Wit and courage aplenty in early Vanity Fair essays
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.