Posts Tagged ‘Jazz Age’

1 March

Dinner at St. James Palace





Muriel and Bob first met the Prince of Wales in 1925 when he attended their performance at the cabaret Le Boeuf Sur le Toit in Paris. He immediately became a fan and when they began headlining at the Night Lite Club in London in 1926, he often came to see them.

Click here to see Muriel's diary

Click here to read Muriel’s actual diary

The Prince invited them to be the guests of honor to what he described a “small, intimate dinner party” at his residence, St. James Palace in London. Below is Muriel’s diary entry for December 8, 1926, the day after the party. Following is a transcription for ease of reading. We have transcribed it exactly, so you can read first hand Muriel’s exuberant spirit as she recalls the events of the night before. It includes the misspellings, an army of dashes, and with no periods, commas or other clues as to where sentences start and stop! So jump in…you’ll figure it out…and enjoy this highly entertaining journey with Muriel and her own unique take on this remarkable dinner party!  Grab a cup of tea and enjoy!



A description of the dinner party at St James Palace

with H.R.H. (Prince of Wales) as our Host – Dec. 7th 1926.

Bob and I drove through the gate, in the old taxi, with our hearts in our throats – Little did we dream we would ever be driving into this lovely old courtyard of St James Palace, to attend a party as guests of the Prince of Wales – Our taxi came to a halt at a huge door and a servant came slowly up to the cab and with much bowing escorted us into the large reception hall of the Palace – Here he helped us with our (wraps) and with a knowing smile beckoned us to follow. 

Muriel in the dress Coco Chanel designed for her and she wore to the dinner at St. James Palace

Muriel in the silver lame dress Coco Chanel designed for her and that she wore to the dinner at St. James Palace

 Finally we came to two large doors – these were swung open by another butler – dressed in – red coat, black bloomers pants, and low shoes. I felt exactly like “Alice in Wonderland” and expected any minute to waken with a start to find it all a dream – When the doors opened – there before our eyes was a long table – filled with faces all looking our way – glittering jewels on the heads of the elegant woman – and polite smiles on the faces of the “elegant” gentleman. A huge chandelier of brilliant crystals was hanging over the dining table – and this was set into gold – “everything”.

HRH The Prince of Wales

HRH The Prince of Wales

All this I saw as we stood in the doorway waiting for His Royal Highness to come to us and at last he arrived. I curtsied and Bob bowed low. The Prince said things like – “he was delighted we could come” and “hoped we wouldn’t think them too rude for having started before we arrived” – etc etc – (We had to be a little late because of doing a show before this party) So we were seated – Bob at the Prince’s left and I at his right – at the head of this long impressive table. The guests were all of the nobility – with the exception of two – and these were millionaire playboys. Next to Bob sat the Duke and Duchess of York and by me was the Hon. Mrs. Crighten – a charming woman who is one of the leaders in London’s social set. 

I can’t recall what we had to eat but one thing- this was a large, angry looking lobster brought to me on a golden tray. His great “Feelers” or whatever they are – claws I guess – daring me to touch – I did – with golden spoon and fork – and tried to look at ease through it all. (The only place one should eat this wild thing is in your own bathtub completely nude)

Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire

After the “supper” was over the Prince pushed back his chair and we followed him to the doors – there we stood on either side of him as each guest filed by and was formally introduced to us – after much bowing – curtsying – The last in line were Fred and Adele Astaire – We all but fell in each others arms – It was so good to shake a hand & say a simple “Hello”. On up the great stairs we all went to gather in the drawing room for an evening of “plain” fun – There was music – songs and the things that happen at any party at home. But I couldn’t keep from looking around every now and then at all this lovely old splendor – and think of all the history that had been made right in this very room – It was hard to believe that I – Muriel Taylor – was perhaps sitting in the same chair used by one Ann Bolen. (Boleyn)

