If you’re going to be in Los Angeles on Saturday, February 11, 2012 I hope that you will attend the lecture that I’m giving at the historic Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.  My presentation will be followed by a rare theatrical screening of the 1933 pre-code film LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT starring Barbara Stanwyck.

The lecture and film are being co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Art Deco Society and American Cinematheque.

Helen Love (R) looks at juror (L) removed from her trial for drunkenness.

If you’re fascinated by historic crime, in particuar women behaving badly, then I know you’ll enjoy Felonious Flappers.

Felonious Flappers will explore the lives and crimes of some of the baddest girls in Los Angeles, from actress and writer Dorothy Mackaye to the ironically named Helen Love. 

What is it about Los Angeles that brings out the evil in a woman? 

Crime writer Raymond Chandler speculated that a local weather phenomenon could cause a woman to contemplate murder:   ”There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”  

Whether it’s the climate, their greed, or that they’re just plain evil, curvy killers have always been a part of the fabric of Los Angeles.  You may empathize with the femme fatales, or find them repellent, but you are sure to be fascinated by them.

I hope to see you at the Egyptian Theater on February 11th!

 

1920s obsessions: drinking, smoking, cosmetics

The 1920s and 1930s found women experimenting with make-up as never before. School administrators were scandalized as their female students and teachers appeared in class in the latest fashions with their knees exposed, hair smartly bobbed, eyebrows and eyelashes tinted an inky black. Preachers raged from their pulpits that “powder and paint” were condemning a generation of women to eternal damnation. The preachers may have been right in a way that they could never have predicted.

In those early years there was nothing to prohibit unscrupulous manufacturers from whipping up toxic potions that would turn a tidy profit. The manufacturers worried only about their bottom line, and not about the contents of the poisonous cosmetics which could result in blindness, disfigurement or even death.

On the road with Eleanor Roosevelt

In 1933 Consumer’s Research was trying to gain support for a federal law that would establish and enforce standards for everything from malted milk to cosmetics.  An exhibit was created to demonstrate to Congress the need for legislation to proctect consumers – but it ended up going on the road with none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  A reporter dubbed the exhibit the “Chamber of Horrors” and the name stuck.

Here in Los Angeles there was a popular eyelash dye which was available in salons under the name of Louise Norris.  Despite the fact that the product had long been suspected of being dangerously toxic, it remained on the market for years.  In 1940 the Los Angeles Times reported that 44 year old Louise Norris had been busted by state health authorities for distributing poisonous eyebrow and eyelash dye through her cosmetics company.

From the Chamber of Horrors exhibit

 

 

The most horrifying case of damage done by a commercial dye was that of “Mrs. Brown.” In 1933, the lovely pseudonymous socialite had attempted to enhance her beauty by applying Lash Lure. It took three excruciating months for Lash Lure to destroy Mrs. Brown’s corneas, causing her to become permanently blind.  What she hadn’t known was that the primary ingredient of Lash Lure and similar products was aniline dye.

 

Aniline is a highly toxic substance, more appropriate for tinting leather than coloring human hair. It is extremely dangerous if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. And before you get too smug, you should note that aniline is not a relic of the Deco era. It is currently used in polyurethane to manufacture rigid foam, in sealants… and condoms.

 

Men, be afraid. Be very afraid.

When I’m not writing about women, I’m reading about them; so, I was delighted when I received the latest catalog from ReadInk entitled: “Skirts, in Jackets”.

I’ve been poring over it for days now and there is so much to see (and desire). There are books from different eras covering topics ranging from flappers to girl gangs in the 1950s. As a woman who has purchased books strictly for their dust jackets, I’m having a difficult time deciding which of the glorious tomes I want to have grace my nightstand.

Oh, and the titles are simply amazing — “Ladies of the Evening”, “Women in the Wind”, “Yesterday’s Sin”. 

Sigh.

You may order a hard copy of the catalog and/or view it online. Don’t wait — these are some restless dames!

 

 

 

I want to express my thanks to those of you who attended my lecture last Sunday in the historic Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.  The lecture was co-hosted by the Los Angeles Art Deco Society, and American Cinematheque, and was followed by a screening (with LIVE musical accompaniment provided by pianist Robert Israel) of the 1927 film “It”, starring Clara Bow.

Here’s a clip from the film:

 

Clara sure had “It”, and her sassy bob was a major part of her appeal.

Irene Castle

Irene Castle

What about bobbed hair? Did Clara Bow create it? And if she didn’t, who did? There is evidence which suggests that Antek Cierplikowski (aka Mssr. Antoine) may have bobbed the hair of French actress Eva Lavalliere as early as 1909 — but it was dancer Irene Castle who popularized the style in 1914 when she cut her own hair in advance of elective surgery. Irene may have clipped her locks for convenience, but thousands of women were smitten by both the style and the ease of her adorable cropped ‘do and they immediately followed her lead.  Scissors were  soon flying in barbershops all over the U.S.

 

Irene Castle gave the bob its first little nudge into popular culture, but silent film star Colleen Moore brought the bob to mainstream America in the film “Flaming Youth” in 1923.  Writer  and chronicler of all things flapper,  F. Scott Fitzgerald, said: “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”

Colleen’s hair was styled in a sweet dutch boy crop; but there was plenty of room for different interpretations of the bob from Clara Bow’s carefree tousled hair, to Louise Brooks’ sleek black helmet.

Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks

Despite their different on- and off-screen personas, all three women epitomized the flapper in general, and the glorified the bob hairdo in particular. The bob has survived to be 100 years old is because it has readily adapted to the whims of fashion.

Bobbed hair was de riguer for flappers, and of course flappers were glorified in film, literature, poetry — all of the arts.  I believe that no single person did more to immortalize the flapper than writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.  And he didn’t just talk the talk — he and his wife Zelda led others of the “Lost Generation” on a decade long party.

Years after the flapper had taken her last illegal drink, and attended her final petting party, Fitzgerald’s short story, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”, was brought to television by PBS.   The 1976 production starred Shelley Duval (Bernice) and Bud Cort (Warren).  In this clip Bernice asks Warren for his opinion on the hair bobbing issue.

Conversations like the one Bernice and Warren were having on the dance floor, were taking place in thousands of American homes during the 1920s.  The hair bobbing issue was a hot topic and caused broken engagements, divorce, and even the spanking of a wife by her husband!

From our vantage point it may be difficult to believe that something as simple as a haircut could cause so much controversary — we’re accustomed to choosing our personal style with virtually no constraints (and that may not always been a good thing.)

Nevertheless, whether you have long hair, or short, props must be given to the women of the 1920s who paved the way for all of the rest of us — we owe them a debt.