All That Jazz
Six Women of a Dangerous Generation
by Judith Mackrell
Sarah Crichton Books
$28.00 List Price
It is the unfortunate fate of many women of a certain period to be recalled not as individuals but as "flappers," a word that seems, to modern chroniclers, a nearly irresistible invitation to a morality tale. A woman of the 1920s might refuse domesticity without consequence; a flapper, on the other hand, will burn brightly for a time before descending into the kind of callow, knowing narcissism that completes a particular narrative arc. We know many of these stories by heart: Zelda Fitzgerald fell into madness, and Tamara de Lempicka into obscurity. Tallulah Bankhead was a drunk, Josephine Baker never grew out of her childish need for adulation, and socialite-poet Nancy Cunard died alone after the friends whom she regularly abused abandoned her. Lady Diana Cooper passed away without a notable accomplishment. How miserable they were; how desperate to be loved; how transparently needy their cartwheels and fountain play.
"Much of what this flapper generation wanted to become," writes Judith Mackrell in Flappers, her summation of the lives of the six women above, "was stalled or deflected by events of the thirties and forties." F. Scott Fitzgerald described his mistress Sheilah Graham, whom he took when his wife was middle-aged and hospitalized, as "one of the few beautiful women of Zelda's generation to have reached 1938 unscathed."
It remains unclear whether any woman of any generation comes unscathed to middle age, but Fitzgerald's sentimental scorn for the women of the Jazz Age seems particularly unsuited to Josephine Baker. Born to a mother who despised her, she responds