Adele Astaire

Adele Astaire

 This was an adventure I will keep with me all the rest of my life – It was a most thrilling and beautiful experience – The Prince is a sad little chap – and I believe he would give anything in this world to get out of all the pomp and restrictions – He wants to be a simple human being – His brother the Duke of York – a tall gaunt fellow- who stutters dreadfully trying all the time to make you like him – He wanted to talk with me all evening and at times it was difficult – he would tell me stories – and it would take him so long to get them told – Poor chap – His Duchess – is very charming – a plain looking dumpy little soul – and if you took off all her finery she would be plain Mrs. Brown or Smith from any little town at home – She wanted to know all about my home & life in California. Seemed so interested in things – 

Bob & Muriel

Bob & Muriel

 This evening I will keep in my memories forever and ever – It was something that doesn’t happen to many people in a lifetime – I am a very lucky girl –


Be sure to join us next Monday when we will share another  of the stories from that evening that Muriel didn’t include in her diary, after all all, everyone should know the answer to the age old question, “Where do you pee in the Palace?” 

17 March

And All That Jazz

And All That Jazz

Paris Style



It has been said that the American south gave birth to jazz, but it was Paris who nourished it, made it grow and hailed it as art. Jazz became unique to each country that welcomed it, and Paris was the first in Europe to embrace it and make it her own.

This must have been an unpleasant jolt to wealthy Paris society who, before the advent of WW I, flourished in the era known as the Belle Epoque, or “Beautiful Era.” It overlapped the Victorian Era in England and the Gilded Age in America, all sharing the same sense of “noblesse oblige,” thus perpetuating the established class system. Their life style was reflected in elaborate homes, romantic literature, music and high fashion.

France’s Belle Epoque Age ended abruptly with the outbreak of WW I, crushed by the reality and horror of war. In 1918, Paris was still reeling from the ravages of war, which the French had believed would quickly end with a glorious victory. Instead, at the end of the four year struggle, they saw only devastation, loss and poverty.  People were angry, disillusioned and felt betrayed by their leaders and the arrogant politics of war.

French writers and artists led a revolt in literary, art and musical satire, rebelling against the insanity, horror and stupidity of war. They held spirited public meetings and seminars. Finally, the French government forbade them to hold secret meetings or even meet secretly among themselves since they always seemed to stir up trouble. The creative artists solved that problem by openly meeting in little sidewalk cafes, a move that served them well and became a tradition for future generations of writers and artists.

During the Belle Epoque’s final years, European literature, music and art began to undergo a major transformation, introducing stark realism that developed into modernism.  Romantic operettas and Strauss waltzes gave way to the unfamiliar, discordant sounds of Stravinsky. The elegant, corseted high fashion gowns were replaced with the unencumbered, boyish dress designs of Coco Chanel, including (gasp!) trousers for women! Romantic adventure novels were nudged aside by the in-your-face realism of Joseph Conrad, Proust, Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce.

Out of their discontent grew one of the strangest, most controversial artistic protests yet seen. In 1919, Darius Milhaud, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Poulenc and Picasso were among the prominent artists and writers in Paris who joined the Dada movement, an informal international anti-war movement launching a protest against everything traditional. They declared that everything was nonsense: literature, art, morality, and civilization. They ridiculed the lack of purpose and shallowness of the modern world.

The word, “dada” is baby talk for the French word “hobbyhorse,” the kind with a horse’s head on a stick that a child pretends to ride but goes nowhere! The Dada movement spread into other countries, including the United States. Dadaism began to fade into surrealism by 1924, and some theorists argue that Dada was the beginning of postmodern art.

Speaking of surreal—I had my own crazy Dada moment a few years ago while driving home from work tuned into PBS. The narrator discussed the 1920’s Dadaist movement and its meaning (or lack thereof), then played a CD of a woman reading a Dada poem—two full minutes of this woman’s melodious voice reading nothing but “dada-dada-dada” over and over again. The word never changed, only the emotion and cadence of her voice changed, as if she was reading something very deep and meaningful.  I grinned through the first minute, gritted my teeth through the second and almost ran off the road at the heart wrenching dadas that ended the saga!

Guess what the most amazing part was? The woman reading the Dada poem was (drum roll, please) Marie Osmond!  Honest! I grinned the rest of the way home. The Dadaists would have loved it. I mean, how damn surreal can you get?  Here was this little Mormon girl from Utah, almost one hundred years later, reading the iconic Dada poem about nothing!

