Wit and courage aplenty in early Van­ity Fair es­says

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Gene Walz

WHEN Van­ity Fair was first pub­lished in Jan­uary 1914, famed ed­i­tor Frank Crown­in­shield promised a mag­a­zine fo­cused on “young men and young women, full of courage, orig­i­nal­ity and ge­nius.” If the 72 pieces col­lected in Bo­hemi­ans, Boot­leg­gers, Flap­pers & Swells are any in­di­ca­tion, his mag­a­zine cer­tainly had those qual­i­ties. But he left out one im­por­tant ad­jec­tive: wit. W hat this new an­thol­ogy of ar­ti­cles from 1914 to 1936 proves is that the best of them were funny enough to stand the test of time. Cur­rent Van­ity Fair ed­i­tor Gray­don Carter (since 1992) and book ed­i­tor David Friend have in­cluded some strong opin­ion pieces (per­haps “coura­geous” is too strong a word for them), work by many of the lead­ing lit­er­ary lights of all time (T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzger­ald, Thomas Mann, Co­lette, and D.H. Lawrence, to name but a few), and es­says by a few cer­ti­fied ge­niuses (Ber­trand Rus­sell and Al­dous Hux­ley, for in­stance). But it’s the hu­mor­ous ar­ti­cles that stand out, and make the book worth buy­ing. The an­thol­ogy is a great smor­gas­bord of ma­te­rial: re­portage on cur­rent events, brief artis­tic and cul­tural es­says, celebrity pro­files, short sto­ries, and po­etry. Most of the in­clu­sions are dain­ties — less than five pages in length. Like all buf­fets, many of the of­fer­ings are light and dessert-y, some are nour­ish­ing and sev­eral are eas­ily passed over after a mere tast­ing. The book starts strong, with a face­tious ex­am­i­na­tion of the “phys­i­cal cul­ture” craze by P.G. Wode­house. He be­gins by ad­mit­ting that “Once upon a time I was the most de­light­ful per­son you ever met.” Now that he has de­vel­oped his mus­cles, how­ever, he has “a waist-line the con­sis­tency of fairly stale bread,” and he wor­ries that he will soon be “a sort of time bomb,” un­able to phys­i­cally con­trol him­self with his new­found mus­cu­la­ture. The rest of the first sec­tion, de­voted to the pe­riod be­tween 1914 and 1920, is con­sid­er­ably en­livened by a hu­mor­ous de­scrip­tion of bo­hemi­ans by Robert Bench­ley (in which he uses “bo­heme” as a verb) and by six hi­lar­i­ous pieces from Dorothy Parker, in­clud­ing four of her fa­mous “Hate Songs” in­clud­ing Men: A Hate Song and Rel­a­tives: A Hate Song. There’s also an amus­ing piece by Stephen Lea­cock ex­plain­ing why the rich aren’t happy. Mainly, he can’t find any­body who ad­mits to be­ing rich. But this first sec­tion also in­cludes a pre­scient Lea­cock es­say from 1915 about Cana­dian in­de­pen­dence. “The rush to arms in Canada,” he says, “is the glad cry of a peo­ple that have found them­selves.” The sec­tions cov­er­ing the 1920s and 1930s are more se­ri­ous over­all in tone. Stand­out es­says from the 1920s on jazz, mod­ern art, and the in­elas­tic Amer­i­can mind are worth read­ing. But it’s e.e. cum­mings’ crazy ex­ag­ger­a­tion of the ef­fect of a Calvin Coolidge smile that car­ries the sec­tion. And Hey­wood Broun’s ac­count of a prize fight makes you aware of just how far sports re­port­ing has de­clined. Es­says from the 1930s be­gin with ex­am­i­na­tions of the stock-mar­ket de­cline that are still rel­e­vant to­day. So are the celebrity por­traits — a stun­ningly frank de­scrip­tion of Joan Craw­ford by her hus­band Doug Fair­banks, Jr. and a trib­ute to Babe Ruth by Paul Gal­lico. Many of the es­says, por­traits, and hu­mor­ous pieces col­lected here make you yearn for the days when mag­a­zine stan­dards were much, much higher. This col­lec­tion may not be quite as good as the New Yorker’s col­lec­tion from the 1940s, but it’s cer­tainly lively, var­ied and in­for­ma­tive. You can dine at length on Bo­hemi­ans, Boot­leg­gers, Flap­pers & Swells, or nib­ble at it from time to time with equal plea­sure. Gene Walz can’t pass a mag­a­zine stand

with­out brows­ing and buy­ing.

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