The Twenties are the oldest decade our modern minds can still relate to. This most frantic of ages, always “Roaring,” always “Hot,” saw the exhilarating rush and burst, if not the precise birth, of so much that defined what we now do, what we now see: radio, recorded music, film, a suffusion of advertisements, automobiles, anti-war sentiment, skyscrapers, a lessening of restraints on women; even the very term “Modernism” is heavily associated with the Twenties. It was a dazzling and suddenly popularized new world Americans returned to after armistice, one predicated on fun and with irrevocable disconnects between new and old sensibilities, which, to a great extent, we still find ourselves living in today.
But, of course, the most eloquently drunk decade finally became shit-faced on its own bought-on-margin decadence and ended on a famously bad note, conveniently marked by the devastating crash of the stock market. And so we inherent a very neatly compacted story: A charmingly naïve modern exuberance finally collapses in exhaustion. The sweet and tragic tale is as simple and picture-perfect as the endless Twenties musicals that still litter Broadway today. It all makes for a great story, one very easy to become drawn in by, especially because so many of the writers recording these years also happened to lead equally dizzying lives.
Marion Meade’s Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties returns to this enchanting story and gives us the lives, from 1920 to 1930, of Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber. Even before you’re done reading that subtitle, about “writers running wild,” the theme is already being stretched to fill out the book. Hard-headed Edna Ferber, author of So Big and Show Boat, hardly does any living, let alone “running wild.” And Zelda, despite dashing off numerous short stories and a couple novels, never thought of herself as a writer or ever approached her husband’s significance. (F. Scott called his wife’s writing “third rate.”)
It’s that Twenties allure, the pull of a charming ready-made story, that brought a book like Bobbed Hair to publication. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the writing. There’s simply no theme or perspective offered on these women’s lives and works other than the already well-worn commonplaces on the period. An introduction, with the usual sweeping comments of intent, isn’t bothered with, and the only afterward is a series of single paragraph obituaries of the rest of the subjects’ lives. The chapters, accordingly, aren’t titled beyond the years they represent (“1920,” “1921,” “1922” ).
Still, if you’re yearning for acquaintanceship with these women, the book will do, though there are far better biographies out there, more poignant ones and, sure, ones more full of salacious details, too. But even without the presence of a conscious biographer, their lives are vivid enough to shine through the biographer’s muted perception.
Poor Dorothy Parker picks away at her writing that she never seems to complete about unrequited love and how much of a pain in the ass suicide is. (She would make at least three failed attempts at ending her life — and tell party guests all about it.) Edna St. Vincent Millay toys with every man who comes under her acute sexual spell, on one occasion apologizing for being late to a rendezvous with one lover because she just came from another’s bed and needs to go before too long because she has a date with a third that day. And Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald cannot seem to live off the contemporary equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. They go broke living in hotel suites. Scott punches Zelda. He pisses on Hemingway’s porch. And he writes some of the most poignant prose on the decade that any age ever received. (It’s their hopeless finances, though, and Zelda’s dreams of dancing that mostly occupy the book, though.)
The only virgin in the book, Edna Ferber is also the only woman here not to have an abortion or go broke or go at least mildly batty. Ferber gets in no trouble, has no real love life, and writes, as Dorothy Parker thought of her, like “someone who whistled while she typed.” If only, for our own selfish purposes, she had been more of a fascinating mess.
Overall, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin doesn’t aspire to make us feel like we know these women, which is the great attraction of a good biography. Instead, episodes from their lives are stacked up one after another as though the book was an assignment to include everything the author was able to dig up. Witness this negligent cramming of narration: “In Montgomery, Zelda’s father was a circuit-court judge, later associate justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, where he was known as the ‘Brains of the Bench,’ and she was her father’s daughter.” And she was her father’s daughter: yes, don’t forget to squish that part in after the “Brains of the Bench” stuff. Personal insight comes in similarly lax form throughout, such as “She was not happy. But she was not unhappy either.”
The strongest indictment of the book’s vagueness comes in the author’s own acknowledgements, where she recounts wondering while writing Bobbed Hair what tied these lives together when they didn’t make up “even an informal circle.” “Eventually,” she writes, “I realized that the book was turning into a series of vignettes,” finally admitting, frankly, that she “conceived this book because I love the Twenties and I love writers.” Well, okay, if she has no further reason why she wrote the book, then neither will anyone else have one for reading it.
But at least we know full well why we read these biographies: because we simply cannot resist “knowing” our most beloved figures. Bobbed Hair will take its place on shelves reserved for the disappointing biographies we’ve all read, books we just couldn’t help but buy, about every author, every celebrity, every anybody whose larger-than-life persona helped shape our own consciousness that much more.