This leads us back to why Paris was so quick to embrace the Jazz Age and its hordes of artists, writers, musicians, entertainers and other “expats” who were eager to make Paris their home. Jazz in Paris, as well as America, represented not only an anti-war sentiment, but a rebellion against the stuffiness and rigidity of the Belle Epoque, Victorian era and old fashioned classicism. Jazz flourished among the rich and poor alike, and became a musical language all could understand regardless of class.

Paris was introduced to jazz during the difficult days of WW I, when American soldiers came with their marching bands and jazzy music. War weary Parisians jumped on the jazz bandwagon like starving people looking for life support. The happy, syncopated music boosted moral and helped them forget for awhile the ravages of war.

Word of the artistic and racial freedom in Paris (and their love of jazz)  spread quickly and, after the war, African-American jazz musicians flocked to Paris for work and the racial equality and freedom they were denied in their own country. The music became a cultural tidal wave that had the power to cross racial barriers. Soon, Paris boasted the top names in jazz musicians as well as the best known African-American cabaret stars in the world. In addition, many American soldiers remained in Paris after the war, which prompted the popular 1918 song, “How Ya’ Gonna’ Keep Them Down on the Farm, After They’ve Seen Paree?”

Paris already boasted its own impressive community of avant-garde artists. Leaders in the fields of literature, music, dance and theatre were an integral part of Paris culture before WW I. They were the artistic hub, the beacon that drew other artists to Paris after the war. However, sometimes Paris could be a devious, sexy Lorelie whose entrancing song lures and distracts the creative muses, as F. Scott Fitzgerald and others discovered when they failed to heed the danger hidden in her siren song.

Among these expatriates were the cream of America’s writers, musicians and artists: F. Scott Fitzgerald, who coined the words “Jazz Age,” Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and her Shakespeare Co., Ezra Pound, Henry James, Sherwood Anderson, Charles McArthur, Langston Hughes, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Aaron Copeland, Rogers and Hart, Man Ray and so many others. They became an integral part of the burgeoning American expatriate community who had moved to Paris for the artistic freedom it nourished.

Others came to Paris just because they loved the life style. Among these were Gerald and Sara Murphy, wealthy Americans who befriended many of America’s artists and writers at their home in Cap d’ Antibes. Their biography is titled, “Living Well is the Best Revenge.”

Living in Paris was cheaper and there was no Prohibition!  They could drink, enjoy wild dancing, visit brothels and other dens of iniquity without fearing arrest. Socialites, adventurers, artists and tourists from around the world converged upon the famous Parisian nightclubs and cabarets, like Café du Dome, Chez Florence, le Boeuf Sur le Toit, le Grand Duc, the Moulin Rouge, Maxims and others. The back ally cabarets, bordellos and opium parlors existed in tandem with the more sophisticated clubs, whose patrons were not shy about visiting both.

Perhaps composer, George Antheil put it best when he said “Jazz was a marvelous antidote to 20th Century boredom and nervous tension—a subtle combination of narcotic and stimulant!”

The Jazz Age reigned until it came crashing down with America’s Wall Street, and all the American expatriates had to rush back home to pick up the pieces. Some mourned the end of the Jazz Age, others said good riddance!

The Jazz age was over, but jazz was here to stay! Over the years, jazz has given birth to the blues, rock and roll, ragtime, folk, bluegrass, scat, rhythm and blues and a host of other genres.

This came home to me a few years ago, when I was spent the night in Carcassonne, a small 14th century medieval city in southern France. The ancient, walled city had a sad Cather/Crusader history that permeated the old stone walls. I felt its pervasive sadness as I walked along the ancient cobbled, narrow streets. Suddenly, I heard live music. The jazzy sound was so out of context with my medieval musings, I was momentarily disoriented.

I rounded a corner and was astonished to see three young musicians wailing away on trumpet, bass and tenor sax. Jazz! Right here in Medieval City! I listened until the sun went down, and hoped the joyful vibes bouncing off the old walls helped chase away the centuries old sorrow lingering in the shadows. I thanked the musicians and headed back to my eight hundred year old room, which felt just as surreal as the jazz in the ancient courtyard!

