Marion Meade’s new book Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties is like manna from heaven for aficionados of the Roaring Twenties.
Seventeen years ago Meade wrote What Fresh Hell is This? It remains the definitive Dorothy Parker biography; now she expands on the 10 most exciting years of Parker’s life, along with Edna Ferber, Zelda Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
The subtitle of Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin is “Writer’s Running Wild in the Twenties” and it is an exciting read that zeroes in on one decade in the lives of the four women and those close to them. There are other, longer, and deeper biographies and autobiographies of the quartet, but this book digs beneath the surface about what made them so unique, powerful and passionate about what they did.
Meade had a real challenge before her. The reader knows how all four will end up post-1930. The task was to shine a spotlight on the crucial years when all four came into their own and were either on their way up, or down, professionally or personally. Some of the tale is humorous, often tragic, but always fascinating. Anyone who’s read about these women before is sure to learn something new that bigger books might have overlooked.
Zelda Fitzgerald has probably had more written about her than any of the other three women. Married to Scott, she has alternately been portrayed as a tragic southern belle to a real nutcase. Meade shows us how the naïf from Montgomery, Alabama, came into Scott’s life and was swept along in his storm-tossed career. Zelda in the 1920s went from teenager to mother to mental patient. Meade’s research is again sparkling, showing us an unknown chapter about Zelda’s relationship with a French military officer. The Twenties saw Zelda attempt to balance being a newlywed who adored her husband, to vainly attempting to strike out on her own as a ballet star. Her passages are always stoked with high drama.
You can’t talk about Broadway and popular fiction in the 1920s, ’30s or ’40s without writing about Edna Ferber. She penned wildly successful novels and created some of the most famous Broadway shows of all time. She was a reluctant member of the Vicious Circle and won grudging respect from her peers and critics. Meade shows how Ferber was an absolute workhorse when it came to her craft. Ferber dreamed up the material that would become both Showboat and Giant. She toiled away in an apartment on Central Park West, collaborating with the likes of George Kaufman and Oscar Hammerstein (men who sometimes are given more credit than Ferber for the works). Of the four women in the book, Ferber was probably both the hardest worker and the most brilliant. Meade paints a full-color portrait of what she was probably most like, showing her as driven writer who was always reaching for the next rung up.
Of the four, Edna St. Vincent Millay is the most unlikable. You wouldn’t necessarily want to have dinner with her, much less be in the same room with the woman. She was the subject of Zelda author Nancy Milford’s bestselling bio Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay two years ago, but that 600-pager might be too much for some to digest; getting a quarter of Bobbed Hair was enough for me. Millay was an incredibly talented poet and writer, who landed on the scene at the perfect time to become a pop culture sensation. But as Meade explains, she had a family life that was pure soap opera, a kinky sex life and overbearing personality. Here we learn all about how she dumped on friends and used people. Reading about Millay here will make you think twice about skimming over “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.”
Then there is Mrs. Parker. Meade goes back to the well one more time and comes back with buckets of great information and insight into what made Dottie tick. This was the decade of the Round Table, which began in 1919 and flamed out a decade later. The 1920s were when Dottie penned her best poems, and began her short story career. Bobbed Hair illuminates a few more chapters about these crucial 10 years in her life, the period when she split from husband Eddie Parker, forged a brilliant reputation, and then tumbled into suicide attempts and depression. The 1920s did not end well for Dorothy, it would take her a few years to find herself and get on track with fiction writing, travel, leftist causes, Hollywood, and her second husband. Meade’s book explains how Dorothy could come under the spell of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the golden couple of the French Riviera, who Dorothy accompanied in Europe.
If you’re reading Bobbed Hair and happen to be a lover of writers, history, old books and the theatre, then you might know what’s around the corner for all of these women. The stock market crash of 1929 is looming. The Depression is on its way. Prohibition will end. Adolph Hitler is coming to power. And yet the book brings these women and their cohorts so vividly to life, like it was only yesterday that they were creating new material and turning up in the gossip columns.
Re-reading Bobbed Hair this week for the second time, it was a coincidence that the Queen Mary 2 was docked in the city. All of these women sailed on steamships 70 years ago from the same location, also on Cunard liners, no doubt. Reading Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin brings them all back to life, just as watching that big new ship sail into the harbor recalls the days of Transatlantic ocean travel in our jet age.