Monday, December 22, 2014

Flapper, by Joshua Zeitz

Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America ModernFlapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Flapper" takes the reader through the post-WWI decade that saw America's youth discard the values that brought their elders into war, and instead embarked on a self-indulgent party where the stock market and hemlines soared. It was a decade of extremes: Prohibition, automobiles, women voting, advertising taking hold-- a tremendous time of social change that made America far more recognizable to today's readers than the time which preceded it.

Zeitz, a historian, sets the historical table nicely by introducing us to the generation just above the youth of the 1920s. The contrast between Victorian/Edwardian values and the life of the flapper could not have been more extreme, and he does an excellent job of enumerating the differences, even to the point of quoting desperate parents who had lost control of teenage children to fast cars, bathtub gin, and casual sex. This generation of youth were called "Moderns" in their own time, and indeed, their parents' reaction to their exploits seems quite modern even in 2014. Zeitz also does a fine job of detailing the societal influences that led to this new freedom: the availability and privacy of cars, the liberation of women with voting parity, and the almost-open invitation to imbibe the forbidden fruit of alcohol when it was legally prohibited.

The only issue I have with this book is that Zeitz relies almost entirely on celebrities to describe 1920s culture. He devotes chapters to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Coco Chanel, Lois Long, and various movie stars. Celebrity culture is much different than how the other millions of Americans lived, and apart from a few quotes out of a Muncie, Indiana newspaper, he illustrates the details of the decade with celebrities. These celebrities tended to great extremes: Louise Brooks of movie fame, for example, was wilder than Lindsey Lohan at her worst, and the Fitzgeralds suffered from mental illness and alcoholism even at their best. I would have preferred a balance of regular folk to describe the reality of those years.

It's still compelling reading. The Fitzgeralds, Chanel, and the movie stars were no strangers, but I hadn't read about Lois Long previously, so I found her story interesting-- she was a magazine culture writer using a pseudonym in those years. If you have interest in the social climate of the 1920s or wonder how things got as wild as they did in those years, Zeitz explains it well. It doesn't have a happy ending, but in that, it gives one pause to consider moderation in all things.

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