According to the critic and author Malcolm Cowley, the historical period we think of as the nineteen twenties began with the Armistice and continued through 1930. Between the time when the “lost generation” returned home from Europe and the grim year when the country slid toward economic depression, America went on a spree— escapist, irresponsible, creative, and vivid. The essence of this volatile decade is captured in a new anthology of writings of the Twenties, from which volume most of the following excerpts are taken. (The book is still untitled, although a special college textbook edition is to be called Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age .) The publisher is Charles Scribner’s Sons, and the editors are Mr. Cowley and his son, Robert, formerly an editor of this magazine and now on the staff of The Reporter .
Malcolm Cowley describes how the decade began:
When we first heard of the Armistice we felt a sense of relief too deep to express, and we all got drunk. We had come through, we were still alive, and nobody at all would be killed tomorrow. The composite fatherland for which we had fought and in which some of us still believed—France, Italy, the Allies, our English homeland, democracy, the self-determination of small nations—had triumphed. We danced in the streets, embraced old women and pretty girls, swore blood brotherhood with soldiers in little bars, drank with our elbows locked in theirs, reeled through the streets with bottles of champagne, fell asleep somewhere. On the next day, after we got over our hangovers, we didn’t know what to do, so we got drunk. But slowly, as the days went by, the intoxication passed, and the tears of joy: it appeared that our composite fatherland was dissolving into quarreling statesmen and oil and steel magnates. Our own nation had passed the Prohibition Amendment as if to publish a bill of separation between itself and ourselves; it wasn’t our country any longer. Nevertheless we returned to it: there was nowhere else to go. We returned to New York, appropriately—to the homeland of the uprooted, where everyone you met came from another town and tried to forget it; where nobody seemed to have parents, or a past more distant than last night’s swell party, or a future beyond the swell party this evening and the disillusioned book he would write tomorrow.
To this generation, the easygoing Warren G. Harding promised a return to “normalcy.” At his inauguration he said:
… We must strive for normalcy to reach stability … I would like to acclaim an era of good feeling amid dependable prosperity and all the blessings which attend. …
We would not have an America living within and for herself alone, but we would have her self-reliant, independent and even nobler, stronger and richer. Believing in our higher standards, reared through constitutional liberty and maintained opportunity, we invite the world to the same heights. But pride in things wrought is no reflex of a completed task. Common welfare is the goal of our national endeavor. Wealth is not inimical to welfare, it ought to be its friendliest agency.
Three days later, H. L. Mencken, the acidic editor and critic, commented on this speech, coining a new word — Gamalielese:
… I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash. … This is what [the audience] got in the inaugural address of the Hon. Warren Gamaliel Harding. And this is what it will get for four long years— unless God sends a miracle and the corruptible puts on incorruption. … Almost I long for the sweeter song, the rubber-stamps of more familiar design, the gentler and more seemly bosh of the late Woodrow.
—Baltimore Evening Sun
But Mencken was far from typical. Millions of Americans swallowed Harding’s stale platitudes, and were only vaguely disappointed to find them devoid of sustenance. One of the millions was George Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis’ mid-western real-estate salesman, a typical “tired business man,” whose name promptly entered the language:
… The most important thing [Babbitt] dictated that morning was the fortnightly form-letter, to be mimeographed and sent out to a thousand “prospects.” It was diligently imitative of the best literary models of the day; of heart-to-heart-talk advertisements, “sales-pulling” letters, discourses on the “development of will-power,” and hand-shaking house-organs, as richly poured forth by the new school of Poets of Business. He had painfully written out a first draft, and he intoned it now like a poet delicate and distrait: Say, Old Man!
