Notable Books of the Twenties: Passing – Nella Larsen (1929)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Passing is not just about a black woman who lives her life ‘passing’ as a white woman. It’s also about secrecy and hypocrisy and the universally human fear of being ‘found out’. It was a very important book of the time, when conversations about race, class and gender were beginning to open up, despite prejudice still seeming, to many, a stone-set human right.

The story follows Irene and Clare, two mixed-race friends who reunite in a Chicago hotel after years of not seeing each other. Clare, Irene learns, has been living as a white woman with a racist husband who has no idea of his wife’s background. Clare, on the other hand, remained in the African-American community but refuses to acknowledge the racism that holds back her family’s happiness. They soon become consumed by the other’s chosen path – until events conspire to make them confront their lies.

Notable Books of the Twenties: Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence (1928)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (1928)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the book that shattered British squeamishness about sex into pieces (institutionally, at least). Telling the story of an affair between a young, married aristocrat and her also-married gamekeeper, it became notorious for its graphic descriptions of sex and seductive language, four-letter words and other forms of nighttime naughtiness (though it doesn’t always happen after dark, here).

It was first published privately in Florence, then in France, but was not released in Britain for a full 32 years after DH Lawrence wrote it, following a landmark obscenity trial that became one of the most important cases in British literary and social history. It has since been anointed a ‘sacred text’ for British democracy and freedom of expression.

Lois Long “Lipstick” and Tables for Two at the New Yorker

On January 17th, 1920, when Prohibition became the law of the land, a new kind of woman was born; a woman who drank, smoked, and (gasp!) danced with members of the opposite sex in illegal watering holes known forever as “speakeasies.” No one, man or woman, described these dens in such delicious detail as The New Yorker magazine’s cabaret-reviewer and resident dancer til dawn, “Lipstick.” “Lipstick,” nom de plume of Connecticut-born Lois Long, was one of the original New Yorker contributors, along with such famous writers as Dorothy Parker, E. B. White, and Alexander Wollcott, and outlasted nearly all of them – her career at The New Yorker spanned nearly 45 years.

At age 23, Long began writing her column, “Tables for Two”,” reviewing nightclubs across the city (most of them situated between 42nd and 60th Streets), with the magazine footing the bill. The Tenement Museum does not cover such expenses for its employees, in case you were wondering. Long, taking over the column from a fellow who called himself “Top Hat,” chose to be known as “Lipstick.” Since her identity was hidden behind the page, she often had a bit of fun with her readers, describing herself as a plump middle-aged woman, or a distinguished gentleman. Long was a broad with a great sense of humor and adventure – perfect for 1920’s Manhattan.

Her nights were filled with jazz, gin, and jitterbugging, and all of it made it into her column, which became extremely popular. According to historian Joshua Zeitz, author of Flapper: Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern, Long’s exploits often found their way to the office: “She would come into the office at four in the morning, usually inebriated, still in an evening dress and she would, having forgotten the key to her cubicle, she would normally prop herself up on a chair and try to, you know, in stocking feet, jump over the cubicle usually in a dress that was too immodest for Harold Ross’ [the founder of the New Yorker] liking. She was in every sense of the word, both in public and private, the embodiment of the 1920s flapper.”


Algonquin Round Table

The period that followed the end of World War I was one of gaiety and optimism, and it sparked a new era of creativity in American culture. Surely one of the most profound — and outrageous — influences on the times was the group of a dozen or so tastemakers who lunched together at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel. For more than a decade they met daily and came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table. With members such as writers Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker) and Robert Benchley; columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Heywood Broun, and Broun’s wife Ruth Hale; critic Alexander Woollcott; comedian Harpo Marx; and playwrights George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, the Round Table embodied an era and changed forever the face of American humor.

It all began with an afternoon roast of the New York Times drama critic, Alexander Wollcott. A number of writers met up at the Algonquin Hotel on 44th street and had such a good time that the event was repeated the next day, and the day after that, until the lunch table at the Algonquin was established as a ritual. The core group of friends was sometimes joined by others who attended for short periods or drifted about the periphery of the group, including such notables as actress Tallulah Bankhead and playwright Noel Coward. The Round Table was made up of people with a shared admiration for each other’s work. Outspoken and outrageous, they would often quote each other freely in their daily columns.

