Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Novel eavesdrops on 1920s literary women

By Gretchen Gurujal
For The Associated Press

Don't judge Marion Meade's latest book by its title.

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin might sound like the tag for another nostalgic tour of 1920s parties like those boozy soirees in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby. But Meade's historical account wastes little time boring readers with what they already know about the Roaring '20s and its raised hemlines, lowered standards, Manhattan speakeasies and bootleg booze.

True, Meade's ruddy tone is deceptively intoxicating, and reading her book is like overhearing gossip. Her gilded style is comparable to one she credits to Dorothy Parker, one of her book's main figures:

Yet, solid scholarship backs Meade's jazzed-up snapshots of writers Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Zelda Fitzgerald and Edna Ferber and their acquaintances. Any reader even remotely interested in '20s literary figures will be hard-pressed to find a more easily readable book, one that's also an educational escape.

Meade chronicles in tabloid style a corner of literary history. She compares her vignettes about these writers and the age of Modernism to the work of a nosey shutterbug or voyeur.

Meade's chatty tone might surprise some readers: F. Scott Fitzgerald is introduced as "Goofo." Parker quickly becomes "Dottie."

In a biting review of a New York play, Parker claimed an actor ran "the gamut of emotions from A to B." Meade's gaily packaged research, on the other hand, successfully runs from A to Z - from New York's literary A-list to Zelda and her relationship with her famously intoxicated husband, her later ballet aspirations, mental instability and psychoanalysis with Carl Jung's mentor, Eugen Blueler.

The four vastly different and talented subjects provide ample contrasts in tone. In chronicling their struggles and triumphs, Meade also weighs highbrow versus lowbrow art ("literature" and the popular presses), the changing shape of the American novel, the Algonquin Round Table and Harold Ross and the start of The New Yorker.

Meade also characterizes the fickleness of Broadway patrons - and the anxiety this caused a successful novelist and playwright like Ferber - as well as the migration to France by Millay, Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds and other American writers.

This casual tone is catchy. Meade's apparent intimacy with her subjects is as pronounced as her research.

The result is a combination of scholarship and tattle, a sort of "pulp nonfiction."

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