I just want to know can I do you a whaleuva favor? Honest! No kiddingl I know you’re interested in getting a house, not merely a place where you hang up the old bonnet but a love-nest for the wife and kiddies—and maybe for the flivver out beyant (be sure and spell that b-e-y-a-n-t, Miss McGoun) the spud garden. Say, did you ever stop to think that we’re here to save you trouble? That’s how we make a living —folks don’t pay us for our lovely beauty! Now take a look:
Sit right down at the handsome carved mahogany escritoire and shoot us in a line telling us just what you want, and if we can find it we’ll come hopping down your lane with the good tidings, and if we can’t, we won’t bother you. …
Yours for service
Dictation over, with its need of sitting and thinking instead of bustling around and making a noise and really doing something, Babbitt sat creakily back in his revolving desk-chair and beamed on Miss McGoun [his secretary]. He was conscious of her as a girl, of black bobbed hair against demure cheeks. A longing which was indistinguishable from loneliness enfeebled him. While she waited, tapping a long, precise pencil-point on the desk-tablet, he half identified her with the fairy girl of his dreams. He imagined their eyes meeting with terrifying recognition; imagined touching her lips with frightened reverence and— She was chirping, “Any more, Mist’ Babbitt?” He grunted, “That winds it up, I guess,” and turned heavily away.
For all his wandering thoughts, they had never been more intimate than this. He often reflected, “Nev” forget how old Jake Offutt said a wise bird never goes love-making in his own office or his own home. Start trouble. Sure. But—”
In twenty-three years of married life he had peered uneasily at every graceful ankle, every soft shoulder; in thought he had treasured them; but not once had he hazarded respectability by adventuring. Now, as he calculated the cost of repapering the Styles house, he was restless again, discontented about nothing and everything, ashamed of his discontentment, and lonely for the fairy girl.
One of the striking characteristics of the era of Coolidge Prosperity was the unparalleled rapidity and unanimity with which millions of men and women turned their attention, their talk, and their emotional interest upon a series of tremendous trifles—a heavyweight boxing-match, a murder trial, a new automobile model, a transatlantic flight. … Public spirit was at low ebb; over the World Court, the oil scandals, the Nicaraguan situation, the American people as a whole refused to bother themselves. They gave their energies to triumphant business, and for the rest they were in holiday mood. …
On October ig, 1924, as President Coolidge was winding up his successful campaign for election in his own right, Grantland Rice sat in the press box at the Polo Grounds and tapped out the following story for the New York Herald Tribune sports page:
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.
A cyclone can’t be snared. It may be surrounded, but somewhere it breaks through to keep on going. When the cyclone starts from South Bend, where the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores, those in the way must take to storm cellars at top speed. Yesterday the cyclone struck again as Notre Dame beat the Army, 13 to 7 …
We doubt that any team in the country could have beaten [Knute] Rockne’s array yesterday afternoon, East or West. It was a great football team brilliantly directed, a team of speed, power and team play. The Army has no cause for gloom over its showing. It played first class football against more speed than it could match.
Those who have tackled a cyclone can understand.
And everywhere, that year, a new craze, the crossword puzzle, was catching on. Publishers sold hundreds of thousands of puzzle books, with pencils attached. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad went so far as to put dictionaries on all its main-line trains. The Bookman, a literary journal, satirized the craze by inventing a dialogue in crossword puzzle-ese between two housewives:
M RS. W. What is that you are working at, my dear?
M RS. F. I’m tatting Joe’s initial on his moreen vest. Are you making that ebon garment for yourself?
M RS. W. Yea. Just a black dress for every day. Henry says I look rather naif in black.
M RS. F. Well, perhaps; but it’s a bit too anile for me. Give me something in indigo or, say, ecru.
M RS. W. Quite right. There is really no neb in such solemn vestments.
M RS. F. Stet.
M RS. W. By the way, didn’t I hear that your little Junior met with an accident?
M RS. F. Yes. The little oaf fell from an apse and fractured his artus. MRS. W. Egad!
Mr. Coolidge was not famed for his patronage of the arts:
In those days when the snail was on the thorn and God was in his Heaven business men crowded into the White House until the luncheon guest-list looked sometimes like a chart of interlocking directorates of high finance. At a press conference a reporter, anxious for a story, quizzed the President:
“Why is it that your White House guests are limited to men of business? … Why don’t you have artists, musicians, actors, poets around the White House as Wilson and Roosevelt did, and sometimes Taft and Harding?”
