Reading list

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, by Marion Meade

Dorothy Parker is my literary/verbal hero. She can flash and plunge a verbal dagger that makes you laugh while you bleed. I don’t usually want to verbally wound people – unless they really deserve it – but I covet her ability to play with words. So when I stumbled across Meade’s biography of Parker (as well as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edna Ferber and Zelda Fitzgerald), I pounced.

The best thing about Meade’s biography, besides her four fascinating subjects, is that it’s written to read more like a novel than a straightforward biography (which usually dwells too long on mundane events that seem important but really only serve to bore the reader to death). Rather than focus on the minutiae of these women’s lives, Meade examines the culture of New York in the ’20s and how Parker, Millay, Ferber and Fitzgerald subverted expectations in their writing and personal lives.

The book spans the entire decade of the 1920s, with each chapter comprising one year. The voice, though always third person, rotates between each writer. Meade also does not shy away from the juicy stuff – in this case, the freewheeling sexual attitude common among both men and women at the time. Though Zelda Fitzgerald is ensconced in her marriage to F. Scott early on, the romantic exploits of Parker, Millay and Ferber constantly crop up in the narrative. And Meade doesn’t shy away from showing the darker side of these romances, including abortions and emotional exhaustion.

The focus, however, is on the writing. Each of these literary heroines (having read this book, I think I have to add Millay, Ferber and Fitzgerald to my list) were unafraid to cover sensitive or taboo topics in their essays, poetry, novels and plays. Parker started as a writer for Vanity Fair before embarking on her own. Millay, or Vincent as she is called in the book, was a bestselling novelist. Ferber came into her own as a playwright, and Fitzgerald published stories under her husband’s name because, as a known party girl, publishers (and her husband) refused to take her seriously. But she kept writing.

Meade also introduces other prominent literary figures at the time, such as Harold Ross, who founded and edited The New Yorker, and writer and actor Robert Benchley. She covers the Algonquin round table – a weekly meeting of writers, editors and publishers at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, including Dorothy Parker – and how the members worked, played and fought together. Like in a novel, there is no absence of drama, which makes the narrative that much more compelling.

I started this book as a Dorothy Parker devotee, and am now planning to add books by Millay, Ferber and Fitzgerald (Zelda, not F. Scott – already read him) to my list. Meade has opened a window into a fascinating and literary-freewheeling time, and I am hankering to read more.

And remember, folks, “brevity is the soul of lingerie.” We can thank Dorothy Parker for such excellent advice.

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