Round Tabler Edna Ferber, who called them “The Poison Squad,” wrote, “They were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done, they did say so publicly and whole-heartedly.” Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent, and very, very tough. Both casual and incisive, they had a certain terrible integrity about their work and boundless ambition. Some of the most notable members of the Round Table came together to work on significant collaborative projects. George Kaufman teamed up with Edna Ferber and Marc Connelly on some of his best stage comedies, including Dulcy and The Royal Family. Harold Ross of The New Yorker hired both Dorothy Parker as a book reviewer and Robert Benchley as a drama critic.

By 1925, the Round Table was famous. What had started as a private clique became a public amusement. The country-at-large was now attentive to their every word—people often coming to stare at them during lunch. Some began to tire of the constant publicity. The time they spent entertaining and being entertained took its toll on several of the Algonquin members. Robert Sherwood and Robert Benchley moved out of the hotel in order to concentrate on and accomplish their work. In 1927, the controversial execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, whose case had divided the country and the Round Table for six years, seemed to cast a pall over the group’s unchecked antics. Dorothy Parker believed strongly in the pair’s innocence, and upon their deaths she remarked “I had heard someone say and so I said too, that ridicule is the most effective weapon. Well, now I know that there are things that never have been funny and never will be. And I know that ridicule may be a shield but it is not a weapon.”

As America entered the Depression and the more somber decade of the 1930s, the bonds that had held the group together loosened; many members moved to Hollywood or on to other interests. “It didn’t end, it just sort of faded,” recalled Marc Connelly. A decade after it began, the Algonquin Round Table was over. Not forgotten, the Round Table remains one of the great examples of an American artists’ community and the effects it can have on its time.

“That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”

~ Dorothy Parker

Once when asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?” Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”

~ George S. Kaufman

Reviewing cowboy hero Tom Mix: “They say he rides as if he’s part of the horse, but they don’t say which part.”

~ Robert Sherwood

Sources: PBS American Masters

Eulogy on the Flapper – Zelda Fitzgerald (1922)

What follow is the first couple of paragraphs of Eulogy of the Flapper, published in 1922. Of course the flapper was very much a part of the years to come, but she makes some salient observations.

“The Flapper is deceased. Her outer accoutrements have been bequeathed to several hundred girls’ schools throughout the country, to several thousand big-town shopgirls, always imitative of the several hundred girls’ schools, and to several million small-town belles always imitative of the big-town shopgirls via the “novelty stores” of their respective small towns. It is a great bereavement to me, thinking as I do that there will never be another product of circumstance to take the place of the dear departed.

“I am assuming that the Flapper will live by her accomplishments and not by her Flapping. How can a girl say again, “I do not want to be respectable because respectable girls are not attractive,” and how can she again so wisely arrive at the knowledge that “boys do dance most with the girls they kiss most,” and that “men will marry the girls they could kiss before they had asked papa”? Perceiving these things, the Flapper awoke from her lethargy of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge, and went into the battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure; she covered her face with powder and paint because she didn’t need it and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. She was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do. Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim, and most of all to heart. She had mostly masculine friends, but youth does not need friends—it needs only crowds, and the more masculine the crowds the more crowded for the Flapper. Of these things the Flapper was well aware!

“Now audacity and earrings and one-piece bathing suits have become fashionable and the first Flappers are so secure in their positions that their attitude toward themselves is scarcely distinguishable from that of their debutante sisters of ten years ago toward themselves. They have won their case. They are blasé. And the new Flappers galumping along in unfastened galoshes are striving not to do what is pleasant and what they please, but simply to outdo the founders of the Honorable Order of Flappers: to outdo everything. Flapperdom has become a game; it is no longer a philosophy.

~ Zelda Fitzgerald, from Metropolitan Magazine, June 1922.

FBI Files: Langston Hughes – Suspected Communist Party Propagandist

The bureau’s gripe with the poet began in 1940 when he spoke at a luncheon for the International Union of Revolutionary Writers in Pasadena, California. An advertisement for the event featured Hughes’ poem “Goodbye Christ,” which got the F.B.I.’s attention with lines that denounce Christ, saying he should be replaced by “Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME.”