The President pulled his solemn clown face and looked down his nose, as he drawled:
“I knew a poet once when I was in Amherst; class poet, name of Smith.” A cud-chewing pause, then: “Never have heard of him since!”
The New York Daily News considered the Hall-Mills case in 1922, which featured the Pig Woman, a “nice, clean crime.” But the trial in 1927 of Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, for the murder of Mrs. Snyder’s husband was rated a more sordid—and therefore even more newsworthy—affair. One hundred and twenty reporters covered the trial, and Americans lapped up every stilted, curiously prim phrase of Ruth May Snyder’s confession:
… In the darkness I could see Mr. Gray raise his arm, holding what I believed to be the weight [a sash weight] in his hand, and in the darkness the white paper around the weight stood out. I saw this weight in Mr. Gray’s hand start to travel and immediately heard a thud, and my husband groaned twice after I heard the thud. I saw Mr. Gray tie my husband’s hands behind his back. I was able to see in the dark because there is a street arc light on the opposite side of the street. …
When Mr. Gray struck my husband he was lying on his left side. He tied his hands behind his back and put the blue handkerchief and the waste with the chloroform on it on the pillow and then turned my husband’s face down on the pillow, so that the waste and blue handkerchief with the chloroform on it would cover his nose and mouth. He then covered his head with the blankets to make sure of suffocation. He then tied his feet.
I’m quite sure that Mr. Gray then came out of the room and said to me, “I guess that’s it.” He and I then went downstairs. Before he went downstairs he took off a pair of rubber gloves which he had purchased to use to avoid any finger prints, and he washed his hands in the bathroom.
While in the bathroom he discovered that he had quite a few blood stains on his shirt and I went back to my husband’s room and took one of my husband’s new blue shirts. It had a silk stripe in it, and he changed it in my mother’s room. …
But there was also, within the American character, a strong strand of idealism to which the exploit of a young man named Lindbergh appealed. On May 2i, 1927—with no map of the airport, with only a flashlight to light his instrument panel, and with absolutely no experience in landing his plane at night—Lindbergh brought the Spirit of St. Louis safely down at Le Bourget in Paris, ending his historic solo flight across the Atlantic:
Is that a cloud on the northeastern horizon, or a strip of low fog—or— can it possibly be land ? It looks like land, but I don’t intend to be tricked by another mirage. …
I’m only sixteen hours out from Newfoundland. I allowed eighteen and a half hours to strike the Irish coast. If that’s Ireland, I’m two and a half hours ahead of schedule. …
I stare at it intently, not daring to believe my eyes, keeping hope in check to avoid another disappointment, watching the shades and contours unfold into a coast line——a coastline coming down from the north … bending toward the east … with rugged shores and rolling mountains. …
This must be Ireland. …
Four fifty-two on the clock. That’s 9:52, Paris time. Le Bourget isn’t shown on my map. No one I talked to back home had more than a general idea of its location. “It’s a big airport,” I was told. “You can’t miss it. Just fly northeast from the city.” So I penciled a circle on my map, about where Le Bourget ought to be; and now the Spirit of St. Louis is over the outskirts of Paris, pointed toward the center of that circle. …
I circle. Yes, it’s definitely an airport. I see part of a concrete apron in front of a large, half-open door. But is it Le Bourget? Well, at least it’s a Paris airport. That’s the important thing. It’s Paris I set out for. If I land on the wrong field, it won’t be too serious an error—as long as I land safely. …
From each changed angle, as I bank, new details emerge from night and shadow. I see the corners of big hangars, now outlined vaguely, near the floodlights—a line of them. And now, from the far side of the field, I see that all those smaller lights are automobiles, not factory windows. They seem to be blocked in traffic, on a road behind the hangars. It’s a huge airport. The floodlights show only a small corner. It must be Le Bourget.
I’ll drag the field from low altitude to make sure its surface is clear—that no hay-making machinery, cattle, sheep, or obstruction flags are in the way. After that, everyone down there will know I want to land. If they have any more lights, they’ll switch them on. I shift fuel valves to the center wingtank, sweep my flashlight over the instrument board in a final check, fasten my safety belt, and nose the Spirit of St. Louis down into a gradually descending spiral.
