said to include Isadora Duncan, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead. ‘Say what you will about Mercedes,’ commented her friend Alice B. Toklas, ‘she’s had the most important women of the twentieth century.’ The Fitzgeralds' celebrity had been launched by Scott’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, which had been published in March 1920. Advertised as ‘A Novel About Flappers, Written For Philosophers’, it had been heralded as the voice of post-war American youth, and had sold three thousand copies in just three days. The fact that its hero and heroine had been so evidently based on Scott and Zelda, and that their own lives threaded through its pages, enhanced their status as the couple of the moment. ‘They didn’t make the Twenties,’ the actress Lilian Gish later recalled, ‘they were the Twenties.’

Fitzgerald believed the early 1920s was a charmed era. ‘It was an age of art, it was an age of excess and it was an age of stature,’ he wrote later. It was ‘an age of miracles’ and he and his generation were ‘the great believers.’ Interviewed for the magazine Shadowland in January 1921, Scott had emphasized Zelda’s influence on the heroines of his stories, she’d been the original model for a type he’d dubbed the ‘mental baby vamp’. When Zelda went into labour on 26 October, it was long and hard and Scott swore in anguish that he would kill himself if she died. In her second article, ‘What Became of the Flappers’, Zelda suggested that this spirit was not as easily decoded as writers and advertisers might believe: ‘The best flapper is reticent emotionally and courageous morally. You always know what she thinks, but she does all her feeling alone.’ It was a telling remark. Back in Montgomery, Zelda could write to Scott, ‘You are the only person on earth, Lover, who has ever known and loved all of me.’ Scott himself had admitted as much to Edmund Wilson when he acknowledged that it was ‘the complete fine and full-hearted selfishness and chill-mindedness of Zelda’, that remained the most potent influence on his writing.

‘A purely creative work,’ he assured his editor Max Perkins, ‘not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere and radiant world.’ Jay Gatsby, a farm boy turned millionaire who lived by Scott’s faith in the necessary magic of illusions: ‘Illusions that give such colour to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false.’ To Sara and Gerald Murphy they seemed ‘flawless’ on their return to Paris in 1925. According to Gerald, Zelda’s beauty was ‘all in her eyes’; of Scott, Gerald thought ‘he was really unbelievably handsome’. The Fitzgeralds began to argue, dangerously, about sex. Zelda baited Scott by saying that he was unimaginative in bed and in retaliation he said she could not possibly be satisfied by him or any other man because she was in love with Madame Lubov Egorova (Zelda's ballet teacher) and with half the women at rue Jacob.

A survey conducted among 2,200 middle-class American women in the late 1920s revealed that many had experienced lesbian impulses: nearly half of those interviewed said they’d experienced a close emotional relationship with another woman, while a quarter admitted to those relationships being sexual. In a generation that had suffered the loss of millions of young men, many women had turned to their own sex for physical contact. The entry in Fitzgerald's ledger at the end of 1929 was stark: ‘Crash. Wall Street. Zelda.’ Certainly Zelda’s mental state was now deteriorating badly, her behaviour was erratic and she seemed to have trouble connecting to people and events around her. -"Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation" (2013) by Judith Mackrell

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