Mackrell’s Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation profiles some of the notable women who upended traditional notions of femininity in the shadow of WWI.
“Dangerous” is such an intriguing word to describe the 1920s. How and why was that word chosen?
Today we tend to think of flappers as party girls, and we don’t see beyond the bobbed hair, the cocktails, and the cigarettes. But back in the day they were regarded as a subversive social force: representatives of a generation of women who had the vote, who were experimenting with social and sexual independence, and who appeared to dismiss the old female virtues of duty and self-sacrifice.
Were there originally more than six women you planned to write about?
There were many others who fascinated me: Janet Flanner, the Paris correspondent for the New Yorker; Mercedes D’Acosta, the buccaneering lesbian; and the deliciously larky Iris Tree. But I opted to stay within the arts, and these six offered me painting, literature, cinema, dance, theater, etc. They were also interesting because they moved around so much.
As a dance critic, did your interest in dance draw you to the 1920s?
Josephine [Baker] was one of the world’s great dancers, and I was champing at the bit to describe and analyze her talent. Her story was key to the themes of my book, the way her career was driven by the global spread of jazz during the 1920s, and by the European fascination with African art. The 1920s was a significant decade for women, precipitating profound changes in their public and private lives. Dance was key to the writing, though. One major change was the physical freedom women began to claim, not only in throwing off of their corsets and wearing shorter skirts but in their public body language. Jazz dances were shocking to an older generation inclined to view them as evidence of moral collapse.
It would be unfair to ask if you have a favorite, but did any of them stick with you long after you finished writing?
Nancy [Cunard]. She could be hard, capricious, and manipulative, but she was also incredibly brave in her refusal to compromise her emotions and independence. And she was exceptional in moving with the times, seeing clearly the limitations of her own social existence as she gained a more radical political viewpoint on the world. Nancy’s labor of love, her work in editing and publishing Negro, her compendious history of black culture and politics, and her courage as a reporter during the Spanish Civil War both had a dimension of heroism.
How did aging affect these women’s desires? Is a true flapper ageless?
In some ways my women carried on regardless of age. But I was shocked by how rapidly some of them declined physically. Tallulah [Bankhead], Nancy, Tamara [de Lempicka] in particular really battered their bodies with hard work and hard living. “Burning the candle at both ends” was a phrase aptly coined by the 1920s “flapper” poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.