I circle several times while I lose altitude, trying to penetrate the shadows from different vantage points, getting the lay of the land as well as I can in darkness. At one thousand feet I discover the wind sock, dimly lighted, on top of some building. It’s bulged, but far from stiff. That means a gentle, constant wind, not over ten or fifteen miles an hour. My landing direction will be over the floodlights, angling away from the hangar line. Why circle any longer? That’s all the information I need. No matter how hard I try, my eyes can’t penetrate the blanket of night over the central portion of the field. …
It’s only a hundred yards to the hangars now—solid forms emerging from the night. I’m too high—too fast. Drop wing—left rudder—sideslip—— Careful—mustn’t get anywhere near the stall. I’ve never landed the Spirit of St. Louis at night before. It would be better to come in straight. But if I don’t sideslip, I’ll be too high over the boundary to touch my wheels in the area of light. That would mean circling again——Still too high. I push the stick over to a steeper slip, leaving the nose well down——Below the hangar roofs now——straighten out——A short burst of the engine——Over the lighted area——Sod coming up to meet me——Deceptive high lights and shadows—Careful—easy to bounce when you’re tired——Still too fast——Tail too high—— Hold off——Hold off——But the lights are far behind——The surface dims—— Texture of sod is gone——Ahead, there’s nothing but night——Give her the gun and climb for another try?——The wheels touch gently—off again—No, I’ll keep contact—Ease the stick forward——Back on the ground—Off—Backthe tail skid too——Not a bad landing, but I’m beyond the light—can’t see anything ahead … Uncomfortable … jolting into darkness—Wish I had a wing light—but too heavy on the takeoff——Slower, now—slow enough to ground loop safely—left rudder—reverse it—stick over the other way—… the Spirit of St. Louis swings around and stops rolling, resting on the solidness of earth, in the center of Le Bourget. …
—The Spirit of St. Louis
Among the publications that reflected the way people thought and behaved in the Twenties was Harold Ross’ urbane magazine, The New Yorker. In 1925 Ross announced its aims in the following prospectus:
THE NEW YORKER will be a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life. … It will hate bunk. … THE NEW YORKER will be a magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque. It will not be concerned with what she is thinking about. This is not meant in disrespect, but THE NEW YORKER is a magazine avowedly published for a metropolitan audience and thereby will escape an influence which hampers most national publications.…
Unlike Sinclair Lewis, who found his characters in the Midwest from which he sprang, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote almost exclusively about a rich and rootless eastern society. In The Great Gatsby (1925) he described the lavish parties at Jay Gatsby’s country house:
There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his RollsRoyce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbingbrushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.
Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York—every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.
At least once a fortnight a crop of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening horsd’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.
By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors, and hair shorn in strange new ways, and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names. …
I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited—they went there. They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island, and somehow they ended up at Gatsby’s door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby, and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with an amusement park. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission. …
At about the same time, Fitzgerald was writing from France to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, about a young friend:
… This is to tell you about a young man named Ernest Hemingway, who lives in Paris (an American), writes for the Transatlantic Review and has a brilliant future. Ezra Pound published a collection of his short pieces in Paris, at some place like the Egotist Press. I haven’t it here now but it’s remarkable and I’d look him up right away. He’s the real thing. …
Perkins did look Hemingway up, and the result was a succession of short stories and novels that made literary history. In one of the most famous, A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s hero expresses his reaction to a patriotic speech in a passage that was an epitome of Twenties disillusionment with war:
I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice, and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
Like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, many of America’s gifted artists expatriated themselves from what they considered the shallow, materialistic, philistine atmosphere of America. Paris was the center of the expatriates’ world, and E. E. Cummings described their disaffection in this poem, first published in 1926:
workingman with hand so hairy-sturdy
you may turn O turn that airy hurdysturdygurdy
but when will turn backward O backward Time in your no thy flight
and make me a child, a pretty dribbling child, a little child.
