Flapper Fever (2008)
I'm pulling a beaded velvet chemise over my head and I'm going out tonight, but I'm not exactly sure where. Maybe I'll start the evening at the 300 Club at 151 West 54th Street, where the proprietress, Texas Guinan, is famous for greeting patrons with a loud, "Hello, Suckers"; or maybe I'll go downtown, to the Pirates Den at 8 Christopher Street, which features waiters disguised as 18th-century pirates, who stage scenes from Treasure Island, fire shots, and clash cutlasses. I might even check out Country Farm, a new place on East 9th Street that is run by the same guy who owns the Pirates Den, only here instead of pirates there are kiddie cars and picket fences.
It's the mid 1920s, and the nightlife is sizzling as it hasn't sizzled since the days of ancient Rome (well at least I think it must have sizzled in ancient Rome), but that doesn't mean I can cadge a cocktail legally at any of these joints. Now illegally—that's a different story.
Paul Morand, taking the measure of the times in 1930, floated the following numbers: "Nobody knew how many speakeasies there were in New York; one estimate put the number at 100,000 by mid-decade. . . .Some speakeasies are disguised behind florists' shops, or behind undertakers' coffins. I know one, right in Broadway, which is entered through an imitation telephone-box; it has excellent beer; appetizing sausages and Welsh rabbits are sizzling in chafing-dishes and are given to customers without extra charge; drunks are expelled through a side-door which seems to open out into the nether world. . . .
"An intelligent lady remarked to me once that Prohibition was very pleasant. 'Before it,' she said, 'no decent woman could go into a bar, but now nobody is surprised at our being there.' "
Would anyone be surprised if I put on my imitation ermine and pearls, stuck a nickel in a turnstile, and went up to Harlem tonight? According to a contemporary report in Variety, "Harlem has attained pre-eminence in the past few years as an amusement center. Its night life now surpasses that of Broadway itself. From midnight until after dawn it is a seething cauldron of Nubian mirth and hilarity. . . .
"[Harlem] has eleven class white-trade night clubs: the Cotton Club, Connie's Inn, the Nest, Small's Paradise, Barrons, the Spider Web, the Saratoga Club, Ward's Swanee, the Catagona, the Bamboo Club and the Lenox. With a population of 250,000, the majority of whom are frequenters of night resorts, the actual number of colored cabarets of lower ranks exceeds 500. . . .
"Five out of every seven cigar stores, lunchrooms and beauty parlors in Harlem are 'speaks' selling gin. More chop suey joints in Harlem than any other district of similar size in the country . . . Dancing permitted in all, however, to radio or phonograph. The dancing is plenty hot. The district between 132nd and 138th Streets and Fifth Avenue is the hottest sector for vice in Harlem. It is called 'Coke Village.' Many of the be-ermined and high-hat white gentry entering the area are on the bay for 'hop.' "
But me, I never touch the stuff. I'd rather spend my money on clothes. In the last 10 years, I have thrown out my heavy corset, my shirtwaist blouses, my mud-scraping woolen skirts, and my sturdy lace-up boots in favor of a host of flimsy silken garments and a pair of slippers so light they would suit an elf or a fairy—but they're also good for dancing on nightclub tables. Of all the revolutions of the early 20th century—the sexual revolution, aided and abetted by the advent of the automobile, which made canoodling in cars a welcome alternative to the prying eyes in the parlor; the radio, bringing Fred and Adele Astaire and news of Lucky Lindy into that very parlor you've just fled—it's the clothes that have made the biggest difference, at least for me.
Here is how Bruce Bliven, writing in The New Republic in 1925, describes the typical outfit of a woman he calls Flapper Jane, and whose clothes are just like mine: "Her dress, as you can't possibly help knowing if you have even one good eye, and get around at all outside the Old People's Home, is . . . cut low where it might be high, and vice versa. The skirt comes just an inch below her knees, overlapping by a faint fraction her rolled and twisted stockings. The idea is that when she walks in a bit of a breeze, you shall now and then observe the knee (which is not rouged—that's just newspaper talk) but always in an accidental, Venus-surprised-at-the-bath sort of way. This is a bit of coyness which hardly fits in with Jane's general character."
Truth be told, I ordered the dress I'm wearing tonight from the Sears, Roebuck catalog—and you would hardly describe it as coy—in fact it's so gossamer it's almost invisible. And my hat? In the words of Zelda Fitzgerald, it resembles nothing so much as a flattened bathtub.
Maybe I'll see Zelda tonight! I saw her once, at 4 a.m., in the lobby of the Waldorf. Well, I'm pretty sure it was her: I had checked in for an astronomical $6 a night because I was too blotto to make it home to my cold-water flat in the Village.
It's cheap, but not cheap enough for me to afford a phone. No matter. The kid at the candy store lets me use theirs and he even takes messages for me, which is how I just found out a friend of mine wants to see a show before clubbing. I pick up a newspaper—two cents—to see what's on—the Gershwins' Oh Kay! is at the Imperial; Vincent Youmans's Hit the Deck at the Belasco—then check the contents of my Whiting & Davis metal mesh evening purse to make sure I have half a buck for the cheapest ticket.
Well I never! What do you know? I'm flat!
So it'll be another night of besotted mirth on someone else's dime, earning my drinks with my witty retorts and my dimples, drinking martoonies and pink ladies with fellows who jingle when they walk.
One thing is certain, in my own private New York, October 1929 will never come. The stock market will never crash; the dizzy, giddy party that is my imaginary 1920s will never end, and I will be dancing in my satin shoes on speakeasy tables forever.
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