The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

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JUL-AUG 2010 Issue

The Not-So Roaring Twenties

The Not-So Roaring Twenties, by David Rosen

Reviewed in this essay:

Lucy Moore, Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties (Overlook, 2010)

Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Simon & Schuster, 2010)

Speakeasies were social venues of transgression during Prohibition and are once again the in-places for New York hipsters; “hipsters” were those who carried an alcohol-filled hipflask during the Roaring Twenties.

Today’s speaks include Rye, in Williamsburg, and the Violet Hour, the Back Room and PDT (a k a Please Dont Tell) in the Lower East Side.  However, the city’s most famous surviving speakeasy, Chumley’s, on Bedford Street in the West Village opened in 1922, but is temporarily closed for repairs. It was long home to such literary notables as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer.

Speakeasies emerged out of the imposition of Prohibition, a federal program that lasted from 1920 to 1933 and criminalized the manufacturing, importation, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages; however, and a surprise to many, it did not make alcohol consumption illegal.  For decades, groups like the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, much like today’s Christian right, fought to impose abstinence on all Americans.  They succeeded with the adoption of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, but their “war on whisky” failed and the Amendment was repealed.  This failure is the story of the 20s.

Speaks were places where people socialized, drank alcohol, and knowingly broke the law.  They were the epicenters of social transgression during the Roaring Twenties, often drawing a crowd including men and women, gangsters and slummers, hipsters and businessmen, whites and blacks, hookers and johns, and straights and gays.  Sadly, the recent books by Lucy Moore and Daniel Okrent on the 20s spend little time detailing what went on inside speakeasies.  Both books are useful for the information they provide, but neither author seems to really understand the 20s, let alone the speakeasy, nor why the era was critical to the development of modern America.

The two books are complementary to one another and readers are encouraged to check out both to make up for the significant limitations of each.  Moore, an American ex-pat living in London, has published a half-dozen popular nonfiction books including Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France (2007); she writes with the voice of an overexcited tour guide or gossip columnist.  Okrent, formerly a public editor at the New York Times and managing editor of Life magazine, is author of Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center (2003), and writes with the officious voice of establishment authority. 

The two works cover some of the same ground, but in very different ways.  Moore’s book is a collage of a dozen or so portraits of well-known 20s personalities who gave the era its legendary charm.  Okrent takes a different tack, painstakingly dissecting the political struggles and legislative battles, along with informative profiles of many now lost personalities of the period. Moore makes the 20s roar louder then the lion in the MGM logo; Okrent makes it so tedious one can only wonder what all the fuss is about.

Sadly, neither author brings a critical, political understanding to the 20s they analyze, so each work ends up being a recitation of familiar scholarly studies, journalist reports, and popular anecdotes.  Neither offers a fresh analytic perspective, a new way of understanding one of the most contentious moments in the nation’s history.  The Roaring Twenties were far more significant then the two authors fully appreciate, thus each work is informative but profoundly limited. 

* * *

Popular entertainment has done much to familiarize Americans with the Roaring Twenties.  Francis Coppola’s Godfather saga and The Cotton Club, the Untouchables TV series and movie, as well as many other shows make the 20s as familiar as the 60s.  These programs capture some of the vitality of an era celebrated for its slick gangsters and jazzy entertainers, crooked politicians and corrupt business moguls, glamorous film stars and literary celebrities, and free-flowing drinks; 1920s America, like Weimar, expressed wildness before capitalism’s cataclysmic collapse into depression and war.  

Unfortunately, most popular media, including these books, perpetuate the myth of the personality, whether celebrity, politician or socialite.  This analysis intentionally avoids the real lives of ordinary Americans.  It is the experiences of these people, especially at, for example, the speakeasies, which millions called their second homes, that the 20s found its fullest expression.  The speak was the incubator of the post-World War II consumer society.

Moore offers a familiar snapshot model of history to tell her story.  Each chapter profiles a relatively well-known personality to superficially consider a larger social issue.  She juxtaposes portraits of Al Capone and Bessie Smith along with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Warren Harding, and Henry Ford; she adds Sacco and Vanzetti, Jack Dempsey, Charles Lindbergh, Clarence Darrow, and Mary Pickford to paint what she calls a “biography” of the decade.

This approach may be appropriate for the British audience the book originally targeted, but lacks something for its U.S. release.  Moore’s subjects are all too familiar, and her names for them a bit off-putting  (for example, she insists on calling H.L. Mencken “Henry Menken” and William Randolph Hearst “W.R. Hearst”).  However, her coverage of the trial, appeals, and ultimate execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti provides the author with an opportunity to reflect on early-20th century American nativism, white Protestant fright, the rise of the Klan, free-market capitalism, and immigration restrictions and Prohibition. 