In thy your ear:
en amérique on ne boit que de Jingyale.
things are going rather kaka
over there, over there.
yet we scarcely fare much better—
what’s become of (if you please)
all the glory that or which was Greece
all the grandja that was dada?
make me a child, stout hurdysturdy-gurdyman
waiter, make me a child. So this is Paris.
i will sit in the corner and drink thinks and think drinks,
in memory of the Grand and Old days:
of Amy Sandburg
of Algernon Carl Swinburned.
Waiter a drink waiter two or three drinks
what’s become of Maeterlinck
now that April’s here?
(ask the man who owns one ask Dad, He knows).
Women unswathed themselves:
[From 1924 on] women kept on buying the shortest skirts they could find. During the fall of 1923 and the spring of 1924, manufacturers were deluged with complaints from retailers that skirts would have to be shorter. Shorter they finally were, and still shorter. …
With the short skirt went an extraordinary change in the weight and material and amount of women’s clothing. … Petticoats almost vanished from the American scene; in fact, the tendency of women to drop off one layer of clothing after another became so pronounced that in 1928 the Journal of Commerce estimated that in 15 years the amount of material required for a woman’s complete costume … had declined from 19¼ yards to 7 yards. All she could now be induced to wear, it seemed, was an overblouse (2 yards), a skirt (2¼ yards), vest or shirt (¾), knickers (2), and stockings …
Another letter from Fitzgerald, this one to John Peale Bishop, a friend from college days:
I am quite drunk. I am told that this is Capri; though as I remember Capri was quieter. … That was a caller. His name was Mussolini, I think, and he says he is in politics here. … I am full of my new work, a historical play based on the life of Woodrow Wilson.
ACT I. At Princeton
Woodrow seen teaching philosophy. Enter Pyne. Quarrel scene—Wilson refuses to recognize clubs. Enter woman with Bastard from Trenton. Pyne reenters with glee club and trustees. Noise outside. “We have won—Princeton 12, Lafayette 3.” Cheers. Football team enter and group around Wilson. “Old Nassau.” Curtain.
ACT II. Gubernatorial Mansion at Paterson
Wilson seen signing papers. Tasker Bliss and Marc Connelly come in with proposition to let bosses get control. “I have important papers to sign—and none of them legalize corruption.” Triangle Club begins to sing outside window. Enter woman with Bastard from Trenton. President continues to sign papers. Enter Mrs. Gait, John Grier Hibben, Al Jolson and Grantland Rice. Song “The Call to Larger Duty.” Tableau. Coughdrop.
ACT III (optional). The Battlefront 1918.
The peace congress. Clemenceau, Wilson and Jolson at table. The Bastard from Trenton now grown up but still a baby, in the uniform of the Prussian Guard, is mewling and pewking in Wilson’s lap. … The junior prom committee comes in through the skylight. Clemenceau: “We want the Sarre.” Wilson: “No, Sarre, I won’t hear of it.” Laughter … Enter Marilyn Miller, Gilbert Seldes and Irish Meusel. Tasker Bliss falls into the cuspidor …
Oh Christ! I’m sobering up! …
I am quite drunk again and enclose a postage stamp.
At home, the older generation was bemoaning the morals and manners of the younger generation—as usual. And, as usual, the younger generation had some harsh and disturbing answers:
I would like to say a few things about my generation.
In the first place, I would like to observe that the older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us. They gave us this Thing, knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow up; and then they are surprised that we don’t accept it with the same attitude of pretty, decorous enthusiasm with which they received it, ’way back in the eighteeii-niiieties, nicely painted, smoothly running, practically foolproof. “So simple that a child can run it!” But the child couldn’t steer it. He hit every possible telegraph-pole, some of them twice, and ended with a head-on collision for which we shall have to pay the fines and damages. Now, with loving pride, they turn over their wreck to us; and, since we are not properly overwhelmed with loving gratitude, shake their heads and sigh, “Dear! dear! We were so much better-mannered than these wild young people. …”
[Now] the oldsters stand dramatically with fingers and toes and noses pressed against the bursting dykes. Let theml They won’t do any good. They can shackle us down, and still expect us to repair their blunders, if they wish. But we shall not trouble ourselves very much about them any more. Why should we? What have they done? They have made us work as they never had to work in all their padded lives— but we’ll have our cakes and ale for a’ that.
