If you like your nonfiction chock full of fascinating anecdotes and the writing on the breezy, chatty side (which is not to say not grounded in historical truth and well researched) you might enjoy Marion Meade's Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties. I have a particular interest in the interwar years. I find that era really compelling to read about as so much changed so quickly--it saw the coming of Modernity, and I love learning how interrelated art, literature and science was in terms of the vast changes from agrarian society to industrial and city-oriented. It's not surprising then, that once I settled into the book I didn't want to set it down. Meade focuses on four American women writers and their milieu--husbands, friends, lovers, and the artistic community in general.
Meade doesn't approach her subjects--Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Edna Ferber--from a critical or academic point of view. She does write about their literary works to some extent, but more in a historical manner than critically. This is an interesting social history along the lines of Joshua Zeitz's Flapper, which I read several years ago. Meade herself says in her brief afterword that she couldn't easily categorize the bock. It covers the years that make up the decade from 1920-1930, and rather than straightforward history or biography, the chapters are made up of a series of vignettes covering each woman's life at this time. She moves from subject to subject and then back again but there were no problems with losing a particular thread. Reading the book was like listening to an insider's stories of their lives, as if they had viewed the subjects from a front row seat.
The women didn't necessarily know each other, or they didn't always move in the same circles, but they were certainly aware of each other, if only even from being friends of friends. Edna Ferber, for example, was a sometimes guest of the famous Algonquin Table set, of which Dorothy Parker was a firmly established member. Zelda Fitzgerald's F. Scott considered Edna's writing rubbish, but then he also tended to appropriate Zelda's writing on occasion and looked down on her as just an amateur. Edna St. Vincent, or just Vincent as she was known, moved peripherally in the same orbit as the others, though more so it was the men in her life that did so. The New Yorker, which came into being in this decade was one of the common threads in all the women's lives. Either their work appeared there or they were in founder Harold Ross's circle.
There are so many tasty morsels in this book I don't know where to begin in talking about the book. It's going to be impossible to give more than a general overview of what I read as the amount of information (always a problem for me and nonfiction--how to corral all the information and present it in a logical and succinct manner) is slightly overwhelming. Since Meade presents her material in a gossipy fashion, let me share just a few good bits that have stuck in my mind.
Probably the best way to think about the women Meade writes about is in an artistic and literary light, because their personal lives were nothing short of messy. Edna St. Vincent Millay's somewhat flamboyant life probably even now overshadows her work as a poet. She led a very bohemian lifestyle with many different lovers. She had an allure that attracted men to her like a flame attracts moths. She would sometimes work on poems for years before publishing them. Millay was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, an honor which Edna Ferber shared in 1924 with her novel So Big. Apparently Ferber's chances of winning were actually fairly slim (not because of the quality of her writing but the fact that the novel was a bestseller), but Ferber had in her corner one of the judges who lobbied hard for her to win. Like so many other women writers she had a solid following and her novels were often money makers, but she didn't get the critical acclaim of her male contemporaries.
Dorothy Parker is known for her witty quips and satirical outlook, and that aspect of her personality shines through in these pages. She wrote for a number of magazines such as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker submitting not only short stories and poems, but also theater and book reviews (P.G. Wodehouse would go on to replace her as theater critic for Vanity Fair). Like Ferber she wasn't especially lucky in love having endured a failed marriage. She also never managed to produce a novel despite having been given an advance (never paid back) to write one. She spent an agonizing year in Europe trying to write it, but always sending back excuses to her publisher when they would enquire about it. And Zelda Fitzgerald. Did you know she was an accomplished dancer? She studied ballet in her twenties almost obsessively, but her fragile mental disposition meant she never achieved her goal to dance on stage. She did write, and it was sometimes her stories that were published under F. Scott's byline. They had a tempestuous relationship, and whatever money they made seemed to flow through their fingers like water.
In the end, what strikes me about these women's lives is just how sad they often were. Both in their relationships with men (or in Edna's case the lack thereof, though she wasn't short of offers) and in their art, life was often a struggle. Millay was often intensely ill. Dorothy Parker tried to kill herself on more than one occasion. Ferber had perhaps the most stable personal life as well as a fair amount of popularity and success, but the success seemed to come at a cost. And Zelda would end her life in an institution. The war was over but the economy would soon take a tumble (to say the least). Prohibition was raging (though you wouldn't know it by the way the Fitzgeralds lived). And if you were too Left-leaning socially you risked being blackballed.
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin is really just a teaser of a book. For a very broad overview of the era and lots of interesting stories about a few fascinating personalities you can't beat it. It's really just a jumping off place, though--lots of interesting facts to tuck away somewhere in the back of my mind. I could happily now pick up a book about any of the four women to learn more about their lives and their world. Or perhaps just dip into their work now. I've only read a few of Dorothy Parker's stories and perhaps a few of Millay's poems, but nothing by Ferber or Zelda Fitzgerald. I do hope to rectify that sometime soon. Until then, this was a thoroughly enjoyable peek into their lives.