Yes, Jazz is here to stay and can be found in the most surprising places!

Ernest Hemingway captured the feelings of many of the expatriates in 1920’s Paris with his famous quote:

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris in the 1920’s as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

A feast that continues to intrigue and fascinate us today!

16 March

Cousin Sheldon

Cousin Sheldon

August, 1925, Paris, France

I started to laugh, but the rigid expression on Mr. Sheldon’s face made it clear he was being very serious.  He’s an older, occasionally charming, American businessman with a lot more money than hair. During the past few weeks, he’s made frequent appearances at the Boeuf, usually alone, and always wanting to chat with us. Well, really just me. Like so many of the men with more money than hair, I think he is quite taken with me, which is always fun regardless of the source.

When we first met, I asked him if we might be related as he and my mother share the Sheldon surname.  It didn’t take long to discover we were, as our ancestors trace back to John Alden and the Mayflower. His line of the Sheldon family remained in Boston, while mine chose to seek out adventure and fortune in 1850’s California. I really hadn’t given him, or our family connection, much thought until this moment.

“I’m sorry?” I said, sure I had misunderstood him. “Did you say you want to loan us the money to buy le Boeuf sur le Toit?”

“Not the entire Boeuf, just this side of it.  Louis Moyses would retain ownership of the formal dining room and kitchen, and you and Bob would own and manage the bar.”

Evidently, the Boston Sheldons suffer from delusions as well as receding hairlines.  He talked like he was buying a used car.  It was all quite unsettling.       

“Louis wouldn’t part with any of it.  This place is like his child,” I insisted.

“I hope you don’t mind, but Louis and I have already discussed it and agreed to terms.”

Shocked, I took a closer look at this Mr. Sheldon wanting to believe him and wishing I could remember his first name.    

“Look, Moyses has some financial problems and I made him an offer that makes those go away. All that is missing is for you and Bob to agree.”

Breaking eye contact with Mr. Sheldon, I glanced around the room hoping to buy time to allow my head to clear.  The notion of owning our own nightclub, especially the Boeuf, instantly generated a thousand conflicting thoughts that got jumbled into a tangled mess that made my head hurt.  I spotted Bob at a table across the room having a discussion with Sinclair Louis – about writing, no doubt. I glanced around for Moyses, but he was nowhere to be seen. 

Turning my attention back to Mr. Sheldon, “Why would you do this?  You hardly know us.”

“After all, we are family.” He smiled for the first time.  “Muriel, over the years I have made a lot of money recognizing good investments.  You and Bob are a very attractive and talented young couple who have, in a very short period of time, built up an impressive and loyal group of adoring fans.  The Boeuf has a reputation as the place to be in Paris.  Put the two together and I see money waiting to be made.”

“And what’s in it for us?”

“If it is managed and marketed correctly, more money than the two of you can spend.”

“I think you underestimate my ability when it comes to shopping.”

 Mr. Sheldon was all business and ignored my joke. “Do you think Bob will like the idea?”

 “He will love it!”  I lied. “I’ll discuss it with him tonight and let you know tomorrow, if that’s okay.”

“Till tomorrow then.”

The rest of the night on stage passed in a conflicting fog, one second thinking about the excitement of owning part of the Boeuf and the next dreading Bob’s reaction. He had been talking a lot more lately about how the demands of performing didn’t give him a lot of time to write. Hanging out with all the writers that came around the club had reignited his desire to tell stories and get a book published.

After our last number, I came up behind him and planted a kiss on his neck. “How about you and I go to Mitchell’s for breakfast.  Just the two of us.”

“But Scott and Zelda have invited us to a party.”

“I know, but let’s skip it tonight.  We go to parties with them all the time.”  I reached around his waist and gave him a hug.

“Okay,” Bob said, turning around and giving me the look he always does when he gets suspicious.  “What are you up to?”

“Why must I be up to anything?  Maybe I just want to spend time alone with my husband.”