In a few years’ time, the movies transformed the leisure time of Americans:
… Like the automobile, the motion picture is more to Middletown than simply a new way of doing an old thing; it has added new dimensions to the city’s leisure. …
Today nine motion picture theaters operate from 1 to 11 P.M. seven days a week summer and winter. …
About two and three-fourths times the city’s entire population attended the nine motion picture theaters during the month of July, 1923, the “valley” month of the year, and four and one-half times the total population in the “peak” month of December. …
As in the case of the books it reads, comedy, heart interest, and adventure compose the great bulk of what Middletown enjoys in the movies. Its heroes, according to the manager of the leading theater, are, in the order named, Harold Lloyd, comedian; Gloria Swanson, heroine in modern society films; Thomas Meighan, hero in modern society films; Colleen Moore, ingénue; Douglas Fairbanks, comedian and adventurer; Mary Pickford, ingénue; and Norma Talmadge, heroine in modern society films. Harold Lloyd comedies draw the largest crowds. “Middletown is amusement hungry,” says the opening sentence in a local editorial; at the comedies Middletown lives for an hour in a happy sophisticated make-believe world that leaves it, according to the advertisement of one film, “happily convinced that Life is very well worth living.”
Next largest are the crowds which come to see the sensational society films. The kind of vicarious living brought to Middletown by these films may be inferred from such titles as: “ Alimony —brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrific smashing climax that makes you gasp”; “ Married Flirts—Husbands : Do you flirt? Does your wife always know where you are? Are you faithful to your vows? Wives : What’s your hubby doing? Do you know? Do you worry? Watch out for Married Flirts .” So fast do these flow across the silver screen that, e.g., at one time The Daring Years, Sinners in Silk, Women Who Give , and The Price She Paid were all running synchronously, and at another “ Name The Man —a. story of betrayed womanhood,” Rouged Lips , and The Queen of Sin . While Western “action” films and a million-dollar spectacle like The Covered Wagon or The Hunchback of Notre Dame draw heavy houses, and while managers lament that there are too few of the popular comedy films, it is the film with burning “heart interest,” that packs Middletown’s motion picture houses week after week.…
And there was, of course, Prohibition:
Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it.
It’s left a trail of graft and slime,
It’s filled our land with vice and crime,
It don’t prohibit worth a dime,
Nevertheless we’re for it.
Prohibition’s profiteers—the gangsters— publicly expressed injured innocence:
All I’ve ever done is to supply a public demand—You can’t cure a thirst by a law … It’s bootleg when it’s on the trucks, but when your host hands it to you on a silver tray, it’s hospitality … They say I violate Prohibition. Who doesn’t?
—Al Capone to newspapermen
Capone was right about one thing: It required more than a law to do the prohibiting. The federal government hired some 1,500 agents to do the job.
They couldn’t, but two of them, Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith—two ingenious fat men—made a sensational try:
Izzy and Moe disguised themselves as automobile cleaners, raided a garage on West Broadway, and seized nine barrels of beer and 244 cases of whisky. They disguised themselves as milk drivers, carrying customers’ account books, visited nine saloons on the East Side of New York, seized a quantity of liquor, and made seventeen arrests. They disguised themselves as grave diggers, raided a speakeasy across from Woodlawn Cemetery, and confiscated fifty barrels of alcohol.
For purposes of other raids, and in each case with comparable success, they took to the streets disguised as vegetable venders, as fishermen, as horse dealers, as street-car conductors, as churchgoers in the Palm Sunday Parade along Fifth Avenue, and as salesmen of a wholesale grocery concern, offering turkeys to the Thanksgiving trade. … Izzy appeared in the r’f4le of a thirsty motorman, a football player in Van Cortlandt Park, a patron of a suspicious pawnshop, an iceman catering to saloons in Brooklyn, a trombone player offering to treat new friends at the Yorkville Casino and an actor who joined the Fern Club under the pseudonym of Ethelbert Santerre. …
Damon and Pythias in the armor of enforcement, through four years of raids and round-ups the enterprising figures of Izzy and Moe appeared in silhouette against the cynicism of the city as symbols of the law.
