The 1920s was a decade not so unlike the 1960s, or so Judith Mackrell writes in her book Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation. While the more recent period of free love might be hailed as the more significant period of sexual freedom and progressiveness for women’s rights and voices to be heard, things were happening largely in Europe that put real change into motion, and most of them can be attributed to a handful of artists, writers, actors and performers who weren’t interested in being subservient wives and dutiful mothers, at least not those two things alone. Flappers, available now from Sarah Crichton Books, profiles the lives of Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald and Tamara de Lempicka while also highlighting several other women in the same progressive movement as their lives were inevitably intertwined. And one thing that is clear from the stories: Women who acknowledged their sexual attraction to other women or who did not shy away from friendships with women that identified as other than straight were those who led to the most social change. With two chapters dedicated to each woman, Judith touches on the most important bits of the six’s childhood, family situations, romances, marriages and careers, pulling from more extensive biographies available. In the introduction she sets the scene for the decade, detailing that research from the ’20s showed both contraception and divorce rates were on the rise and “sexual lives of women were more openly acknowledged.” In turn, lesbianism became “fashionable chic.” As a struggling actress in New York at age 17, Tallullah Bankhead would say to people, “I’m a lesbian–what do you do?” Although later she would be upset if someone referred to her as “Sapphist.” Like performer Josephine Baker and artist Tamara de Lempicka, she had several sexual and romantic relationships with women, but also with men, including a long-time love affair with a bisexual man named Napier George Henry Sturt. Judith writes on Tallulah’s later life in London:
Yet she didn’t identify herself as lesbian in the very public way she had in New York. She had taken against London’s more aggressively political sapphists — a clique dismissed by Cecil Beaton as ventriloquist’s dummies for their humourless opinions and mannish suits. WHen Taullulah had threatened to slap Raymond de Trafford for suggestions she was a sapphist, she wasn’t being coy, she was genuinely insulted.
This despite her saying things like, “My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.” An actress who, above all, craved attention from the public and critics, she entertained relationships with everyone from her lesbian assistant to rival actresses, including Marlene Dietrich. Another performer who lived for the spotlight was Josephine Baker, who had the odds against her from birth. Growing up poor and black in the ghettos of St. Louis, Josephine used her sexuality to get ahead in her career and was involved with her mentor-of-sorts, singer Clara Smith. Judith writes:
Onstage Clara’s trademark routine was to pick out the ugliest man in the audience and sing a melting love song direct to his face. Offstage, however, her preference was for young women. … To Josephine, Clara was a fabulously glamorous creature, even without her stage make-up and blue feather boa, and even when she was smoking the filthy corncorb pipe to which she was addicted. When Clara offered to give her singing lessons, Josephine was overjoyed, and she didn’t much care when it became obvious what Clara expected in return.
Later Josephine went on tour with the black vaudeville show Shuffle Along and became involved with another dancer named Evelyn Sheppard.
She and Josephine became physically very close. They didn’t think of thesmelves as lesbian — in their world that implied perversion– but the quasi-sexual intimacy they enjoyed was nevertheless very common in show business. Young women would frequently share a bed in order to save money, and would frequently take pleasure in comfort of each other’s bodies.
Josephine never classified her sexuality but a move to Berlin from Paris “transfixed her,” as “women wore tuxedos and monocles in open view, while men flaunted lipstick and kohl.” Interestingly Judith notes that Josephine was aghast at the idea of doing any kind of public sexual performances in front of women, because she felt that was disrespectful to the women and herself as a performer. (If she was called to do so in front of men, she accepted it as part of the job.) An affair with the French writer Colette was never confirmed, but rumored to happen after Colette attended one of Josephine’s performances at her venue, Chez Josephine. She wasn’t the only one who paled around with the novelist, though. Polish-Russian artist Tamara de Lempicka came to befriend her during the sapphic salons of Natalie Barney. Tamara, who had a husband and young daughter, found herself interested in both painting and bedding women upon a move to Paris after her home in St. Petersburg was overtaken in the German invasion. Tamara dedicated herself solely to her art, inspired by the women frequenting the cafes and bars of the Let Bank, a “liberating androgyny” and “degree of democracy” in their style. They became her muses, and her lovers.
