The 1920s:

Prohibition was in full swing. Liquor (other than “medicinal” whiskey and sacramental wine) was illegal. Federal enforcers prowled the landscape, busting drinkers, raiding speakeasies, and sledge-hammering stills. Bootleggers tried to stay one step ahead of the lawdogs, determined to keep a thirsty nation happy. Gangsters operated at will, their pockets full of cops, politicians, and wads of cash. Jazz was the hot sound, the nation jumped to the sonic creations of Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and a young man named Louis Armstrong. Colorado’s own Jack Dempsey was the world’s heavyweight boxing champion after his merciless pummeling of Jess Willard in 1919. Around the country a new breed of artist showed the possibilities of the written word, this was the heyday of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner, Eugene O’Neill, George S. Kaufman, and the new kid on the block, Ernest Hemingway.

And for the first time in a long time, women got to stand up and make some noise. Finally given the right to vote in 1920, women put their new power to immediate use, taking charge in   areas to which they’d previously been denied access. Their hair, skirts, and tempers grew shorter by the moment. They smoked cigarettes, stayed out ‘til dawn, exceeded speed limits, and knew the passwords for the best local speakeasies. They were also making their weight felt in the literary world, invading genres previously thought to be male territory. Gone were yesterday’s Gothic romances and cute missives on dining-table manners — this new generation of female scribes put a pistol to the head of cute and proper and pulled the trigger. They partied and drank like the boys, and weren’t afraid to write about it.

 

The Original Flapper

Two things have been said of male writers. One, that behind every great man stands a great woman, and two, that every poet needs his muse. Both were true of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he found them in the same woman: his wife Zelda. F. Scott may have been the voice of the Jazz Age, but Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was its very personification.

Born in the South and raised to be a southern belle, Zelda met Scott (whom she called “Goofo”) in late 1919. They were married in 1920, though her family remained suspicious of the dapper and drunken Princeton grad who claimed to be a writer. Regardless of familial chagrin, Zelda knew exactly what she was doing. As did Scott, for that matter. The love each felt for the other was as real as it gets, as was their mutual desire for wealth and fame. Each saw the other as not just a lover, but as a means to an end.

The moment their nuptial vows finished echoing through St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Zelda accompanied Scott to their new apartment in Manhattan, and the pair set about transforming themselves into two of the premier celebrities of the decade.

Drinking was integral to the project. Zelda was rarely opposed to outlandish public behavior (such as jumping into fountains or riding on the tops of taxis to see if it cost less than riding inside), especially if alcohol was involved. Wherever the couple landed, one of Zelda’s first orders of business as the mistress of the house was to locate a reputable bootlegger and arrange for regular deliveries. She favored Scotch, and gin or vodka mixed with different fruit juices, especially lemonade. She might skimp on household foodstuffs, but the liquor supply had to be of unimpeachable quality. In entertaining guests (as she did quite often), Zelda was famous in her circle for the abundance and excellence of the hooch she served.

Even so, the Fitzgeralds were never what you’d call homebodies. Scott experienced frequent bouts of writer’s block, the traditional cure for which is a good bender, and New York City provided the couple with outlets galore. As Scott’s star ascended, his and Zelda’s social cachet rose accordingly. Their names topped the guest list for any fashionable party. With their attendance you got not only a witty and handsome young writer, but also Zelda’s radiant presence.

Zelda was one of those singularities that grace the world perhaps once in a generation. When she entered a room, conversation stopped as every head turned her direction. She was devastatingly beautiful, an erotic apparition in a blond bob. Her heavy-lidded gaze, half-hidden behind a thin plume of smoke drifting up from a long cigarette holder, studied everything in detail. Her pale legs, displayed to perfection beneath a short frilled skirt, caused men to bump into things and spill their drinks. They fell about themselves, each wanting to be the fist to bring this angel another cocktail. None of which brought joy to the wives in the room. They were more likely to entertain violent fantasies, born of dark green jealousy. Men found Zelda ravishing and mysterious, women thought her wanton, shallow, and annoyingly unintelligent.

So it isn’t surprising that Zelda preferred the company of men. She was fully aware of her effect on them, and she enjoyed it. She also thought too many of the women she encountered lacked any facility at all for interesting conversation—twittering gossip bored her to death—and too few of them could keep Zelda’s pace, drinking and dancing until well past sunrise.

Zelda and Scott moved around a lot, especially between parts of New York and various locations in France. No matter where they called home, though, Zelda’s behavior made her famous — or infamous, depending.