There was jazz music, and a legendary cornet player:
It is almost ten years since Bix Beiderbecke died, shortly after his twentyeighth birthday; it is at least twelve years since he played the bulk of his music. But he is as new and wonderful now as he was in those fast days on the big time, the highest expression of jazz when jazz was still young, the golden boy with the cornet he would sometimes carry around under his arm in a paper bag. …
I suppose the kids growing up in the belief that Glenn Miller is what it really takes to blow the roof off would wonder, in the midst of this rather dated smallband clamor, what they were listening to and why. Well, it’s just jazz, kids, and as far as the groups in general go, not the best of its period. But Bix, the fellow riding above and ahead and all around with that clear-bell horn, Bix had swing before the phonies knew the word. He had it at its best and purest, for he had not only the compelling lift of syncopation, the ease within an intense and relentless rhythm; he had music in a way of invention that is only found when you find a good song, inevitable, sweet and perfect. He could take off out of any chord sequence, any good or silly tune, and wheel and lift with his gay new melodic figures as free of strain in the air as pigeons. He had a sense of harmonic structure that none can learn and few are born with; he had absolute pitch and absolute control of his instrument—in fact, no trumpet player I’ve ever heard could be so reckless and yet so right, so assured in all the range from tender to brash, from sorrow to a shout; his tone was as perfect without artifice as water in the brooks, and his lip and tongue and valve-work so exact in all registers that he could jump into a line of notes and make it sound like he’d slapped every one of them square in the face. With this technical assurance, he never had to cramp and plan and fuss himself: he could start at any point, and land on a dime.
There was a new morality, and lips that touched liquor began touching—well, almost anyone’s. Fitzgerald recalls it in Echoes of the Jazz Age, 1931:
As far back as 1915 the unchaperoned young people of the smaller cities had discovered the mobile privacy of that automobile given to young Bill at sixteen to make him “self-reliant.” At first petting was a desperate adventure even under such favorable conditions, but presently confidences were exchanged and the old commandment broke down. As early as 1917 there were references to such sweet and casual dalliance in any number of the Yale Record or the Princeton Tiger .
But petting in its more audacious manifestations was confined to the wealthier classes—among other young people the old standard prevailed until after the War, and a kiss meant that a proposal was expected, as young officers in strange cities sometimes discovered to their dismay. Only in 1920 did the veil finally fall—the Jazz Age was in flower.
Scarcely had the staider citizens of the republic caught their breaths when the wildest of all generations, the generation which had been adolescent during the confusion of the War, brusquely shouldered my contemporaries out of the way and danced into the limelight. This was the generation whose girls dramatized themselves as flappers, the generation that corrupted its elders and eventually overreached itself less through lack of morals than through lack of taste. … In 1920 Heywood Broun announced that all this hubbub was nonsense, that young men didn’t kiss but told anyhow. But very shortly people over twenty-five came in for an intensive education. Let me trace some of the revelations vouchsafed them by reference to a dozen works written for various types of mentality during the decade. We begin with the suggestion that Don Juan leads an interesting life ( Jurgen , 1919); then we learn that there’s a lot of sex around if we only knew it ( Winesburg, Ohio , 1920), that adolescents lead very amorous lives ( This Side of Paradise , 1920), that there are a lot of neglected Anglo-Saxon words ( Ulysses , 1921), that older people don’t always resist sudden temptations ( Cytherea , 1922), that girls are sometimes seduced without being ruined ( Flaming Youth , 1922), that even rape often turns out well ( The Sheik , 1922), that glamorous English ladies are often promiscuous ( The Green Hat , 1924), that in fact they devote most of their time to it ( The Vortex , 1926), that it’s a damn good thing too ( Lady Chatterley’s Lover , 1928), and finally that there are abnormal variations ( The Well of Loneliness , 1928, and Sodom and Gomorrah , 1929).
In my opinion the erotic element in these works, even The Sheik written [as if] for children in the key of Peter Rabbit , did not one particle of harm. …