Vera Caspary’s Ladies and Gents, and Women’s Flapper Novels of the 1920s

Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton

Women’s flapper novels of the 1920s captured the essence of a fleeting era known as the Jazz Age and Roaring Twenties. This look at a largely forgotten genre of fiction, many written by women, is excerpted from A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie: The Fiction of Vera Caspary by Francis Booth ©2022. Reprinted by permission.

The 1920s was the age of the flapper — the free, single, modern woman unencumbered by long skirts or long hair who could go anywhere, do anything; she did not have to settle for what her mother had to settle for.

She could change her life and entire social and economic situation, if only through marriage, and even change her physical appearance. The Flapper magazine, with its slogan “not for old fogeys,” was based in Vera Caspary’s hometown of Chicago and started in 1922. The opening issue made its stance clear.

“Greetings, flappers! All ye who have faith in this world and its people, who do not think we are going to the eternal bowwows, who love life and joy and laughter and pretty clothes and good times, and who are not afraid of reformers, conformers, or chloroformers — greetings! … Thanks to the flappers the world is going round instead of crooked, and life is still bearable. Long may the tribe wave!”

Gertrude Atherton’s novel Black Oxen, the bestselling novel of 1923, features the flapper Janet Oglethorpe, portraayed in the film of the same year by Clara Bow, with whom Caspary’s character Rosina in Ladies and Gents identifies. Oglethorpe herself gives a good definition of the fashionable woman of her age.

Being a rank materialist myself, I know ‘em like a book. The emancipated flapper is just plain female under her paint and outside her cocktails. More so for she’s more stimulated. Where girls used to be merely romantic, she’s romantic—callow romance of youth, perhaps, but still romantic—plus sex-instinct rampant. At least that’s the way I size ‘em up, and its logic. There’s no virginity of mind left, mauled as they must be and half-stewed all the time, and they’re wild to get rid of the other. But they’re too young yet to be promiscuous, at least those of Janet’s sort, and they want to fall in love and get him quick.

In Atherton’s next novel, The Crystal Cup, 1925, the young Gita from the aloof old Carteret family dresses and behaves like a boy but denies to her disapproving grandmother that she is a flapper.

     “You do all you can to distort and destroy the Carteret beauty in your attempt to look like a boy. The Carteret women were all dashing brunettes, but feminine. Otherwise they never would have had men crawling at their feet, generation after generation.”
     “If men crawled at my feet—which they don’t do these days, anyhow—I’d kick them out of the way. And if I were a man myself—and I wish to God I were—I’d see women to the devil before I’d make a fool of myself——”
     “I don’t like your language. I don’t like your voice. I don’t like your bobbed hair——”
     “My hair is not bobbed.” …
     “Are you a specimen of the flappers all these magazines and novels are full of?”
     “I am not. Silly little females. Besides, I’m twenty-two.”
     “I can’t make out whether you seem to hate men or women more, and you won’t give any reason.”
     “I don’t hate women. I only resent being one.”

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A girl named Vera can never tell a lie

A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie on Amazon (US)*
and Amazon (UK)*
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The Flapper Wife: The Story Of A Jazz Bride by Beatrice Burton (1925) made into the silent film His Jazz Bride (1926) and its sequel Footloose (1926), feature the hedonistic young May Seymour who is looking to marry a millionaire but settles for a lawyer instead. For a while, anyway. Then May gets bored with married life and starts to have affairs with other men, refusing to settle down.

Nalbro Bartley’s The Fox Woman (1928) also concerns the predatory 1920s female. “Everyone knows the fox woman. She is at every club – in every set – at every resort. You see men gathered around her – you see groups of women talking about her. She is a type in the modern world of Society. Her desire is always to dominate, possess. Always exacting love, never returning it – plunging men into despair, into jealousy, finally into hatred.”

Like Ladies and Gents, Janet Flanner’s The Cubical City (1926) is about a woman succeeding in this world of show business, though as a costume designer rather than as a dancer. The owner of the New York theatre for which Delia Poole designs the showgirls’ costumes tells her that everything had changed after prohibition: the market had become more sophisticated, more discerning.

“What we got in our line is mostly girls. In the old days if they was pretty it used to be enough. Now we gotta put ‘em across,” he had added with regret. “We gotta have expensive lights. We gotta have good music. Beautiful sets. Ideas. They need everything nowadays since life ain’t so simple. Since prohibition everybody’s got wine and we furnish the women and song.”

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Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton

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In Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep, among the top ten bestselling novels of 1927, is set in Jazz Age New York. The three heroines, including a mother and daughter, go as far as trying to change their bodies to look like the flapper ideal.

“The modern girl was always free, was expected to know how to use her freedom. Nona’s independence had been as scrupulously respected as Jim’s; she had had her full share of the perpetual modern agitations. Yet Nona was firm as a rock: a man’s heart could build on her. If a woman was naturally straight, jazz and night-clubs couldn’t make her crooked.”

Laura Lou Brookman wrote several books about this kind of strong, independent, even predatory modern woman, including The Heart Bandit (1928). “The thrilling and romantic adventures of a beautiful young ‘man hunter.’” The full-page newspaper ad for it featured a drawing of a short-haired, big-eyed woman in a heart shape and the words:

Ask yourself these questions.
     Does every pretty Flapper coolly look over the men about her, select one or several victims – and begin a ruthless, subtle campaign, using all her feminine lure and wiles to attach his heart – and purse?
     Can the Flapper tactics really win a man’s heart?
     Do bare knees and a vanity case win a wedding ring?
     Is the motto of the girl of today “Get Your Man”?
     Is the modern maid a man hunter?