She liked to start drinking around eleven in the morning, after a swim to kill off her hangover. She made pitchers of vodka and lemonade that she would take to a shady spot outside, where she might sit with a book for a couple of hours, or jot notes for short stories and poems. Later in the day she would bring a fresh pitcher of drinks to her ballet studio for a strenuous workout (she was probably in better physical shape than any drunkard you’re likely to name). Early evening was nap time, recharging her batteries for the coming night. By 9 or 10 she was off and running, perhaps to a party with friends, or to a speakeasy, or a concert, or all three, one after the other, her small silver flask held tight against her thigh with a garter.

Zelda was a prodigious drinker, so perhaps it is needless to say that, sometimes, events got a tad out of hand.

One evening when Zelda and Scott were living in White Plains, NY, they dropped $43 on a local bootlegger — a sum equal to almost $500 today — just to buy enough liquor for themselves and two friends to enjoy on the drive into Manhattan. What a ride it must have been.

After sharing a secreted bottle in the lobby of a Broadway theater, the couple returned to watch the play, which they decided they hated. Perhaps as a form of impromptu criticism, they stood and began to disrobe, falling against each other, and giggling like crazy. They were tossed onto the sidewalk where they continued their critique, loudly ridiculing the play’s shortcomings until the cops showed up.

Zelda and Scott were generally known as happy drunks, always willing to pick up the tab or buy a round for the house. If they lived according to any guiding philosophy, it was this: Live for today, as the future has a way of working itself out.

Scott characterized Zelda again and again in his novels and short stories, most of which were autobiographical in nature. In this regard, Zelda functioned as the perfect muse, she was everything Scott needed as a writer: fan, model, critic, sounding board, and inspiration. His books were products of the age; defining documents of a vibrant period. He certainly wrote them, despite the ridiculous claims of some modern scholars who reckon his wife lent a hand, but Zelda’s energy suffuses every sentence, word and punctuation mark. Without Zelda, there would’ve been no Scott.

 

Pardon My Dust

No more stylish, hip, witty, or intelligent magazine existed in the 1920s than Vanity Fair. It featured news, commentary, poetry, and short fiction, the best of which was laugh-out-loud funny. New York’s finest writers contributed, including Edna Ferber, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly—pretty much every member of the legendary literary club, the Algonquin Round Table—and our next devilishly drunken damsel Dorothy Parker.

Poet, novelist, and theater critic, Dorothy Parker possessed a lacerating wit. Not since William Shakespeare had a writer used words as weapons with such dexterity. If you got told off by Dottie Parker, you stayed told off, and woe be unto her target when she donned her critic’s cap. When she disliked a novel or play, she sculpted words into an elegant cudgel and ruthlessly bludgeoned the offending parties with wicked humor.

Dorothy came late to drink, claiming to have waited until her late 20s before tasting it. Once she got up to speed, however, she more than made up for her youthful discretion. By most accounts, Dorothy and Bob Benchley (grandfather of Jaws author Peter Benchley) discovered liquor’s sublime qualities around the same time. Benchley also came late to hooch, at age 32, and dove in with the same fervor as Dorothy. They shared time together at Vanity Fair where Benchley was a columnist and Dottie the theater critic (until she pissed off Florenz Zeigfield’s wife, Billie Burke, most famous as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, and paid the price with her job) and wiled away slow hours over flasks of gin and bottles of Ballantine Ale. Dottie didn’t care for beer (which was fine by Benchley, who would later turn Ernest Hemingway on to Ballantine) but liked gin just fine. She mixed it with orange juice, a cocktail known then as an Orange Blossom, and guzzled them by the pitcher. Vanity Fair colleagues became accustomed to the waves of hysterical laughter which regularly floated from Dottie’s office.

On the ground floor of a brownstone on West 49th lurked Dottie’s favorite speakeasy, Tony Soma’s.   It stayed open until the last customer left, a business model modern bars should consider adopting. Dottie worked her way through the variety of liquors available at Tony’s, sampling what she hadn’t yet tried, and settling, when not in an Orange Blossom mood, upon very dry martinis and Canadian Scotch. She visited Tony’s pretty much every day, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, and it’s there she worked out stories on a pad while laying siege to the bar’s stocks.

As mentioned, Dorothy’s sense of humor got her into trouble. The more she drank, the more deeply her remarks cut, and the nearer she came to hitting the jugular. Reviewing a play starring an unknown actress named Katherine Hepburn, Dorothy noted that the girl “ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.” Upon being invited to speak at Yale, she shocked the audience by saying that, “if all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” She also coined the famous phrase, “Take care of the luxuries, the necessities will take care of themselves,” which nicely sums up Dorothy Parker’s approach to life.

