Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin

Marion Meade's Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin follows the amorous adventures and professional struggles of four iconic women writers of the 1920s: Edna Ferber, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, and Zelda Fitzgerald. The brisk, gossipy prose is perfectly fitting; as Meade writes in her acknowledgments, "The jittery rhythms seemed to suit the lives of my subjects."

Dottie Parker was the greatest wit of them all, but she was also chronically depressed, making several suicide attempts and telling perfect strangers at her favorite speakeasy all the lurid details of her spoiled love affairs. Zelda Fitzgerald was the prototypical flapper, a pampered Southern girl who gave her early stories to her husband to be published under his name. The responsible, hard-working, commercially successful Edna Ferber inevitably seems rather dull in comparison.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose work I'm most familiar with, comes off the least sympathetically of the four writers. According to the author, she slept with as many as three men (or women) a day and tossed her lovers aside like yesterday's undies, conned a small publisher into giving her a $500 advance for a novel she basically had no intention of writing, failed to return a typewriter that belonged to the Red Cross (which a former lover had only given her on loan)—the Red Cross, of all places!—and treated her sisters and mother with a great deal of callousness. Of "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" and Millay's family's reaction to it, Meade writes:
The ballad depicted not just the outlines of Cora's struggle—certainly nothing was made explicit—but her ideas, her experiences, the essence of her being. It was piracy so surprising that she was incapable of replying for three months. Kay, always alert to shady motives in her sister, was aghast. "I cried when I got that poem," she said afterward, thinking Vincent had no right to use such painful family experiences and pass them off as her own. "Years of hard filthy labor on her part—and you get the Pulitzer Prize for such a pretty song you made of it."
Meade's account of Millay's life during the '20s paints the poet as a classic narcissist; one of her friends planned to write a piece of thinly-veiled fiction about a poet-genius with an "inability to love anybody or anything but the secret guarded image of herself." I'm not much for poetry, but I've read and admired Millay's for several years now, and until reading Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin I knew next to nothing about her life. This is an issue that occasionally troubles me. When you hear something distasteful about a writer's personal life, how does that affect your reading of their work? Is it at all relevant? I'm not talking product-of-their-times kind of flaws; I'm talking the sort of shenanigans that contribute to common stereotypes and misapprehensions about what it means to be a writer—the alcoholism, mental illness and suicide attempts, infidelity, promiscuity, general recklessness and outrageous selfishness. (And yet there are other details that are no doubt relevant to a writer's body of work—I find it odd that Meade never mentions any of Millay's many homosexual relationships. She mentions some nude photographs taken with the wife of Millay's longtime friend Arthur Ficke, but that's pretty much it.)

Another all-too-colorful character is F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose drunken buffoonery, emotional coldness, and financial abandon are thoroughly recounted here ("...he scribbled obscene words on the walls of an opera singer's villa and kicked over the tray of a woman selling trinkets outside the casino.") He generally regarded his daughter, Scottie, as a nuisance (though Zelda wasn't much better). Meade describes the early meetings of Fitzgerald and Hemingway in Paris, and how Hemingway was appalled by the elder writer's misbehavior. "Being around him for even a short time could make a person weep with frustration."

On the other hand, it's fascinating to read of all these literary friendships and associations, and how this motley cast of journalists, poets, playwrights, actors, novelists, publishers, and posers all impressed and influenced one another. The book is organized by year, not by writer, so you get a great sense of who's lunching (or sleeping) with whom while so-and-so's book has just been published to rave (or rotten) reviews, meanwhile the other one's hiding from the creditors in some broken-down villa on the French Riviera, and so on. Back then, a writer could wire her publisher asking for an advance on top of what she'd already received, and her editor would send the money with no questions asked. Those were the days, huh?

It's also interesting to note which titans of the day have long since fallen into obscurity (Elmer who?), and which widely-panned works are now considered classics (like The Great Gatsby). And I always find it amusing when these writers, who were then in their twenties and thirties, proclaim themselves (and each other) hopelessly 'over the hill.' Dottie Parker in particular was obsessed with writing about death and dying:
It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
"Aha, my little dear," I say,
"Your clan will pay me back one day."
(Titled "Thought for a Sunshiny Morning.")
For better and for worse, these writers shaped what it means to be a modern woman, and a modern woman writer. Reading about their lives, loves, and work makes me feel a certain longing: for an artistic circle (backbiters and all), an unlimited supply of bootleg scotch, and an apartment in the Village for fifty bucks a month.

2 comments:

Dr. Herringbone Dread said...

I think the unlimited supply of bootleg scotch is the only one I can deliver as a Christmas present. By "unlimited" I mean two bottles, and by "bootleg" I mean Aldi brand.

Kate said...

This is an awfully scandalous book for the 1920's...noice!