Sex, Drugs and the Charleston. During the ‘Roaring 20’s’, life for the rich and famous was a riot. Flappers, decadence and an economy on the brink of an abyss; Scott Fitzgerald’s book is as relevant now as it was in the twenties.
The wondrous glamour will be brought to life this May, with the release of ‘The Great Gatsby’, starring Jack Dawson (aka Leonardo DiCaprio).
Dubbed ‘the Jazz Age’, when America reacted against stringent Prohibition laws with a decade-long drinking orgy; the original ‘It’ girls danced the Charleston on the roofs of taxi cabs and mobsters machine-gunned each other in the streets. All amid a boom-bust economic cycle — very much like our own — which culminated in the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
The Great Nostalgia
For those not in the know, ‘The Great Gatsby’ follows the progress of a handsome young racketeer, Jay Gatsby, and his long-time love for a spoilt and flighty rich girl, Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby, once a poor boy from the Midwest, amasses his wealth through organised crime. He buys an enormous, showy mansion on Long Island, across the water from Daisy; who is naturally married to someone else.
Too timid to approach her directly, he throws a series of extravagant parties to catch her attention and prove he’s at last worthy to have her. Those crazy, drunken, romp-in-the fountain soirees capture the very essence of the time.
The Great Gatsby was all about nostalgia, with Gatsby determined to reconstruct the dream of his infatuation with Daisy. These days we are nostalgic for a supposedly more romantic, decent and safe past – which makes total sense, given my historical fiction obsession! This nostalgia has turned into a huge commercial engine which dominates all parts of our life, such as fashion, décor, films and pop music. We all crave and want it. And to top it all off we want it to be as simple and fun as it looks in the pictures of yesteryear.
Gatsby himself is the embodiment of the American Dream; he rose from pauper to prince. He believed that anyone could make it if they shared his drive, ruthlessness and the quality Fitzgerald defined as ‘willingness of the heart’.
The pioneering ‘Flappers’
Now don’t go thinking it was only the men who were living to excess. Women also enjoyed this indulgent lifestyle.
Regardless of what social conventions have dictated, us girls have always been naughty creatures. Women of the twenties could openly indulge their fantasies… certainly a notion not lost on the women of today.
The majority of these ‘pioneers’ were celebrities involved in the arts, such as Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Tallulah Bankhead. It wasn’t just the Americans living life on the wild side; girls in Europe jumped on the bandwagon too. Women like Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard and Tamara de Lempicka.
Money flowed, as did the alcohol, and the sweet jazz sounds rang out. These fashionable women lived a life of ‘high spirits’, short skirts, decadence and social liberation.
‘My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine’: Tallulah Bankhead in ‘Her Cardboard Lover’, (1903-68)
Source: Getty Images
These giddy, creative and enthusiastic women of the Roaring Twenties’ were named ‘flappers’; largely down to their outgoing, effervescent personalities. They were writers, actresses, painters, society heiresses and a completely new breed of women recognisable by cutting-edge bobbed hair, thick make-up and a weakness for smoking, drinking, dancing… and then some!
The actress Diana Cooper had a colourful life and is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful women of her time.
This stereotype is confirmed in a new book, based on the most infamous of these flapper women. ‘Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation’ by Judith Mackrell describes 20s ladies as bawdy souls with a love for cocaine, lesbian affairs and all-night sex sessions. Anything went – which is pretty much the mantra of the modern women – whether or not we choose to participate.
Why Should We Have Boundaries Restricting Our Pleasure?
Well, if we look at cases of over-indulgence in both the twenties and noughties, it’s fair to say that sometimes boundaries are there for a reason…
The twenties gal and modern woman are both seeking freedom to express themselves. In an era of soaring stock markets, consumer expansion, urbanization and fast travel, women were re-imagining both the small details and the large ambitions of their lives.
For the rich and fabulous, the pursuit of experience was not just about dancing and wearing fashionable clothes. They made themselves prominent among the artists, icons and heroines of their age, pursuing experience in ways that other people could never have imagined. The women were defining what it meant to be young and a woman in an age where banishing the old repressive ways had thrown the world wide open!
Experience & Bling: We can have it all!
Talented, reckless and wilful, with personalities that transcended their class and background, they re-wrote their destinies in remarkable, fascinating and tragic ways.
Gatsby is also a very modern figment of the consumer society and its flashy values, with his vast collection of material goods. He was majorly into ‘bling’ – 80 years before we all jumped on the bandwagon!
Today, over excess goes way beyond class and is available to all of us on one level or another – Much like it was in the ‘Roaring Twenties’!