Similarly, the dust jacket of Ethel Hueston’s Birds Fly South (1930) says of its heroine:

P.T. is a flapper. She lives in a New York hotel for the sake of a Good Address. She wears slinky clothes with a swishy little flare of red silk at the right knee. She lies in a tepid salt bath for one hour daily to preserve youth, beauty, suppleness. She makes it a point of business to pick up strange men who pay for her luncheon. She is ready to marry a stranger on a bottle of champagne. But – if you think you are going to find her a Horrible Warning, a Terrible Example of Flaming Youth, read further. P.T. is really the most charming among Ethel Hueston’s many charming heroines.

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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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Perhaps the most famous novel featuring the thoroughly modern 1920s flapper was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, the second-bestselling novel of 1926. Loos’ narrator, Lorelei Lee, is somewhat similar to Caspary’s third person Rosina in that her parents want her to be serious but she prefers frivolity and freedom, traveling the world in search of excitement. However, Lorelei does decide to write a book in the form of a diary, given to us unedited, spelling mistakes and all.

A gentleman friend and I were dining at the Ritz last evening and he said that if I took a pencil and a paper and put down all of my thoughts it would make a book. This almost made me smile as what it would really make would be a whole row of encyclopediacs. I mean I seem to be thinking practically all of the time. I mean it is my favorite recreation and sometimes I sit for hours and do not seem to do anything else but think.

So this gentleman said a girl with brains ought to do something else with them besides think . . . And so when my maid brought it to me, I said to her, “Well, Lulu, here is another book and we have not read half the ones we have got yet.” But when I opened it and saw that it was all a blank. I remembered what my gentleman acquaintance said, and so then I realized that it was a diary. So here I am writing a book instead of reading one.

Like Rosina in Ladies and Gents, and like most young women at the time, Lorelei’s dream is to be in the moving pictures – as Vera Caspary’s dream was to write for them and in which she succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. “Gentlemen always seem to remember blondes. I mean the only career I would like to be besides an authoress is a cinema star and I was doing quite well in the cinema when Mr. Eisman made me give it all up,” says Lorelei.

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Vera caspary

Vera Caspary
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Ladies and Gents by Vera Caspary (1929)

Soon after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was released, and well before Caspary’s Ladies and Gents was published, the death of the flapper was being widely announced. An article in the New York Times of February 16, 1928, was titled “No More Flappers.”

In thirty-five cities the flapper has been surveyed and found wanting. Investigation reveals, not that she is lacking in certain desirable qualities, but that she has actually disappeared. Surely you have missed her. Who has seen in recent days this creature, described by the league as the typical post-war flapper? Her hair was furiously frizzled. Her smoking was overenthusiastic. Her chewing gum was too loud and too large. Her vocabulary was imported direct from the trenches. She was startlingly picturesque – and now she is no more.

In her place is a delicately made up young woman of great poise and dignity. She has selected a few attributes of the flapper for preservation – the latch-key, the lipstick and the liquor. But she makes such discreet use of them that she is no longer an offense to the world at large. Instead of flaunting her freedom, she makes it more valuable by using it quietly.

Still, the world of Broadway theatres, shows and revues, the world that Rosina moves in through Ladies and Gents moves up and moves through was highly successful throughout the prohibition-era 1920s. Caspary describes this world of New York Jazz Age theatre beautifully in her autobiography.

Broadway glittered with theatres. It was a time of richness when the plays, the playwrights and the players offered exuberant and intelligent entertainment. The show music was by Gershwin, Kerns, Youmans, Berlin and Richard Rogers. Jazz was fresh, good bands played in cabarets or small, elegant nightclubs where tall fellows in tails waltzed and tangoed with sylphs in memorable chiffons. Revues were of two kinds – big, vulgar and funny in the Ziegfeld or Schubert manner, or small, witty satires disrespectful of politicians, artists and heroics.

Unlike Lorelei Lee, unlike Janet Oglethorpe, unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald’s flapper heroines Isabelle Borgé and Daisy Buchanan and indeed unlike Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda, whom he named “the first American flapper,” Rosina in Ladies and Gents does not come from money or from high society. (The little-known short story collection Flappers and Philosophers, (1920) was Fitzgerald’s first published book.)

And unlike Helen Taylor in Thyra Samter Winslow’s Show Business (1926) – also a novel about a young woman climbing to the top of the New York musical theatre scene – she does not come from a narrow, conservative small town society. Indeed, Rosina Scaduto Monticelli’s circus family are situated outside society altogether, being Italian acrobats, itinerant and literally surrounded by circus freaks.

In this, Rosina is somewhat similar to Magnolia from Edna Ferber’s Show Boat (1926), who “learned to strut and shuffle the buck-and-wing from the Negroes whose black faces dotted the boards of the southern wharves,” and her daughter Kim, who becomes a famous actress in New York City.

Rosina is also to some extent a successor to Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), who like Rosina, progresses from ingénue to queen of the stage but unlike her ends up alone.

“Here was Carrie, in the beginning poor, unsophisticated, emotional; responding with desire to everything most lovely in life, yet finding herself turned as by a wall. . . Amid the tinsel and shine of her state walked Carrie, unhappy.”

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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde;  Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and  Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.

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