In Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, Judith Mackrell brings to life the fascinating stories of six women—Zelda Fitzgerald, Tamara de Lempicka, Josephine Baker, Lady Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, and Tallulah Bankhead. In our interview, Mackrell discusses why the flappers of the 1920s were so transgressive and what their lasting impact has been.
What was the seed of this book? Where did it begin and how did it develop?
It began with an interest in writing a group biography. The first biography I wrote was about just one woman, the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, who was married to the economist John Maynard Keynes. Lydia’s was a wonderfully expansive life to tell, covering decades and continents of history. But I was curious to look at biography from another angle – from the notion that many of the experiences, ambitions, desires, conflicts, etc. that we imagine to be particular to one individual life, might in fact be the product of them living at a particular time.
I’ve always thought of the 1920s as a very dynamic, transforming decade for women in general. So I wanted to see how that era affected the lives of six women, who were all of the generation that came of age around 1920.
What was the definition of a ‘flapper’ in the 1920s? Why was this new type of woman considered dangerous and subversive?
The term flapper was fluid at the start of the decade. In the UK, it was used to describe a new generation of women who were, for various reasons, perceived as a worryingly unpredictable social force. The fact that a historic number were expecting to work for a living; that many faced a future without husbands due to the carnage of the First World War; that many were soon to get the vote, all contributed to a profound social unease. No one knew exactly how these independent women would behave – whether they would become even more politically rebellious than the suffragettes, whether they would overwhelm the job market or whether they would become sexual predators.
In America, the term flapper was more specifically attached to the wisecracking, pleasure-seeking independent type women who emerged after the war, who drank and smoked in public, flirted with men, and wore their skirts as short or even shorter than the new fashions dictated. The American flapper was subversive, in that her mission was to be as unlike her mother as possible, and because she was associated with loose morals, and jazz. But it was a less overtly political, sociological definition of the term flapper, one associated more with style than substance.
Towards the end of the decade it was this latter interpretation of the word flapper that dominated usage on both sides of the Atlantic, and one that we still, perhaps inaccurately, employ today.
Diana, Nancy, Tamara, Tallulah, Zelda, and Josephine all came from different backgrounds and had unique experiences. However, for me, what connected them was the intense desire to construct independent lives and to create art on their own terms. For you, what is the unifying thread that connects all these women?
I chose all six because the lives they were living by the mid-1920s were so completely unlike anything they could have imagined for themselves when they were growing up.
They were interesting to me because they covered a wide spread – geographically professionally and socially - although my final selection was partly the fact that in 1925 (the mid point of my story) all six were on the move. One of the aspects of the 1920s that struck me was that it was not only a socially and culturally dynamic decade but that it was physically in transit - the ease and speed of new forms of travel setting the foundations for a modern, internationalised world.
As I read your book, I was compelled by the impact of World War I on the women, particularly Lady Diana Cooper who volunteered as a nurse in the VAD and lost several friends, as well as Nancy Cunard who lost the man she considered her true love. As you know, 2014 is the centenary of the start of World War I. Could you elaborate on the effect the war had on the generation that came of age in the 1920s?
I think the war had its most profound effect on Europe, not simply because of the mass of men who were lost during four years of fighting but because it changed the daily texture of life, through bombings, blackouts, food and petrol rationing.
But on both sides of the Atlantic the terrible casualty figures, the sense of civilisation being under threat produced a collective spirit of carpe diem. People did believe they had to live for the present because the future was so uncertain, and that spirit continued into the 1920s
The war also caused a deep shift in social mores. The young and very aristocratic Diana Cooper, who became a volunteer nurse, found an exhilarating freedom even in the drudgery of cleaning bedpans and changing dressings, because she was free from the vigilance of her mother and her chaperones, and was mixing with types of people she had never encountered before, except as servants.
At the Front, life in the trenches created an unprecedented mixing of classes and races. And there was in general a loosening of sexual taboos: young men and women saw no point in waiting for marriage before they became lovers and after the war, grief-stricken women like Nancy Cunard, who’d lost the man she regarded as her true love , replaced him with a series of lovers, filling the void in her life with more temporary diversions.
It’s important not to overestimate the effect of the war–many of the old Victorian proprieties and divisions remained after 1918–but those years did open up significant cracks in the social fabric, which made possible some of the very rapid changes of the twenties.
Your book illustrates the important contributions that lesbian writers and artists made to the culture of 1920s Paris. I was especially struck by the essential role that salons played in nurturing women. You write about the difference between the salon of Gertrude Stein and that of Natalie Barney. The latter appeared to be more welcoming of women artists. Could you speak more about the ways in which women supported one another as friends, artists, and lovers?
It was still very unusual for women in the early 20th century to be accepted into the great universities or arts academies, or to thrive professionally without male patrons; the movie and theatre industries were largely run by men and certainly all six of my subjects gained crucial support from women. Tamara and Zelda both gravitated towards Natalie Barney’s salon, Josephine was given her big professional break in Paris by Caroline Dudley, Tallulah’s early New York career was steered by women, Nancy Cunard’s most steadfast friends were Janet Flanner and Solita Solano.
Finally, what are your overall feelings about these six women? Do you see them as tragic, brave, revolutionary? What do you think has been their lasting impact?
All of the above. Even though none of my six women regarded themselves as feminists, and some of the choices they made can seem muddled and selfish, I feel they represented an essential chapter in the story of women’s liberation. They took the freedoms that came with the twenties and tried to live them to the full, they explored what it meant to be independent career women, lovers, mothers, wives and artists at a time when there were few role models available to follow. A lot of the issues that women campaigned about in the late 1960s and 70s had already been lived through by this flapper generation. And I’d argue that the more superficial ways in which popular culture has represented the flapper – as the 1920 party girl with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette holder in the other – has deflected attention from the more fundamental significance of this generation’s desire to reinvent themselves.