In April 1943, the F.B.I. also took issue with a speech Hughes delivered at the W. Federal Street branch of the Youngstown Y.M.C.A. The bureau official reporting on the event wrote of Hughes:

This person is an “alleged” poet, reader, etc., but in reality he is a Communist Party propagandist delivering his lectures in negro YMCA’s and under the auspices of intellectuals.

Later that year on November 5, the F.B.I. compiled an internal security report on Hughes, bringing  attention to the poems “Goodbye Christ” (they note that their copy was “secured from the Enemy Alien Squad [and the] New York City Police Department”) and “One More ‘S’ in the U.S.A. Workers Sons” (“To make it Soviet,” as the poem explains).

During this time, the F.B.I. and the United States at large were obviously embroiled in the Cold War, but it’s still astounding to learn that a few poems could be considered a priority in terms of national security. A section of the report even insinuates that measures were taken to prevent the poetry’s circulation.

FBI Files: Charles Bukowski – Suspected Dirty Old Man

September 2013, published all 113 pages of Charles Bukowski’s F.B.I. file. Bewildered by the U.S. postal worker’s “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” column in Open City, the bureau had begun following Bukowski, gathering as much information as they could to prove the writer’s self-proclaimed title as a “Dirty Old Man.” But besides arrests for public intoxication and a wedding in Vegas, most of what the feds dug up wasn’t so scandalous. The word from Bukowski’s neighbors was that he was “an excellent tenant” who kept to himself and didn’t have many visitors.

FBI Files: “Roy” Bradbury – Suspected Communist, Communist Cuba supporter

Not only does the F.B.I. accidentally refer to Ray Bradbury as “Roy” for the first five pages of his file, but they spend 40 pages investigating his potential trip to Cuba. The F.B.I. suspected Bradbury had attended the Cultural Congress of Havana five years after President Kennedy’s ban on travel to the embargoed nation. The file notes that Bradbury told the F.B.I. he did “not possess informant potential, in view of his occupation as a freelance science fiction writer.” However, the F.B.I. continued to view him as a threat, noting his significant influence as a writer and as a guest of a Women’s Legislative Action event in 1968. In true F.B.I. fashion, there’s also a thorough biography of Bradbury that goes as far as to trace his ancestors back to their arrival in Salisbury, Massachusetts in 1630.

The investigation was eventually closed after the bureau examined Bradbury’s passport file and found that he had never applied to travel to Cuba — let alone actually travelling to Cuba. The F.B.I. also recognized that Bradbury had been “extremely successful in the writing field.”

FBI Files: William Faulkner – Suspected Blackmail Victim and Adulterer

The F.B.I. has an entire file based on several strange phone call received by William Faulkner’s wife Estelle in 1956 and 1957 regarding her husband. One of the callers identified himself as A.B. Stein, claiming that he had information regarding Estelle’s husband and a Jean Stein that could be had for $500. (William was known for having extramarital affairs, and Jean Stein may have been no exception.)

William Faulkner told the F.B.I. that he had a hunch it may have been a young writer whom he had offended in the past and claimed that he and Jean Stein were just close friends with “mutual interest in radio, television and literary matters.”

FBI Files: Henry Miller – Suspected Nazi Sympathizer & Cult Leader

Henry Miller earned the first 10 pages of his F.B.I. file for supposedly expressing Nazi sympathies during a guest lecture at Dartmouth College: “Subject believes Nazis are decent people and that he likes collaborationists.” The F.B.I. caught wind of this through Albert Kahn, who had attended the lecture, harassed Miller and written an article in The Daily Worker insulting the “phony writer” for being a fascist, anti-Semitic propagandist and a former labor spy. On more personal notes, Kahn claims that Miller’s “first wife supported him by being a prostitute” and that the professor who had invited Miller to speak was “a devoted member of the Miller cult.”

That last assertion triggered a chain of accusations about the “Miller Cult.” An article in Harper’s entitled “The New Cult of Sex And Anarchy” portrayed Miller as a Big Sur guru. Another piece appeared in theSan Francisco Examiner a month later, titled “Group Establishes Cult of Hatred in Carmel Mountains” and identified Miller as a cult leader.

Despite the accusations, all the F.B.I. was able to dig up from witnesses was that Miller was “strictly the artistic type” and “could very easily be called ‘screwball’ by people who didn’t understand or appreciate his writing.”