Thursday, April 26, 2012

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

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

For the past couple years, readers have been captivated by books - like The Paris Wife - giving an inside look into the messy private lives of 1920s writers like F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Marion Meade's new book, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, builds on this trend with a novelty: Rather than focusing on the most celebrated (usually male) writers of the period, or on the lives of their wives and lovers, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin instead focusses on the lives of four critically acclaimed women writers from the same social scene.

Following Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber's exploits through the roaring twenties, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin feels a little like walking into your grandparents' laundry room and discovering some very racy unmentionables. It hardly seems possible that leading luminaries of such a venerated generation were capable of such unbridled sass or wild behaviour. Weren't they thinking of reputations? How could they network if they kept sleeping with the connections?

The book is arranged chronologically, with each chapter detailing a year in the lives of all four women. Support comes from a cast of mercurial men, all seeking control of or profit from the brilliance of these women, and almost all of whom were punished spectacularly for the bother. The chronological approach effectively highlights the incestuousness of the American literary social scene, as well as the significant challenges women writers faced when doing the same work as their male colleagues.

As the decade's debauchery rots in on itself leaving contracts unmet and lives in ruins, the reactions of all four women vary widely. Fitzgerald's mental state falls apart spectacularly ahead of the economy; Millay retreats from her glittering, sexually ambiguous city life into the country with a husband and morphine; Parker – having never struck it rich anyhow – finds little sympathy for her wealthier friends; while Ferber's sensible approach and strong work ethic leave her little in the way of legend but somewhat more in terms of stability and legacy.

The real effects of the twenties' unbridled decadence shines most clearly through in the afterword, where Meade's accounting of the cast's final fates reads like a Coles Notes version of a Shakespearean tragedy's final act. Wildly entertaining, full of hot gossip, and high on the heady atmosphere of the roaring twenties, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin is recommended to any literary rubberneckers interested in the angst, glitz and glamour of society life during Prohibition.

This review appeared in The Stratford Gazette on April 26, 2012. Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian.   

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