Malcolm Cowley’s A Second Flowering was an interesting read. Some of the criticism and interpretation was dated, but it was still a solid book. Something it lacked, however, was discussion of any female writers of the time. To try to remedy that I turned to Marion Meade’s 2004 work Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties. It had been on my list for quite some time so what better time to pick it up? Unfortunately, I made it about 80 pages before giving up.
Bobbed Hair follows the lives of four women – Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edna Ferber – during the 1920s. Structured chronologically, each chapter is a year, starting in 1920 and going through 1930. The stories of each of the four women are intertwined throughout. My first issue with the book came in terms of this structure.
An often used technique in nonfiction to make it read more like a novel, it simply didn’t work well here for me. I recently finished Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City and loved it. It went back and forth between different storylines, but never once did I get lost and have to question which storyline I was reading about. This work bounces back and forth between these four women’s stories multiple times in a chapter, throwing out many names, and I found it extremely hard to keep track of who I was reading about. Besides which, as soon as I would get into one person’s story, it would switch, and it was very jarring. That was distracting but not enough to stop me reading.
Another big issue came up for me with the treatment of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. I have long been captivated by both of them, have read many books regarding their lives and works, and have visited a number of places they lived or frequented. The first thing that came up for me is why Zelda was included in the first place when there were so many other more prominent female writers of the time. During her lifetime she published one novel and a series of shorter pieces. Personally, I loved her novel, Save Me the Waltz, and thoroughly enjoyed reading her collected works. However, the other three women profiled in this book dedicated their lives to the craft of writing, while Zelda did not. And yet she is the first name listed on the dust jacket. (Lest anyone think it’s because it’s alphabetical order, Edna Ferber, arguably the least known in modern times of the four, is listed last). It honestly feels like she was added to this because everyone knows her name and her addition adds great color to any story.
Beyond that is the author’s treatment of Zelda and Scott’s life. Of the books that I’ve read, many, especially early ones, praise Scott and vilify Zelda. Other later ones hold up Zelda’s life almost as something to aspire to, blaming all of her problems on Scott. This book feels definitely more towards the latter. The fact of the matter is both of them were a mess and that did not seem to be treated equally here. That distraction made me question the other storylines about people that I had not read as much about. Frankly, the way she often speaks about the two of them is odd.
Take this quote from page 76: “At the end of September, Zelda moved into a shiny new home in Great Neck Estates, a leafy maze of twisting lanes just off Middle Neck Road.” For the second time in the book, she writes in this manner, which implies that Zelda, alone, moved into a new place, when, of course, Scott and their daughter Scottie were there too. It’s simply odd and distracting. If my fiancé and I were to move into a new apartment, I would always refer to both of us, not just myself. No one would say of the matter, “Greg moved into a new apartment.” They would say “Greg and Cori moved” or “They moved” or “Greg’s family moved,” or “The Janetka’s moved.” Perhaps it’s a small thing, but those sorts of things were consistent throughout all of what I read. And as a writer, I am well aware of the importance and purpose behind word choices.
For an example of a non-Fitzgerald related thing that bothered me is this passage from page 72 regarding Dorothy Parker’s relationship with Charlie MacArthur: “The basis of Dottie’s relationship with Charlie was pure and simple sex – and scotch. As a result, a number of misconceptions arose on both sides. Convinced he was entirely hers, she ignored his wandering eye and put her trust in love.” Well, which one is it? Was the relationship “pure and simple sex” or did she think it love? It simply can’t be both, and nothing is more pure and simple than that.
There is no doubt that female writers of the 1920s were overlooked in many histories. They deserve equal time and billing and attention, but this is not the book for it. From the title and subtitle, to the setup of the book, everything about it seems like it was written for the sensational value, as a beach read, for people who know little about the era other than the excessive drinking and parties. Pass.
Anyone with recommendations for better books about female writers during this time, please comment below!