Her discussion of Sacco-Vanzetti enables Moore to depict the underbelly of fear that challenged the 20s alcohol induced wildness.  Sadly, she doesn’t tie the pieces together, nor does she offer a coherent analysis.  She uses extensive cut and paste quotations from her principal research sources to fill out much of her narrative; this is a benefit for a reader.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t follow Walter Benjamin’s approach to intellectual content appropriation (i.e., as a form of archeology), but uses the quotations as filler to avoid working through a serious understanding of a traumatic decade.  

Readers will enjoy the gossipy profiles Moore concocts, but will be left with a simple question:  Why does she select the individual personalities that she uses to frame her narrative?  Why Harding and not Calvin Coolidge? Why Ford and not John D. Rockefeller II?  More troubling, why is there no discussion of Albert Einstein and technology, including the radio, telephone, and the rise of talkie movies? Or of Mae West’s raciness, which caused her plays to be banned and her to be imprisoned, but also resulted in her becoming the highest paid starlet?

America has had a long love affair with the bottle.  As legend has it, Henry Hudson served gin to a party of Lenape Indians in 1608 on what is today’s Manhattan Island and, as the story goes, “the Indians passed out, to a man.”  The often forgotten part of this story is that the Lenape named the place Manahachtanienk—the island where we all became intoxicated.  A half-century later, in 1657, the General Court of Massachusetts prohibited the sale of alcohol “whether known by the name of rumme, strong waters, wine, brandy, etc.”  Oddly, for all his rigorous scholarship, Okrent fails to recall these events.

Okrent painstakingly dissects the legislative and political struggles that defined Prohibition—and struggles there were.  Drys and wets, Republicans and Democrats, Protestant nativists and Catholic immigrants, Southerners and Northerners, whites and blacks, and rural folk and city dwellers contested the nation’s moral character.   In every state and city, in every church and schoolhouse, in every household and speakeasy, Americans fought a war over the bottle, a war between virtue and sin for the soul of America—and sin won!

Okrent’s analysis of Prohibition, like Moore’s discussion of the 20s, hinges on immigrants.  He provides an invaluable discussion of the dry’s efforts to block congressional reapportionment based on the 1920 census. Between 1921 and l928, 42 bills were introduced to subvert Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, which ties reapportionment to the census. 

Like today’s Tea Party effort to overturn the 14th Amendment, the drys were a shrinking, throwback movement of anti-modernist conservatives that held onto power through fearless determination and outright illegality.  So out of whack was Congressional apportionment that, in 1929, a Detroit district represented nearly 1.3 million people while one in Missouri had only 180,000 residents. 

Like today, immigrants were the scapegoat for a vindictive morality campaign, the fear of change.  Hispanics are the target of today’s rage, but in the good old days of the 20s, it was the Germans, Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans, and Chinese (and let’s not forget African Americans) who bore the brunt of nativist fear.  And, like today, Protestant fundamentalists railed against Catholics and Jews.  Not unlike today’s Tea Party folk, Christian Prohibitionists found kindred spirits among nativists, Klansmen, eugenicists, and free marketeers.

Each book would benefit from the relative value of the other.  Moore’s portraits are informative, but had she more carefully explained her selection process and offered a more coherent analysis of their linkage, she might have really created a “biography” of the 20s. Her book reads more like an expanded edition of Life magazine, but without the great photos.  Okrent’s dissertation on Prohibition is thoroughly researched, but fails to give the reader a sense of the historical context, the roar of the 20s; had he included more celebrity gossip in his “biography” of Prohibition, he might have better captured its subversive spirit. 

The greatest weakness of both books is that neither really considers the lives of the ordinary Americans, those who lived out the social rebellion that defined the 20s.  Not mentioned in either book is the fact that in New York City an estimated one hundred thousands speaks operated in 1925, ranging from glamorous nightclubs and stylish cabarets in the swankest parts of Manhattan, to neighborhood saloons, cafes, and private, low-life blind pigs.  As the scholarship shows since E.P. Thompson and Herbert Gutman introduced modern social history, celebrities and politicians do not really tell the true story of a particular era.  Rather, it’s the lives of ordinary people, people like you and me, who really make history.  Sadly, few of us know it.

* * *


David Rosen

David Rosen is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and Z-magazine and is the author of Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming and Off-Hollywood: The Making & Marketing of Independent Films. He can be reached at drosen [at]


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

All Issues