Tamara portrayed women as she imagined they liked to view themselves, as both chic and sexually desirable. But even more distinctive was the fact that her models’ allure was directed as much, if not more, towards the gaze of other women as it was to men.
Her work was part of the inspiration for the art deco movement, and gained her entrance into some of the most prestigious European museums as well as the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. While it seems that the high-profile lesbian women of the time might have made for more acceptance in public opinion, Judith notes it wasn’t so.
[Sapphic] encounters had to be managed with discretion. … in most public areas, it was impossible for two women, or two men, to openly solicit each other or behave like lovers without attracting abuse. Among the most strait-laced circles of the Parisian upper classes, a known lesbian would certainly not be accepted.
Tamara de Lempicka
This could be one of the reasons why the women of Flappers find their relationships with men to be based more on status and financial security, and those with women to be founded on passion and sexual intimacy. Zelda Fitzgerald, on the other hand, did not have any known sexual relationships with women, but she did have an interesting friendship with Oscar Wilde‘s lesbian cousin Dolly Wilde that had her briefly questioning her marriage to her novelist husband Scott. From Flappers:
But while she enjoyed this nuanced, feminine flirtation Zelda was afraid. Growing up in Alabama her sexuality had been predicated on the clear-cut definitions of Southern beaux and Southern belles. Deep down, the idea she might be a lesbian repelled her.
Judith writes that “a survey conducted among 2,200 middle-class American women in the late 1920s revealed that many had experienced lesbian impulses” and “nearly half of those interviewed said they’d experienced a close emotional relationship with another woman, while a quarter admitted to those relationships being sexual.” She then writes that even Tallulah, who was at one time very open and frank about her lesbianism, “would find herself in situations where she felt the need to pretend she’d never been anything but heterosexual.” The other two women in the book — British writer Nancy Cunard and actress Diana Cooper — were not involved in lesbian relationships, but had friends of the persuasion. Among Nancy’s closest friends were New Yorker writer Janet Flanner and her partner Solita Solano. Nancy, Judith writes, “sexually… had little interest in women and she certainly had no intention of complicating her bond with Janet and Solita.”
As for Diana, she was inspired by a performance of The Vision of Salome she attended with her mother in 1908, which starred out actress Maud Allan. Judith writes that it was an “odd choice,” as the play was quite scandalous and “rumours… circulated around Allan, about her past career as a lingerie model, about her publication of a sex manual and about her many lovers, male and female.”
In Flappers, the six women’s romances are part of a tapestry that weave together their individual influence in areas of their fierce independence, trailblazing careers and inevitable activism. They were each part of a time when young females were expected to find suitable husbands and produce children and uphold family traditions, and suffered at the hand of public opinion for their decisions that that kind of life simply wasn’t enough. While some of them did have successful marriages and become mothers, others found themselves struggling to figure out how to maintain the kind of lives they wanted for themselves as the ’20s ended and the depression and war era of the ’30s was ushered in.
Author Judith Mackrell
What Judith Mackrell does so well in Flappers is illustrate how the 1920s were the era in which “short-skirted young women [were] ready to elevate sexual emancipation and freedom of spirit over the dutiful conservatism of their parents, ready to take drugs and dance to music that was designed as an assault on the middle aged.” But more importantly, they began to challenge the idea of what it was to be a woman in modern society, forever changing how we can achieve what we want in all aspects of our lives, even when confronted with sexism, racism, homophobia and classism, the same kinds of things we’re dealing with today. But as Judith writes at the end of the book, “Even now they hold up a standard against which our own vision and nerve can be judged.”