“I know something is on your mind as you forgot your lyrics twice tonight and during our last tune, you added a few notes that weren’t there the last twenty times we’ve performed it.”

I thought I had done an excellent job covering my mistakes, but Bob knows my tricks well – much too well. I shall have to invent new ones.

Frustrated, I blurted out, “Never mind then.  Let’s just go to the stupid party!  Who gives a damn about what I want?”

When I saw Bob’s shoulders drop like a scolded schoolboy, I knew I had said too much, too harshly.  He does try so hard to please me and I feel awful that I hurt him.

“Let me tell Scott to go ahead without us and I’ll meet you out front.”   

“Darling no,” I said in as tender a voice as I could muster.  “I’m sorry. It’s been a difficult evening.  Let’s go to the party and have a grand time.”

“No,” Bob insisted. “Tonight I am all yours.”

As the bright lights of Paris flashed by the taxi’s windows, I explained Mr. Sheldon’s offer to my husband.  I tried to sound neutral on the matter, but felt like I was failing miserably.  Bob’s response was not what I expected.

“How wonderful!  How much are we going to make?”

“I have no idea.  I guess that depends on how much business we do,” I said, completely shocked.  “But what about our dream to travel the world and your writing?”

“We are young and there will be plenty of time for travel.  I will write when we are not at the club and where better to gather inspiration and characters than Paris and le Boeuf sur le Toit?”

“But Bob, we don’t know a damn thing about managing a nightclub.” 

I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth.  My husband had stolen the words I’d been rehearsing all night, and here I was uttering what I expected to be his arguments.

“How hard can it be?  You make sure there is plenty of booze behind the bar and great entertainment on the stage.  And you, my darling, are the greatest entertainment in the world.”

As we exited the taxi, I felt as if I was in the midst of an emotional whirlpool, being sucked lower and lower. I had just gotten what I wanted, but in a way that left me strangely unsettled.  I thought I knew every aspect of my husband’s mind – that I could anticipate what he would think, long before he thought about thinking it.

Before entering Mitchell’s, Bob pulled me close.  “Minkling, this will be a great adventure, a lark like no other.  We’ll save enough money to explore the world in grand style.  Then, when we tire of the grind, we’ll sell our interest and move on to the next chapter. Let’s do this!”

“If you insist, darling.”

We sat in Mitchell’s sipping coffee till dawn, happily chatting about our grand plans for the Boeuf. Our future seemed so bright and gay, it’s hard to believe that less than six months ago we were roaming the streets of Paris broke and hungry.

Thank God those days are over forever!

13 March



July, 1925, le Boeuf sur le Toit, Paris, France

The audience was laughing hysterically. The lyrics to the number were quite clever and Bob and I added the appropriate shocked, loving and, sometimes, lustful facial expressions, which drove the crowd wild. In the middle of the tune, I glanced up and saw the lovesick, puppy expression on Bob’s face that made me laugh so much I forgot my next line, which made everyone else laugh even harder.

I love singing a heart-felt ballad and a snappy jazz number is always fun to perform.  People always compliment my deep, soulful voice, and how Bob and I harmonize so well. But I think I enjoy doing comedy numbers the most. Sometimes, the song was written by the composer to be funny but, most of the time, we take a standard everyone knows and change the lyrics to words that have double meanings, one very innocent and the other very naughty – and our Parisian audience always loves naughty.

I guess being a clown is in my nature as even when I was a little girl, I was always trying to get a laugh. In some ways, le Boeuf sur le Toit reminds me of my grandpa James Taylor’s house in California, always full of wonderful music and interesting, creative and passionate people with ideas they weren’t shy about sharing. I guess there are Bohemians in every corner of the globe, but their leaders reside at the Boeuf and tonight, they adore us.

In the month we have been appearing here, the club has become home and my personal slice of heaven.  It was hard leaving Mr. Varounis and the Chateau Caucasian.  He had been so kind to us and given us our first break, but the moment we informed him of the job offer, he said he understood completely and wished us much success. He even sent me roses opening night which made me cry.

