Wednesday, March 18, 2009

BRIGHT YOUNG PEOPLE: THE LOST GENERATION OF LONDON’S JAZZ AGE By D.J. Taylor Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.95, 384 pages

How to write the history of 1920s London and its Bright Young People? Hemmed in on either side by devastating world wars, the age and its jeunesse doree still manage to seem incandescently (and inappropriately) fun - a phantasmagoria of dazzling scenes featuring outlandishly costumed and painted young men, boyishly glamorous girls, black American jazz bands, champagne, cocktails, great houses and parties.

It is the parties above all else that are the hallmark of the age and its smart set. “What a lot of parties,” exclaims the hero of Evelyn Waugh‘s “Vile Bodies” (1930), the novel often taken to be most expressive of the Bright Young People’s gilded, pleasure-seeking scene: “… Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St. John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and nightclubs, in windmills and swimming baths… all that succession and repetition of massed humanity … . Those vile bodies… .”

Waugh was at once an enamored occasional participant in the Bright Young People’s decadence and a revolted critic of it. In his novels that memorialize the age, “Vile Bodies” especially, the tone Waugh takes toward his generation is ambivalent. In his captivating new history of the age, “Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age,” D.J. Taylor takes his sense of 1920s London from Waugh: Mr. Taylor’s book is at once elegy and critique. And this is just as it should be, because it is hard not to be by turns enthralled by the splendor of this brief age and, in turn, dismayed by its selfishness and frivolity. Waugh’s inventory of Bright Young Peoples’ parties is, if anything, too modest.

There were scavenger hunts that involved high-speed car chases around London, there was a hoax art opening for an invented painter named Bruno Hat, a mock wedding, a “Bath and Bottle Party” thrown at an indoor swimming pool featuring an American jazz band shipped in just for the occasion, a Mozart Party at which guests dressed in 1760s costumes, feasted on dishes from a menu that had been served at the court of Louis XIV and danced by candlelight, an Urban Dionysus at which one partygoer, dressed as Europa, rode in on a bull, a White party, at which all partygoers dressed in white and danced on a white dance floor in the midst of an orchard “with the moonlight turning the apples all to silver.”

The Bright Young People whose names might still ring a bell include Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Cyril Connolly, Tallulah Bankhead and Nancy and Diana Mitford (later, married to the heir of the Guinness fortune, Bryan Guinness; and, later still, married to the leader of the English Facist Party, Oswald Mosley). But these were not the group’s central figures. The most famous of the Bright Young People, the ones trailed by London tabloid reporters and photographers for most of the decade - Elizabeth Ponsonby, Babe Plunkett-Greene, Brenda Dean-Paul, David and Stephen Tennant, Brian Howard - were so seriously committed to their pleasures that they never got around to doing much else.

The unabashed hedonism and frivolity has a certain guiltily alluring logic: Why go to work, why make any concessions to conventional expectations or seriousness of any kind, if you can, instead, lounge through life drinking champagne with the handsome, clever and rich?

The answer that Mr. Taylor offers - an answer that he finds in the novels of the era - is that such self-indulgence is morally delinquent and spiritually bankrupt. A character in Nancy Mitford’s first novel, “Highland Fling” (1931), tells her husband, “You are divine not to be cross,” after he finds out she is pregnant. The slightly down-at-the-heel heroine then becomes consumed with anxiety about how the baby is to be clothed: “I mean babies clothes are always covered with lace, just like underclothes, they must be frightfully expensive.”

The Bright Young People were always worried about surface things, seemingly incapable of seriousness. Their speech was laden with what Mr. Taylor calls “peacock-hued overstatement”: words like “divine,” “monstrous,” “amazing,” “appalling,” “shattering,” “sick-making,” were used to describe the most mundane of circumstances; “darling” and “my dears” were the preferred form of address for everyone. One uninitiated partygoer in Beverly Nichols’ best-selling 1927 “Crazy Pavements” wonders, “what language they would speak if something really awful did happen.”

Awful things did happen (a fatal drunk-driving accident after one party, a fatal fall from a balcony during another), but these, as recounted by Bright Young People, were described in the same hyperbolic idiom used to describe ugly dresses and bothersome parents: “The most appalling thing happened last night about 12:15 … a man fell from the balcony at the back of the house and was killed, it was the most awful nightmare.”

With the 1929 stock market crash in New York, Britain’s financial system (then as now) felt the reverberations. In an atmosphere of “belt-tightening and diminished horizons” the parties dwindled, and as World War II began, many of the Bright Young People finally grew up: Many joined the war effort and were scattered across the globe as soldiers, intelligence officers and ambulance drivers.

Others, seemingly incapable of living beyond the era that had defined their lives, became victims of their own self-indulgence: Elizabeth Ponsonby, whose biography gets the most attention from Mr. Taylor as the paradigmatic figure of her circle, died of alcohol poisoning at barely 40; Brenda Dean-Paul, another darling of the 20s gossip columnists, died of a morphine overdose at around the same age.

The Bright Young People’s decadence, their frivolity, their refusal of moral seriousness for a shared escapist devotion to pleasure is, as it should be - thanks to Mr. Taylor’s deft managing of tone - both enticing and repulsive. There was an art and a grandeur to their mode of living, this last great generation of lotus eaters - immoral, yes, but still beautiful in its impossible fragility. As Edna St. Vincent Millay, an American poet of the era, wrote, in what could be an epitaph for the age:

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -

It gives a lovely light!

Emily Wilkinson is a writer and critic in Palo Alto, Calif.

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