Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation

You really shouldn’t miss this multiple biography of six flappers from the 1920s (Josephine Baker, Talulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald and Tamara de Lempicka).


Each woman’s story is equally fascinating. Author Judith Mackrell gives us all the scoop, including tales of booze, drugs, adultery, abortions, bisexuality and more. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to pour a martini and put on some jazz. I’m already picturing a Flapper theme party for my book club.

But this book is more than a dishy exposé. Mackrell understands that the flappers represented much more than a new sense of 1920s style and glamour. The flappers were at the vanguard of an attempt to redefine 20th century womanhood. Their personal failures and challenges, viewed together and in full historical context, teach us that the history of the woman’s movement is truly a story of fits-and-starts, a seesaw of hard-fought change and regression. No generation of women illustrate this better than the flappers.

And of course, like most interesting stories about women in the late 19th and early 20th century, the story of the flappers takes you to Paris, where they became dancers, actresses, writers or painters. They frequented the nightclubs and cafés of Paris, including Bricktops, the Dome and the Rotunde, as well as the salons of famous women, such as Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney.

Most interesting to me was the story of Tamara de Lempicka, the iconic art deco painter whose self-portrait appears on the cover of the book. (Have you read The Last Nude by Ellis Avery? It’s a terrific novel about Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models.) You can enjoy my two-part Last Nude Literary Tour here and here.

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1925 (Private Collection)

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1925 (Private Collection)

Tamara de Lempicka arrived in Paris in 1918 as a Russian refugee. She came to Paris after losing everything in the Russian revolution and reinvented herself as a professional painter.

Lempicka took only a year of formal instruction from Maurice Denis at the Académie Ransom at 7 rue Joseph Bara in the 6th arrondissement, just off of rue Notre Dame des Champs. Like most art students, she took her sketchbook to the Louvre in the afternoons. At first she rejected the modernist style of Cézanne, Picasso and the Dadaists, preferring the Renaissance masters. But soon she was drawn into the style of cubist André L’hote, an instructor at the Académie Notre Dame des Champs and later at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière. Lempicka studied with L’hote privately for a few months, long enough to absorb his powerful and charismatic portrait style. By 1922, after less than two years of study, Lempicka had three works accepted in the Salon d’Automne in Paris. By 1925, Lempicka had a solo show in Milan organized by Count Emanuele di Castelbarco.

Interestingly, from 1922-1924, Lempicka presented herself as a man in the catalogs for  the Paris exhibitions. She was listed as “LEMPITZKY (Tamara de) Born in Warsaw, Polish (French masculine form)” [delempicka.org].

Lempicka promoted herself with a ferocious sense of ambition, understanding that commercially lucrative portrait commissions would come as much from her talent as her own personal style and connections. She lived a chic and erotic bisexual life, which is exactly what she conveyed in her portraits.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of Valmy (1924), Oil on canvas, private collection

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of Valmy (1924), Oil on canvas, private collection














Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of  La Salle (1925), oil on canvas, private collection.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of La Salle (1925), oil on canvas, private collection.















Tamara de Lempicka, La Belle Rafaela (1927), oil on canvas, private collection

Tamara de Lempicka, La Belle Rafaela (1927), oil on canvas, private collection


Judith Mackrell follows Lempicka’s rise through the 1920s and and her subsequent fall in the 1930s. As Mackrell explains:

[T]he forces of fashion and history that had swept her to eminence were changing course in the early 1930s, and while she was still much talked about in public, in private she felt that she had failed to catch the pulse of the new decade.


The rising political tensions in Europe, a new wave of modern art, Lempicka’s dated sense of glamour and lack of youth all combined to Lempicka’s decline after 1935. She remarried and moved to America, where she had a difficult time marketing herself as well as she had in the Paris of the 1920s. She tried living in Beverly Hills, then the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and finally Houston, where her daughter Kizette had settled with her husband and two daughters. Lempicka found Houston “uncivilized” and mundane.

After Lempicka’s bold life in Paris in the 1920s, can you blame her?


Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell: Highly recommended


For Further Reading:

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery (A novel about Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models)













The Last Nude: A Literary Tour of Paris

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery is a perfect Paris read.

Set in the glamourous 1920’s Paris art world, it tells the story of the real-life Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka through the eyes of her lover, model and muse, the Italian-American Rafaela Fano. One of de Lempicka’s portraits of Rafaela (“The Dream”) graces the cover of the book.

For more about the book, check out the author’s interview with NPR and in Public Culture.


There are so many Paris treats in this book, from the original Shakespeare & Co., to houseboats on the Seine, to a character modeled after Ernest Hemingway, that I just couldn’t resist planning my own Last Nude Literary Tour of Paris. I’ll be sharing some of my photos and impressions from my tour over the next week, along with a sneak peek into a deleted excerpt from the book.

Tamara de Lempicka’s Fictional Apartment and Studio:

Tamara de Lempicka’s fictional apartment and art studio stands at 63 rue de Varenne in the 7th arrondissement on the Left Bank. Ellis Avery states that she selected this site because it would have had good northern light for painting. The address is directly across the street from the low-slung Hotel des Castries. It also happens to be down the street from one of the Paris homes of Edith Wharton at 53 rue de Varenne. What a lovely make-believe address for Tamara, a wealthy Russian aristocrat who enjoyed mingling with the champagne-sipping art collectors of Paris.

Corner of Varenne and Vaneau

Doorway to 63 rue de Varenne

Hotel de Castries

Edith Wharton Plaque at 53 rue de Varenne































Tamara’s Real Life Paris Home

In real life, Tamara de Lempicka moved from St. Petersburg to Paris with her first husband in order to escape the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. They had one daughter and were soon divorced. Tamara first lived at 5 rue Guy du Maupassant in the 16th, then at 7 rue Mechain in the 14th, in a building she herself designed. I enjoyed taking an afternoon to walk through the La Muette area of the 16th, a very posh area full of bustling bistros and beautiful apartment buildings. Check out the nice lines of the doorway to Tamara’s first building on Maupassant.

Doorway of 5 rue Guy Maupassant
















Stay tuned for more Paris scenes from The Last Nude. In the meantime, why don’t you pick up a copy from your closest independent bookstore and start reading along? I highly recommend it.