“There are those, I suppose, think we’re mad, heaven knows, the world has gone to rack and to ruin.” The first time I heard those lyrics from Thoroughly Modern Millie sung by Julie Andrews marked the beginning of a long term love affair with the Roaring ‘20s. And while that movie was a soufflé, I discovered grit in The Roaring Twenties from Warner Bros. in 1939 with bootlegging and speakeasies and the divine Gladys George playing a chanteuse/hostess hopelessly in love with James Cagney. Oh, the dark glamour of it all, which I found watching the “Dialing for Dollars” movie.
A couple of years later, Nancy Milford appeared on Dick Cavett discussing her new biography, simply titled Zelda, and talking about the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. There in the book, with its dust jacket covered in peacock feathers, was the bewitching world of the Lost Generation, populated with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and the Murphys—Gerald and Sara. Isadora Duncan even gets a cameo role, when Zelda throws herself down a flight of stairs at a party because Scott is paying too much attention to the dancer rather than to her.
And then there were the Fitzgerald novels. Just a handful, but taken together with his short stories, he gave us the best chronicle of the Jazz Age, as it came to be called with some help from Scott himself. (The French term for the period—annees folles—is also rather nice, don’t you think?) The Great Gatsby, his masterpiece, may not be the Great American Novel that some would argue it is, but it may very well the finest American novel ever written, coming in at less than a couple of hundred pages, saying and giving more to the reader than most writers could provide in two or three times that space.
In my sophomore English class, we were assigned the task of performing a scene from a novel before the class. Together with my classmates Kathy and Gary, we choose to do the hit-and-run scene from The Great Gatsby, before Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Karen Black took on those roles. With a little gender bending, Kathy was Gatsby, Gary was Daisy, and I was miscast (at least in my mind) as the unfortunate Myrtle. But at least I got to fling myself across the classroom when Gary/Daisy ran over me.
So now we find ourselves starting another decade of the ‘20s, even though most of us weren’t around for the last one. Once again, there are those who think “the world has gone to rack and to ruin.” Oddly, they come from both sides of the spectrum—political, cultural, and social. Exactly why they think the world has gone haywire may be diametrically opposed, but there is agreement about the rack and ruin part.
Well, be that as it may. I’m reminded that another wonderful thing from the Roaring ‘20s is Auntie Mame. Patrick Dennis gave her life, but it was Jerry Herman (who died just last week) who gave her voice. The clip this week from Elaine Stritch tells the whole story, plus it saves listening to Lucy’s performance, as much as I love her. Besides, I still want to be her when I grow up. Elaine Stritch, that is. Or Mame, either one.
What would happen if we lit the candles, got the ice out, and rolled the rug up every day? Well, or at least once a week. We’re living, and if we’re well, we should raise hell. While we may.
As my dear and wise friend Jane said this week, “Let’s live like sparklers for this decade, the kind that surprisingly flame bigger near a point that is an inch or two from the end. A burst of brightness before the diminishing begins its gradual journey toward fizzling out.”
Fitzgerald himself could not have said it better.