Edna St. Vincent Millay, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber. These names conjure a mystique, almost a mythology: bad girls, notorious woman of the Roaring Twenties.
What fresh hells (with apologies to Dorothy Parker) were behind these exemplars of the energy, freedom, and creativity of those years? Marion Meade chronicles the lives of these women, from the height of their fame through the self-destruction or disappointment of their lives.
Since many of the high points and crashes have attached to these myths, many readers may believe they already know these women. I thought I did. I am a junkie for biographies of women writers, especially writers of the twenties. When two biographies of Edna St. Vincent Millay were published within months of each other, I was ecstatic. I have read two biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald, and her novel, Save Me the Waltz. Meade's excellent biography of Dorothy Parker, What Fresh Hell is This?, was thorough, evoking both admiration and compassion for this brilliant, brittle woman. (I confess to little knowledge or interest in Edna Ferber.)
I wonder whether this book would hold the interest of a reader who was not, already, an aficionado of these women. Meade's narrative is not biographical or thematic, but chronological. Each episode of each life is presented piecemeal as the decade progresses. The advantage of this approach is that the reader is shown how these lives intertwined, and their social context. The disadvantages to this episodic approach is that the reader never learns enough about any of the women to engage the imagination.
The book ends in 1930, but not for any narrative or biographical reason. Brief end notes follow the lives of the main characters (both the writers and their friends, male and female). Honestly, familiar as I am with these women and their times, I was not sure who some of these people were.
If you're looking for a shallow overview, this is the book for you. Otherwise, invest the time in full-scale biographies. These women are worth it.