Flappers compiles the fascinating stories of 6 women who spectacularly came of age in the roaring 1920s. Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Tamara de Limpicka transcended class and background to become the new women of the world. Dance writer Judith Mackrell is an engaging storyteller who pushes the cliches of this era aside to show us how these ‘Flappers’ did a lot more than just dance the Charleston.

The exceptional young girls, some from privileged families, others from poor, were talented artists, dancers and actresses who blazed a trail for women to choose their own lifestyles – from haircuts to sexual relationships – for the first time with varying consequences. They decided on their own sexual conquests (often many and of either sex), they earned their own livings, shortened their hairstyles and their skirts and let loose smoking, drinking, flirting and cussing in public. The “narrow-hipped, flat-chested flapper silhouette” became the desired look of the time though most admirers could only have dared dream about emulating their raucous behaviour as well as their style.

Marriages, affairs, lovers lost at war, drink, drugs, art, acting and dancing…oh and lots and lots of sex! Then there’s the jazz, art deco, Coco Chanel, the Left Bank cafe culture and monied luxury. These audacious women were on the fringes of society, equally at home in a palace or the gutter and throughout this book their stories seem to flutter as such. Rags to riches, riches to rags and back again.

The locations are exotic –  London, New York, Paris, Monte Carlo – and their lifestyles are lavish and the opulence extreme making this a fantastic piece of escapist reading. The Flappers took risks, political and sexual, that leave you breathless at their daring.

When the Jazz era is swallowed up by depression, political and racial shifts and another war, the Flappers’ days of homosexuality, nudity and drunken dancing are numbered….

Introducing the Flappers:

Diana, the daughter of the Duchess of Rutland, was a volunteer nurse during the war. She felt she was partying in the face of death to forget the horrors that she saw treating the sick and injured.

Nancy, also of privileged background, was one of the first women in London to have her hair shingled and skirts shortened. She was described as having “nights of excessive drink followed by days of collapse.”

Tamara was an artist who fled St. Petersburg with her young family to become a renowned portrait painter and outrageous socialite. She took lovers (many of them lesbian) and was enthralled with the decadent Parisian nightlife. She became friends with prominent artists and formed a cocaine habit and a reputation for exhibitionist nudity on the dancefloor!

Tallulah was an attention-seeker from America’s deep south. With good looks and bags of confidence she forged an acting career in New York, a fellow actress noting that she was “violently beautiful.” Tallulah also had a taste for same sex relationships, drink and drugs saying; “my father warned me about men and booze but never mentioned a word about women and cocaine!”

Zelda, perhaps the most famous of the Flappers, was married to American author of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The celebrity couple “were the twenties in some people’s eyes and they have certainly become the faces of the Jazz Age having lived the Gatsby life at all the wildest parties. Fitzgerald took inspiration from their hedonism, romance and bitter rows and used it throughout his fiction. Zelda, meanwhile, was seen to regard life as “an inexhaustible counter from which she seemed to be continually picking out presents for herself.”

Josephine was a poor black dancer from St. Louis who made a name for herself across America as comic chorus girl and ‘jazz babe.’ She went on to make it big when she took her act to Paris. Her story is a cycle of hardship, discrimination, humiliation, fame and glory.

I enjoyed reading about Zelda and Tamara the most. The former due to her turbulent marriage with the much loved author and the latter due to her shameless after-dark exploits! The epilogue to this wonderful book makes for a fascinating read as we discover what became of the girls. It’s a tale of spies, political activism, civil war and mental illness and how there inevitably comes a time when the party is over.

Really brilliant book. My first ‘must-read’ of the year – hooray!



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