Despite her many marriages to humorless men, the attacks of writer’s block that drove her nearly suicidal, and the unhappiness of her later life, Dorothy Parker lived, as they say, in the here and now. Her world was one of sarcastic humor and pleasantly drunken irony. When she spoke of her death, she told friends she wanted this engraved on her tombstone: “Pardon My Dust.”

That’s beyond cool. The epitaph of someone who knows what life is all about.

 

The Sappho of Vassar

In the early days of the 20th Century, America produced more than its share of excellent poets, and among the best was Edna St. Vincent Millay. She was one of the last of the true romantics, writing at a time before several wars and theory-laden academic approaches to verse destroyed the popularity of such endeavors, replacing the depth and shadings of romanticism with the sophomoric tedium of anger and moral posturing.

Edna Millay, or Vincent, as she preferred to be called, was born and raised in Maine. She wasn’t what you’d call a classic beauty, but she certainly had qualities capable of driving men into paroxysms of lust. She used what gifts she had to full advantage. Her best features were her calf-length mane of vibrant red hair and her all-seeing eyes, which changed color according to her mood.

A published poet before leaving grade school, Vincent was invited to attend Vassar College, where she learned many things, especially how to break school rules. She ignored her curfew, snuck men into her all-girl dormitory, and became an expert in locating high-end whiskey. She continued to publish while at Vassar, achieving a certain level of fame outside the school. Whenever she got busted, it took only a reminder of her growing celebrity for college officials to realize she was worth more to the school in it than out of it.

When it sank in that she was largely untouchable, Vincent really got busy. She snuck away from her dorm for days at a time to visit speakeasies in Manhattan, bringing a stream of men home with her. She gathered her friends for drinking bouts that sometimes ended with a dozen or so intoxicated college girls running naked across Vassar campus.

Upon graduating (head of her class, no less; she was that sharp) she wasted no time in moving to New York, a city that offered everything she needed to stoke her poetical fires: liquor and smart people to drink it with.

Of all the soused sirens discussed in this series, Vincent Millay might well be the most amazing. Take a look at a short list of her bona fides:

She was a polyglot, having taught herself to read ancient Greek and Latin and learning to speak French in Vassar. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She worked overseas as the first foreign correspondent for Vanity Fair. She was an actress, playwright, novelist and wrote the libretto for two operas that are still part of the national repertoire. She was a shrewd gambler, winning at cards, backgammon, and horses. She was a master chess player. She lead the New York protests against the treatment of the “notorious” anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, spending several days in jail after being branded a public nuisance. Perhaps most importantly, Vincent shattered our image of “correct” female behavior. She did as she pleased—smoking, drinking and carousing—with barely a hint that she cared what others thought of her actions.

Her favorite speakeasy in New York was Charlie’s, where she was a fixture. Stories circulated throughout the decade of her drinking prowess. She stood barely five feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds, neither of which caused her to shrink from another round. Male guests at Charlie’s who’d heard tell of her drinking prowess sometimes challenged Vincent to contests. She won more often than not, further building her already considerable legend.

Vincent’s popularity waned in her later life, the downward spiral of her stardom and influence perfectly matching the downward spiral of American poetry in general. She was in a terrible car accident in the 1930s, and her doctors demanded she stop drinking. They replaced her liquor with huge quantities of painkillers, mostly derivatives of morphine, and she quickly became addicted. She eventually returned to drinking, and the mix of hooch and pills proved to be a lethal combination.

On October 19, 1950, Vincent fell down the stairs of her house, and broke her neck. Her maid found America’s poet clutching a perfectly pristine martini glass, still intact after her fall. Biographers like to say that alcohol ruined Vincent Millay. Untrue. Painkillers did. The degradation of her work followed in a direct line with her addiction to pills. With drink as her sole muse, she burned. Without, the fires died.

 

Conclusion

The women I’ve introduced you to during this survey form only the tip of the iceberg. Many have been left out, including such lush luminaries as Charlotte Clarke, London’s greatest actress during the late 1700s; Emma, queen of the Vikings before William the Conqueror; not to mention that rock-n-roll singer from Texas…what was her name? Oh yeah. Janis Joplin. Everywhere you look, you find another.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, like all of the ladies in our survey, lived her life one second at a time. If you could keep up, great. If not, she’d have no trouble finding sturdier company. She summed up her existence in her poem “First Fig.” It was one of her first and among her best, summing up how many of the women of this survey chose to live their brilliantly wild lives.

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!

—Richard English

(Note: the Author is indebted to the works of Marion Meade, Nancy Milford and Daniel Mark Epstein.)

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