Book Review: Flappers by Judith Mackrell (#JazzAgeJan)

The 1920s were a decade of massive social change. Prosperity and excess abounded in the wake of WWI, jazz swung into popularity, and new attitudes about art and sex were on the rise. Amid this atmosphere of adventure, the flapper was born. She wore provocative clothing, attended wild parties, challenged social norms, and was sexually liberated. Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell shines a light on the lives of six women who defined the Roaring Twenties: Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tamara de Lempicka, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Josephine Baker. Mackrell follows these women through London, Paris, and New York as they blaze their unforgettable trails.

Aristocratic Diana Cooper was active in London’s intellectual Coterie, a sort of precursor to the Jazz Age, in the 1910s. The darling of London, she was a celebrity even before she became a star on stage and screen.

Nancy Cunard, a fellow member of the British upper class, was a wild party-girl-turned-poet who became involved in the Paris literary scene, and later, political activism.

After escaping from Russia in 1917, Tamara de Lempicka found her way to Paris, where she became renowned for her Art Deco paintings and sparked scandal with her sexual relationships with both men and women.

Raised in Alabama, Tallulah Bankhead embarked on her pursuit of celebrity at age 15, when she won a movie magazine beauty contest and moved to New York to become an actress. Known for her hard partying, she made splash in London, where she earned a devoted following on the stage.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda is perhaps the most famous flapper; she hosted parties from her bathtub, dove off cliffs, and lived a wild, turbulent lifestyle in New York and Paris before her life was taken over by mental illness.

Born in a Missouri ghetto, Josephine Baker rose to fame in Paris, where her erotic dancing became a sensation. As Europe went crazy for all things African, the dark-skinned Josephine made waves with her nearly-nude performances.

Flappers is a fascinating book about six infinitely interesting women who were ahead of their time. However, as with Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, I had some trouble with the format. Each woman’s story is told in halves (1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A, 6A | 1B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B), and by the time I got to the second half of one lady’s story (200 pages after the first half), I had only hazy recollections of the the first section. I understood the purpose of weaving their stories together this way, but it made absorbing each story more difficult for me.

Despite my trouble with the format, I thought this book was wonderful. It is impeccably researched, and Mackrell brings each woman to life while highlighting their significance both during the 1920s and the decades that followed. A must-read for anyone who loves the Jazz Age or is interested in the roles of women through history.

Disclosure: If you make a purchase through the link above, I will make a tiny commission.