Bob also cried on opening night, but with joy.  One of his literary heroes, Somerset Maugham, came in to catch our act and Bob spent every break happily chatting with him. Bob had read every thing he could get his hands on by Maugham and, even in college, raved about his talent and forward thinking ideas.  Bob got me to read his novel, Of Human Bondage, which, although a bit depressing, I thoroughly enjoyed. I adore his strong, English accent and very dry sense of humor.  His occasional, slight stammer only adds to his charm.

Maugham seemed to enjoy our company as well, as he always asked how Bob’s writing was coming and never seem to tire of listening about where we grew up and our plans to see the world.

After one long conversation with Maugham, Louis pulled us aside and said, “Don’t tell him anything you don’t want the world to know.  His friends seem to end up as the characters in one of his stories, sometimes in an unflattering way.”

We looked over at the distinguished Englishman who was sitting by himself, busily making notes.  I immediately started recalling every word I had ever said to him.

I can’t wait to write Mother about him and all the other interesting people we have been meeting. Celebrities from around the world drop by the Boeuf in droves.  Most ask to meet us and, during our breaks, we join them for a brief chat.  It we hit it off, they often invite us to another club or breakfast after work.

It is all rather wild, as we never know if we are going to sit down and have a conversation about writing, art, music, politics, acting, philosophy, history, social issues – or just gossip about who else is in the club.  Whatever the subject, we are usually discussing it with very passionate, intelligent people who define their field of expertise.  Bob couldn’t be more thrilled but, lately, he seems to resent us having to return to the stage.

I, too, am very pleased, but bewildered a bit as to why they have embraced us. It’s thrilling that they treat us as one of their own, full partners in this exciting and exclusive club that gathers at the Boeuf.  Many profess a determination to change the world, yet all they seem to do is complain about it, drink and howl at the moon at every opportunity.

But I still feel like an outsider. This has nothing to do with lack of self-confidence or the fear we aren’t good enough to join the pack. I am finding that most of these “”stars of the world” are pretty insecure and have their own demons to battle. It just doesn’t seem real – like it is all an illusion that will vanish as quickly and mysteriously as it appeared.  But, on the other hand, I am having the time of my life.

As we finish the number, some of the audience is almost rolling on the floor in laughter. After a great deal of applause, a couple bows and the spotlight shut off, we head off the dark stage, our last session for the night done.

“Bob, how about tonight we go directly home?”

My husband looked at me curiously, as he was usually the one making that suggestion to my objections.

“Great. Maybe we can…..”

Before he could finish, an attractive young French woman grabbed Bob’s hand.  I had seen her around the club before, but couldn’t recall her name or who the hell she was.  “Come, you two,” she said, giggling in a very unattractive way.  “There’s some people here you just have to meet!”

I started to decline for us, but she was already pulling Bob through the throngs of people in the packed club.  Before she disappeared completely with my husband, I followed along. It took a while, as people stopped our progress every five feet to shower us with compliments and invite us for a drink. We finally came to a booth where an attractive couple sat chatting with one of the most gorgeous men I had ever seen. Their discussion stopped mid-sentence and all eyes were on us.

Still giggling for no apparent reason, the girl said,  “Bob and Muriel, this is Scott and Zelda… and I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

“Ernest,” Scott said, loudly, and with a dramatic flare. “His name is Ernest Hemingway. Remember that name for one day soon, the whole world will repeat it often and always with reverence and awe.”

Everybody laughed but Ernest. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald I had heard of before. I think Bob mentioned he was a writer of some sort, but Paris society constantly gossiped about their crazy antics as if they were its unofficial, yet revered Prince and Princess, of all that is fun.

Ernest I hadn’t heard of, but I instantly wanted to learn everything about him.  His obvious, chiseled, good looks were certainly alluring, but it was the unsettling intensity in his dark eyes that made him mysterious and irresistible.  The giggling girl and Bob slid in the booth next to Scott, while I grabbed a seat next to Ernest. It looked like it was going to be another late night

10 March

The Jazz Age In America

The Jazz Age In America




It’s almost impossible to look back on the Jazz age and see it for what it was. One had to experience it, be a part of cultural, political and emotional upheaval of the times. Even for the participants of that era, it would be years before even they understood the events and ramifications of what F. Scott Fitzgerald described as “…the most expensive orgy in history.”

