Biography of six women who declared their independence during the Jazz Age.
British heiresses Diana Cooper and Nancy Cunard, Russian artist Tamara de Lempicka, African-American entertainer Josephine Baker, actress Tallulah Bankhead and aspiring writer Zelda Fitzgerald were daring women who defied expectations about what a woman’s life should be. Calling them “flappers,” British dance critic Mackrell (Bloomsbury Ballerina: Lydia Lopokova, Imperial Dancer and Mrs. John Maynard Keynes, 2009, etc.) notes how they were sexually promiscuous, reckless and given to “provocative exuberance.” As Dorothy Parker put it: “All spotlights focus on her pranks. / All tongues her prowess herald. / For which she may well render thanks / to God and Scott Fitzgerald.” It was Fitzgerald, after all, whose short stories publicized boyishly slim young women in short skirts and slinky gowns, drinking gin fizzes and falling giddily into love affairs. He modeled his flappers, he said, on his wife, Zelda, who once remarked, “I think a woman gets more happiness out of being gay…than out of a career that calls for hard work, intellectual pessimism and loneliness.” Although Mackrell’s subjects took advantage of postwar hedonism, unlike Zelda, the others showed no reluctance to work hard. Cooper became a respected actress; Cunard, a poet, publisher and political activist; Bankhead devoted herself tirelessly to her acting career; Lempicka, who had fled Russia after the revolution, reinvented herself as a painter; Baker hired tutors to shape her as a performer. Zelda was deeply unhappy: Her writing career never took off; her marriage was blighted by anger, infidelity and alcohol; and finally, she succumbed to recurring mental breakdowns.
Mackrell ties her subjects together by asserting that they all struggled “with the quintessentially contemporary conundrum: how to combine career and family, self-interest, marriage and love,” but readers of this gossipy collective biography are unlikely to identify with their struggle. What these women shared most strongly were the glittering allure and tragic consequences of celebrity.