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

 edited by Graydon Carter with David Friend

THERE WERE a lot of smart magazines of opinion and culture in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—among them The Outlook, The Century, The Nation and The New Yorker. There were also four different magazines named Vanity Fair. The one we know best got its start in 1913-14 when publisher Condé Nast bought Dress magazine and renamed it Dress and Vanity Fair. A year later editor Frank Crowninshield dropped the magazine’s fashion focus and the publication became known simply as Vanity Fair. Crowninshield, a cultural tastemaker credited with introducing “café society” to New York, commissioned articles, essays, poetry and fiction by American and British literary luminaries and turned the magazine into a success. Robert Sherwood, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley were brought on as staffers and became founding members of the Algonquin Roundtable.

To commemorate Vanity Fair’s founding, Penguin Press has published Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, and Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair. The book is an eclectic collection of 72 pieces published between 1913 and 1936. Tomas Mann, Bertrand Russell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot and Carl Sandberg are just a few of the top writers and big thinkers who wrote for the publication. In the introduction, current editor Graydon Carter claims that Vanity Fair was the modern magazine in its first incarnation, at a time when New York was “the fuzzy incubator of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties.”

The reader is spoiled for choice with the selections, some of which have an experimental prose style and all of which open a window on the social currents and celebrities of that period. Benchley has some fun with “The Art of Being a Bohemian” (1916): “Like the measles, which are so delightful in retrospect because we remember only the period of convalescence and its accompanying chicken and jellies, Bohemia seems to be a state which grows dear the farther you get away from it.” Walter Winchell offers us “A Primer of Broadway Slang” (1927), Alexander Woollcott explains “The Education of Harpo Marx” (1926) and Clarence Darrow, in “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” (1926), rues the decline of the barbershop as a social center for men. There are poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Langston Hughes; Ford Madox Ford expounds on “Some American Expatriates” (1927); and Parker, an editorial gangster, spits venom with “Why I Haven’t Married” (1916) along with three “Hate Poems”—on relatives, men and actresses.

There are some clunkers, to be sure, but most of the stories are fascinating. In “The Grand Guillotiner of France” (1935), one learns of the two famous executioner families in France and the rituals of a beheading. Djuna Barnes beautifully profiles “James Joyce” (1922), and novelist Tomas Wolfe pens a limpid short story, “The Bums at Sunset” (1935): “Tat light lay there briefly with a strange, unearthly detachment, like a delicate and ancient bronze. . . .It was like sorrow and like ecstasy and it faded briefly like a ghost.” One can’t find such diverse material in today’s specialized magazines. This book reminds us of an era when writers (and editors) pushed the edge, took chances with content and style, and thus treated readers to an array of distinctive voices and exceptional stories.

 

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.