Marion Meade Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin Reviewed by Serena Trowbridge

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Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties (Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber)

Marion Meade

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

US Hardback

ISBN: 0 385 50242 7

Pages: 340; Price: $26.95

Date Reviewed: 25th June 2004

Reviewed by: Serena Trowbridge © 2004



Non-Fiction, General Fiction

With many famous figures, both contemporary and historical, it is not so much what they are famous for, be it writing, politics or sport, that intrigues us, but their lives and the impossible glamour and excitement that accompanies celebrity. Of course it can be shaming to admit it, but it's never been so true as it is for the Round Table, who met to gossip and be seen in 1920s New York. I first came across Dorothy Parker in my teens, when I saw the film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. I must admit I can't remember what I made of the film, but I fell in love with the bittersweet, cynical poetry and the glamorous publishers and writers who met at the Algonquin. Equally, I was fascinated by the doomed and depressed wife of the more famous Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda, and spent some time professing to anyone who would listen that her talent was superior to her husband's (because I loved her ballet novel, Save Me the Waltz). Edna St Vincent Millay I only had a faint recollection of, while I must confess I had never heard of Edna Ferber, even though she wrote the novels behind Showboat and Oklahoma!. After reading Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, though, I know not only about their lives and work, but also all the gossip and scandal surrounding them.

This book is unlike any other I have read. I have read biographies of Parker and Fitzgerald, but in no way felt that Meade's book was covering the same ground. For one thing, it only covers the period 1920 - 1930, thus avoiding the slight let-down that is often the fate of traditional biographies, as the subjects grow old and die. While it touches on their writing as an integral part of their lives, it doesn't concentrate on it. This book is more about the lives they lived, and which influenced their writing. Purists might argue that a biography that encompasses four writers (plus numerous husbands, sisters and hangers-on) is not a serious work. Well, it isn't a serious work, but it has none the less merit for it.

Reading Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, it struck me that this is just the kind of work that these women would themselves have happily devoured. After all, secretly, when you read a novel (or perhaps poetry, even more so) don't you wonder about the intimate details of the writer's life? And here they are, in lurid detail, like a gossip column of the time. But - and I say this with reservations - much of it seems to be factual. Reported conversation is often taken from contemporary quotes or from letters, and Meade cites most of the sources in an appendix. Some of it is elaborated, of course, and of course no-one can write this kind of thing without letting their imagination run away with them, but I felt the book was true to the spirit of these remarkable women, and did not reach the excesses it might have done.

The contrasts between the women are interesting, showing the different paths that potentially similar careers can take. While at first Zelda only wrote to make cash, spending most of her time dedicated to ballet, Dorothy Parker was constantly in pursuit of the perfect poem, or short story, or even novel, which sadly she never wrote. Edna Ferber and Edna Vincent Millay were different again, more conscientious perhaps, but with their own problems and demons with which to battle. After all, writing is all about personality; both the writer's, and the writer's characters, and none of these women could have lived another's life any more than they could have written her work. This is the intrinsic value of the book: the gossipy concentration on personality and influence. Occasionally the lives of the four women crossed, albeit fleetingly. It is fascinating to see Meade's interpretations of their reactions to one another, such as Dorothy Parker's apparent dislike of Zelda when meeting her at the Algonquin. However, I would add that it is a slightly confusing book, as Meade seems to flit from one to another with no discernable sequence or pattern. Of course this method is useful for heightening contrasts, and perhaps suits the subject matter, but it also means you occasionally have to flip back a few pages to check what's going on!

Naturally the men in their lives feature prominently in the book, and it is here that some of the contrasts are most marked. While Scott Fitzgerald drank away his marriage and struggled with his relationship with Zelda, Eugen Boissevain, Edna Vincent Millay's husband, remained devoted despite his wife's affair, and even gave up his own career to further hers. Dorothy Parker, of course, famously had no luck with men, and the comings and goings of men in her life seem clearly to add to her general dissatisfaction with the world.

Naturally among such a celebrated group there will be more celebrities, and I was pleased to see some old favorites there, including James Thurber, Noel Coward, Rex Harrison and Ernest Hemingway. In many ways, this book is an exploration of living a writer's life, and the ways in which events affect their writing. Would they have had the same lives and the same writings if they were alive now? Very probably, I think. Although the period detail is interesting, what is really fascinating is the timelessness of their natures, lives and problems - and what every writer needs to stand the test of time is not men, or drink, or a vegetable patch, but timelessness, and these women didn't even know they had it.