Until I met Muriel, my impressions of the Jazz Age centered on music, the Charleston, flappers, bobbed hair, bathtub gin, and flaming youth gone wild.  While all of these elements were present during the 1920’s, there was also a sense of frustration, anger and cynicism sweeping the country because of the Victorian, heavy handed political and cultural structure which many felt were stifling and oppressive.

While writing Muriel’s bio, I delved more deeply into the background and events of the era that gave birth to that crazy, frenetic decade that Scott Fitzgerald coined “The Jazz Age.”  As a result of Muriel’s stories and hundreds of hours of research in libraries (oh, what I would have given for computer back then), I began to understand how the amazing Roaring 20’s blazed upon the cultural scene with all of the dignity and finesse of a lightning strike on a munitions dump—everything went up in flames, and it took ten years for the ashes to sift back down to earth!

It was the perfect storm. Several historic and far-reaching events in America overlapped and led up to the unrest and disillusionment that fueled the Jazz Age rebellion.  I have space for just a few of the major political and cultural challenges citizens were facing at the time.

World War I had just ended and left America still reeling from not only the tragic loss of thousands of lives, but with the thousands of wounded, especially those who had been gassed and would never fully recover.  What had they gained that compensated for the terrible loss?

During the war, the controversial 18th Amendment was passed. This law banned the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcohol, giving birth to speakeasies and gangsters who managed the market for booze throughout the 1920’s until the law was repealed in 1933.  It is said that Al Capone’s earnings stood at $60 million a year, plus millions more made by other gangsters and speakeasy owners.  People continued to drink liquor, they just had to pay more for it and risk getting caught.

Speaking of getting caught, I can’t help grinning as I remember Uncle Charlie’s story of my Grandma Russell taking an axe to Grandpa’s stash of blackberry wine in the smokehouse.  The pigs and chickens lapped it up and staggered out the door to sleep it off. Satisfied with her mission, Grandma relaxed in her rocker with her afternoon tonic…Lydia Pinkham’s Lady’s Tonic, which she ordered from Sears and was about 80% alcohol!  Unbowed, Grandpa hid his next batch in the loft of the barn!

The next big event was the 19th Amendment in 1920—finally giving women the right to vote after 72 years of struggle!  It is hard to imagine women not being able to vote, isn’t it?  I’ve voted in every election since I came of age—never missed a one. I can imagine how anxious those women were to cast their first vote. And what domestic discord it must have caused if they voted differently than their husbands. Hot on the heels of gaining a voice, female voters all over the country began to unite to clean up politics, improve society and end discrimination, surely a powerful force to be reckoned with. H. L. Mencken penned thousands of words about well meaning, but naïve “lady do-gooders.”

The younger generation was fighting to escape the Victorian Age mentality still prevalent in America with its harsh, judgmental edicts about social morals and artistic freedom.  Writers, artists, dancers and musicians were especially angered and outspoken, with many of them leaving the United States and becoming expatriates in Paris, where artistic freedom was nourished. American authors wrote scathing indictments on what they saw as the shallowness and narrow-mindedness in American life.

T.S.Elliott wrote that we were a nation awash in materialism and devoid of spiritual vitality. Sinclair Lewis added fuel to the fire when he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 for his “Main Street” (1920) and “Babbitt” (1922), both satires on smugness and narrow minded complacency in small town America, causing a firestorm of angry protest from small towns throughout America!

Then there was H. L. Mencken, the acerbic editor of “Mercury Magazine” who wrote hundreds of essays mocking many aspects of American life.  He pounded away at reformers, whom he blamed for the bloodshed of WW I and the gangsters of the 1920’s prohibition era.  He insisted that, “Doing good is in bad taste!”  And when asked why he was such a keen observer of people when he complained about them so much, he replied, “Why do people go to zoos?”  Not surprisingly, his Mercury Magazine was quite popular with the younger generation. Their elders? Not so much!

