The roaring (drunk) 20s: literature’s biggest party animals

As the holiday party season gets into full swing, we should acknowledge the great partiers of days gone by: specifically, the modernists

The life of a writer can be a quiet business, spent hunched over a manuscript in a quiet countryside house. In a contemporary twist, writers usually live God-knows-where in order to teach in a creative writing program.

But for much of the 20th century, writers flocked to cities. This was particularly true in the 1910s and 1920s, when modernism was exploding onto the scene. So, in the evenings, the greats often broke their solitude to commune with each other over a drink (or seven). This led both to some pretty fascinating dinner party conversations and more than a few party mishaps and infelicities.

Just in time for the holiday party-racket that afflicts even non-writers, we thought wed remind you of a few of them.

Edna St Vincent Millay, pictured here in 1925, was one of the most-admired poets of her time. She was also a great beauty. Photograph: Corbis

Edna St Vincent Millay, New York, 1920s: She was green, positively green

Poet and party girl Edna St Vincent Millay was a fixture of Greenwich Village bohemia in the 1910s and 20s. Social life then centered on the Provincetown Playhouse and the Pagan Romps and Art Model Frolicks of Webster Hall. But the everyday parties were more intimate, born of the desire to meet and misbehave with fellow writers and artists.

In 1917 the painter Charles Ellis was a recent arrival from Ohio, but he already knew who the current literary sensation was, and invited her to a party with his friends at their Macdougal Street apartment. We were sitting in front of our fireplace drinking mulled wine, he recalled. It was an extremely cold winter, one of the coldest in the history of the city, I believe. Wed burn anything we could find, wooden street signs, anything. Then wed put the poker in the wine to heat it. Little Vincent was sitting there with us and had a couple of glasses and we were all talking intensely. I suddenly looked up at her and she was green, positively green. I took her to the bathroom and told her what to do and she did it, and she was all right after that.

At that point, the sensitive Millay was still a shy little girl, right out of Vassar. Her sister Norma remembered the deliberate effort she and Edna put in to become modern girls: We sat darning socks on Waverly Place and practiced the use of profanity as we stitched. Needle in, shit. Needle out, piss. Needle in, fuck. Needle out, cunt. Until we were easy with the words.

Some members of the Bloomsbury set at a quiet tea on the verandah in 1929. Photograph: Dora Carrington/Getty Images

Bloomsbury, 1920s, London: The lack of refinement of their idols

The Bloomsbury set werent a particularly shy bunch to begin with. One afternoon in 1907, Lytton Strachey walked into the parlor where Virginia Woolf was sitting with her sister, Vanessa Bell, and pointed to a stain on Vanessas dress, demanding, Semen? After a hushed moment of astonishment, Woolf recorded, All barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation.

Bloomsbury parties attracted an eclectic and distinguished crowd. David Bunny Garnett, a fixture of the group, recalled seeing Picasso chatting to the swashbuckling silent-film actor Douglas Fairbanks. At another, at the home of John Maynard Keynes and his wife Lydia, the guest of honor was the prolific romance novelist Berta Ruck, who was idolized by the household servants. Garnett remembered:

Unfortunately, Walter Richard Sickert, who had been paying court to her, had discovered that she could sing and had an extensive repertoire of the old risqu music-hall songs which he adored. She was delighting us with: Never trust a sailor an inch above your knee.

At its conclusion, I noticed that the housemaid, supported by the cook, was being led downstairs sobbing. Both were bitterly disillusioned by the lack of refinement of their idol.

But performances at other parties were more successful, as Quentin Bell remembered Marjorie Strachey giving obscenely comic renderings of nursery rhymes and Sickert performing a version of Hamlet at Keyness Twelfth Night party, in 1923.

Langston Hughes, here pictured in 1958, was a fixture of the parties of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Photograph: Robert W Kelley/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Harlem Renaissance, New York, 1920s

ALelia Walker, heiress to her mothers African haircare and cosmetics empire, was nicknamed by Langston Hughes the joy goddess of Harlems 1920s. She was a lavish hostess who in 1928 decided to turn her home on 136th street into a cultural center, where she could display art and throw parties for young artists to mingle with potential patrons. She named it the Dark Tower after a Countee Cullen poem and stenciled Hughess The Weary Blues on the wall.

The invitation announcing her new venture read: We dedicate this tower to the aesthestes. That cultural group of young Negro writers, sculptors, painters, music artists, composers and their friends. A quiet place of particular charm. A rendezvous where they may feel at home to partake of a little tid-bit amid pleasant, interesting atmosphere.

Membership was $1 a year, and the parties ran from nine at eve til two in the morn. Broadway stars and nightclub singers entertained an eclectic, freethinking crowd. The lesbian activist Mable Hampton attended a party in the 1920s that was a revelation to her: There was men and women, women and women, and men and men, she said. And everyone did whatever they wanted to do.

Walkers most notorious party was possibly apocryphal, according to historian Steven Watson. For the evenings victuals, she reversed the racial hierarchy, serving her white guests pigs feet, chitterlings, and bathtub gin, while the black guests, seated in separate and more posh quarters, dined on caviar, pheasant and champagne.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, pictured here in a quieter moment of their lives sometime in the 1930s, were notorious partiers. Photograph: Alamy

The Fitzgeralds, the French Riviera, 1920s

Literatures most notorious partiers, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, married on 3 April 1920 at St Patricks Cathedral in New York and embarked on a months-long bender to celebrate. They were kicked out of two luxury hotels for their revelries, and the papers reported on them breathlessly. Zelda herself recalled the era as though in a haze: Under the sombre ironic parrots of the Biltmore a halo of golden bobs disintegrated into black lace and shoulder bouquets … It was just a lot of youngness.

The famous party scenes in Fitzgeralds novels were often based on real events, transformed by a similar kind of nostalgic, liquid haze. The dinner party in Scotts 1936 novel Tender is the Nightis based on a party at the Villa America on the French Riviera, home of expat hosts Gerald and Sara Murphy, models for the novels central couple.

According to a 1962 New Yorkerprofile of Murphy, Fitzgeralds bad behavior was more provocative and childish than glamorous and louche. He started things off inauspiciously by walking up to one of the guests, a young writer, and asking him in a loud, jocular tone whether he was a homosexual. The man quietly said Yes, and Fitzgerald retreated in temporary embarrassment.

After more antics, including throwing a fig at a princess and punching the writer Archibald MacLeish, Fitzgerald began throwing Saras gold-flecked Venetian wineglasses over the garden wall. He had smashed three of them this way before Gerald stopped him. He was banned from the house for three weeks but forgiven soon enough.


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