Book review: Flappers by Judith Mackrell

Flappers
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Long before ‘the sisterhood’ burnt their bras in the 1970s, a diverse group of young women were declaring their female independence in the same spirit of reckless determination.

Flappers, those daring rebels of the notoriously restless post First World War generation, have been glamourised, mythologised and demonised in the 90 or more years since their antics scandalised polite 1920s society.

So who were these charismatic characters whose stars burned briefly and brightly but whose ultimate destinies were often lonely, painful and tragic?

Judith Mackrell, a celebrated dance critic, sweeps us back to those heady, trail-blazing years by focusing her entertaining and yet ruthlessly objective study on six very different women who between them exemplified the range and audacity of that innovative generation.

Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Tamara de Lempicka were far from typical flappers but they shared the same desire as many other young women to reinvent the way they lived.

Although they danced the Charleston, wore fashionable clothes and partied with the rest of their peers, this particular group made themselves prominent among the artists, icons, and heroines of their age.

Talented, fearless and wilful, they possessed personalities that transcended their class and background, and between them they blazed the trail of the New Woman around the world.

Starting with the first fashionable acts of rebellion just before the Great War, and continuing through to the end of the decade and the devastating Wall Street crash, Mackrell’s engaging book is both a book of titillating revelations and a serious social history.

Dislocated and isolated by the shocking events of the First World War, women from different social circles began to meet and mix through the women’s rights movement and the emergence of a new popular culture, which included cinemas, clubs and jazz music.

This was, as Mackrell points out, ‘a decade on the move’ with passenger flights taking off, improved train travel to continental destinations and faster, larger liners crossing the Atlantic.

Diana Cooper, born Diana Manners, youngest daughter of the Duke of Rutland, first displayed her rebellious streak when she became a volunteer nurse during the Great War and then married Duff Cooper, a penniless man with no prospects, funding his political career by working as an actress.

Nancy Cunard, a member of the famous shipping line, left behind an unhappy childhood to become a political activist and writer, living a life of bohemian excess in Paris and taking a string of lovers.

Another Paris exile was Tamara de Lempicka who fled her privileged lifestyle and the Russian revolution only to find herself penniless with a baby daughter and a feckless husband. A talented artist, she launched a successful career painting Art Deco style portraits and indulging her rampant sexuality.

Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of writer Scott and the couple said to epitomise the Twenties, also settled in Paris along with Josephine Baker, the legendary chorus girl from St Louis who took the city by storm.

In England, outrageous American actress Tallulah Bankhead brought her many and varied talents to the London stage. A self-declared lesbian, she quipped ‘My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.’

As the Depression descended, the golden age of the flapper disintegrated into the ascendancy of fascism and another disastrous world war.

Mackrell’s lively, engaging biography paints a fascinating portrait of just six of the flappers who defined their era and who paved the way for a sea-change in the way women perceived both their own lives and their roles in the wider world.

(Macmillan, hardback, £20)