To add to these monumental events, there was great political unrest especially in the south where the African Americans were becoming restless and vocal about mistreatment and discrimination.  They were also threatened by the growth and brutality of the Ku Klux Klan, but continued demanding their rightful place in society. The situation was becoming volatile and the government was slow to respond.

Something else was coming out of the south—a very different sound, especially to white Americans, that would forever change our musical history. We didn’t know what to call it at first—it was a unique sound, a mixture of blues, ragtime, gospel and a joyful syncopation of style and improvisation. Early on, it was sometimes referred to as “Jas music,” then “Razz,” and finally “Jazz”, a musical style that originated in the early 1900’s in southern African American communities. The popular Jazz bands made recordings that were played on radios across the country. They performed in Chicago, New York and San Francisco clubs and speakeasies.

Jazz music quickly became the rage, especially among the young people.  The Black Bottom, Charleston and Foxtrot followed hot on its heels.  It was as if the younger generation had been desperately seeking an outlet to release the tension, anger and discontent that had been building up and found it in Jazz and wild, uninhibited dances.  It’s not surprising that many of their Victorian parents were scandalized and strongly objected to Jazz and the dances. They condemned the unfamiliar saxophone (the sultry sax sounded too much like sex) that promoted close, intimate dancing as well as wild, hysterical gyrations that looked like the dancers were possessed.

A 1921 edition of “Ladies’ Home Journal” published an article called, “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?”  The author claims that the outrageous dances were destroying the morals of today’s youth.  Jazz was blamed for everything from drunkenness, to deafness, to madness and a huge increase of unwed mothers! Despite such opinions (or because of them) Jazz remains to this day immensely popular. It gave birth to Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, Reggae, bebop, vocal jazz and scat, Bluegrass and today’s popular music played all over the world.

Musician, J. J. Johnson, put it best when he said, “Jazz is restless.  It won’t stay put and it never will!” I think this also defines every new, restless generation. They won’t stay put either, and never will!

My parents didn’t do the Charleston (or did they?) but they were the best foxtrotters in the county.  However, they strongly disapproved of the “jitterbug” the new dance craze when I was in high school.  I loved dancing the “bug” to the swing music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. But I remember being appalled the first time I saw the dances kids are doing today, which seems to consist mostly of pelvic thrusts. God knows what the next generation of dances will be!  Anyway, I can understand the 1920’s parents shock at the music and dances.

In addition to all the above events, the turmoil in the United States was heightened by the contentious, long Scopes Trial, which pitted friend against friend, and the disturbingly large exodus of writers, musicians, and artists who fled to Paris, along with numerous African American musicians and entertainers who found the longed for freedom and acceptance they couldn’t find here. They all became part of the large, growing American expatriate community in Paris.

Among them was F. Scott Fitzgerald who coined so many words and phrases defining the 1920’s through his books and essays.  In 1922, he described the 1920’s as “The Jazz Age.” The phrase became the iconic title of an era so difficult to define. Gertrude Stein called it “The Lost Generation,” and Ernest Hemingway insisted that “…they were battered, but were not lost.”

So, the younger generation had made their statement through fashion, style, music, dance and thought. Gradually, their freedom of dress (no more corsets, hooray!) and life style entered mainstream America. They embraced the philosophy of the popular Broadway musical, “Anything Goes.”

The Jazz Age bubble burst and plummeted to earth with a resounding crash when Wall Street collapsed in 1929. Scott Fitzgerald recalled events in his famous 1931 essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.”  He said the era was an age of miracles, art, excess and satire. The Jazz age had had a wild youth and a heady middle age, but it was only borrowed time. Eventually, “Somebody blundered, and the most expensive orgy in history was over.”

He ended the essay with, “It all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings again.”

I don’t perceive the Jazz Age in the same way I did before I wrote Muriel’s story. It’s easier to see why Paris became a beacon of artistic freedom that drew her, Bob and hundreds of other artists to its promising light.  Next week, we’ll explore the Jazz Age in Paris, which was a much different story from what Muriel experienced in her own country. We’ll talk about the Dada movement, famous artists, the opulent life style and…All That Jazz!