Book review: Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm

Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair

edited by Graydon Carter

Penguin Press

Before Buzzfeed, before Spy, before Rolling Stone and the Paris Review, there was Vanity Fair. The smart-set magazine launched a century ago became famous as a barometer of the Jazz Age and for its heavy-hitting contributors: Dorothy Parker, Carl Sandburg, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein were just a few who wrote for the magazine.

Bohemians collects some of the more interesting pieces from Vanity Fair's dawn through 1936 (the magazine was resurrected in 1983).

This is a book as a box of chocolates. Some of the pieces are stale, while others give the reader more to chew on, such as the takes on jazz in its youth and Henri Matisse (who "does not care whether or not they call him a charlatan", we are assured).

The fun comes from the variety: Parker's tart verse about the foibles of actresses shares the book with Walter Winchell's primer on Broadway slang and Bertrand Russell on behaviourism.

Some of the pieces are prescient. Critic Walter Lippmann warned in 1927 - seven decades before the internet exploded - that one day publicity would be so pervasive "anyone anywhere can see and hear anything that is going on anywhere else in the world".

Maybe most interesting are the pieces that haven't aged well - the ones that illustrate how different things looked just a lifetime ago. Crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow may have been aiming for lightheartedness in his lament about women encroaching on the formerly male-only turf of the barbershop, but it makes him seem like a crank by contemporary standards.

The most cringe-inducing piece is novelist Theodore Dreiser's rose-tinted look at the Soviet Union published around the dawn of the Stalin era in 1928. Yes, it's a dictatorship, he wrote, but one aiming to bring "that classless brother-loving society in which no dictatorship will be needed". A Vanity Fair editor preceded the piece with a note stressing that Dreiser was expressing his own opinion, not the magazine's.

Associated Press