Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin by Marion Meade

Meade, Marion. (2004). Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties. Doubleday; New York. 

I first sought out the tale when I stumbled (purely by chance) across the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay – particularly her poem “A Few Figs From Thistles” (My candle burns at both ends/It will not last the night/ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-/It gives a lovely light!). I was curious to simply learn more about Edna. In the process of reading this book, however, I met a whole slew of other fascinating women who emerged from this socially, artistically, and culturally dynamic era.

One of the reviews on Amazon suggested that this book was a “thinking-person’s soap opera”. I couldn’t agree more. Full of sex, drugs, and wild parties, the story is a testament to the immersion of the senses in the hedonistic, bohemian cultural scene of 1920’s America (i.e.  the Roaring Twenties or the Jazz Age). The writing is fast-paced and the character’s stories meld graciously together despite the lack of a central theme. These main characters include Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber. Each of their professional ambitions, successes, and failures (of which there were many) are elegantly described by Marion in this novel.

It is a fun book to read, though anyone who is familiar with the Roaring 20’s or the personal lives of these writers may not find the content very stimulating. My limited foreknowledge of this cultural milieu was an advantage during my reading, as I took the stories more as fiction with a slightly moral overture.

Edna Millay, or ‘Vincent’ for short, has the most vibrant personal life and awe-inspiring list of professional successes. However, she struggles with chronic pain, alcohol abuse, and a doomed love affair with a much younger man. Zelda Fitzgerald lives a carefree existence as the muse of well-known author F. Scott Fitzgerald until her late 20s when she is diagnosed with schizophrenia at Sheppard Pratt sanatorium in Towson, Maryland (Wikipedia article). Dorothy Parker, with her diminutive nickname ‘Dottie’, is a satirist and critic with a sharp wit that propels her into the public eye. She remained dismissive of these accolades, however, and attempted suicide three times. Edna Ferber, perhaps the most mentally stable and repressed woman in the novel, was best known for her works So Big (1924), Show Boat (1926), and Cimarron (1929) (Wikipedia article). 

I enjoyed Marion’s inclusion of quotes from the various characters, all of whom were eloquent, vivacious, and conflicted. Some great sound bites from the various characters include:

  • “I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes” – Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • “Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses” – Dorothy Parker (I grew up with this phrase in my ear, passed along by my now 95-year-old grandmother)
  • “By the time a person has achieved years adequate for choosing a direction, the die is cast and the moment has long since passed which determined the future” – Zelda Fitzgerald 
  • “A closed mind is a dying mind” – Edna Ferber

Marion is also the author of a biography about Dorothy Parker called What Fresh Hell is This? – an overview of the author’s self-destructive charisma. I will undoubtedly be picking up this novel as my next foray into the world of the 1920s.

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