Welcome to the first edition of “What I Am Reading Right Now,” which I plan to have as a regular feature of Panorama of the Mountains.
The Roaring Twenties are a romantic period. Jazz. Flappers. Consumption of vast quantities of alcohol despite (or perhaps because of) Prohibition. Americans living in Paris on the cheap. Writers as celebrities exchanging witty barbs. The Algonquin Round Table. A golden era in New York, a city built on golden eras.
Marion Meade attempts to capture this glamorous period in Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties by focusing on the lives of Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, and Edna Ferber. I’d never heard of Ferber (her novels became the basis of the musical Show Boat and the film Cimarron), and really only knew just a bit of the reputation of the other three women.
The romance of the twenties crashes down in this book. In contrast to the romantic images we see these women’s lives scarred by depression, alcoholism, suicide attempts, failed marriages, abortions, and sexism. That they made it through the decade alive seems to be a great accomplishment, much less their great writing and contributions to popular culture.
Meade sticks to a straight chronology for the narrative with eleven annual chapters from 1920 to 1930. In each chapter, Meade goes through the year weaving in and out of the lives of the four principals in a series of vignettes. That the book is in a sense a quadruple biography makes it a challenge to read compared to traditional biographies especially since one has to learn the family, friends and associates of each writer. I found it more confusing that although Fitzgerald, Parker, Millay and Ferber rarely interact with one another the ancillary characters often do show up with each of them.
The book is gossipy at times, in a sense aping the writing style of 1920’s personality pages, but one does get a good sense of each writer. Parker – or Dottie as she’s called throughout the work — known for her quick wit and charm is revealed to have a darker interior life. She attempts suicide three times within the course of the narrative and never seems ready to acknowledge her inner demons. Millay – called Vincent – finds early success redefining herself in a Bohemian mold, yet seems to lose herself in it and by the end of this time period she seems to be leading and unsatisfactory life built on pretension. Ferber seems to me to lead the most conventional life and most devoted to the straightforward career of writing divorced from the glamour of the era. While it may make her story a bit dull, it also makes her accomplishments the most impressive. Zelda to me is the most heartbreaking yet inspiring. Her desire to define herself through dance and writing despite the constraints of her upbringing and the insults of Scott Fitzgerald (definitely the villain of this piece) was especially moving. Her descent into insanity seems inevitable but I can’t help feeling she’d have done well if only given a fair shake.
Overall, I’d say this is an interesting and educational book. It may not have the information value of a straightforward biography but it does capture the essence of the era and offer valuable contrasts among the four women writers. A particularly depressing afterword also demonstrates the wisdom of cutting short the narrative after 1930, while these writers were still at their peak.
Zelda Fitzgerald asserts feminist principles at parties hosted by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. An interesting counterpoint to reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas where Stein has Toklas stating her duty was to talk with the wives of famous men, as if the women had made no contributions themselves:
“From her vantage point in the ladies’ ghetto, Zelda found it all a little offensive. Of course Gertrude and Alice were eccentrics — and lesbians — but that was besides the point. What made her indignant was how they treated women. She had never cared for the role of the wallflower.” (p. 142-43)
Zelda on Ernest Hemingway:
“There could be little doubt who wrote The Sun Also Rises, because the author sounded exactly like a man obsessed with hunting and fishing — and killing bulls. Ernest’s tough-guy act was a fake, in her opinion, because nobody could be “as male as all that.” (p. 164)