The Baddest Bitches of the Jazz Age

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The cinema series “It Girls, Flappers, Jazz Babies & Vamps” screens at Film Forum through March 24, in association with the Library of Congress. Featuring the early sex symbols of the pre-code silver screen, including stars like Marlene Dietrich, Clara Bow, and Joan Crawford, the films challenged the moral high ground and touted sexual themes and shocking stories — at least until the enforcement of the restrictive Hays Code in the 1930s.

The popular women of the Jazz Age had a reputation for partying and promiscuity, on and off the screen. In the 1920s, flappers, vamps, and other independent women refused to play nicely and ignored the rules of traditional femininity. Here are a few of the more defiant and groundbreaking figures from the era.

Nancy Cunard

British writer Nancy Cunard was a muse of the literati — to authors like Aldous Huxley, Tristan Tzara, and Ezra Pound — and counted Ernest Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and Man Ray amongst her many lovers. Chicago Reader mentions the avant-garde fashion icon in a review of the book Flappers, by Judith Mackrell:

Nancy Cunard, another daughter of British aristocrats, ran away from home to live in London as a bohemian poet (albeit one with a generous allowance). She became more notorious for her prodigious drinking and drug consumption and active sex life, which included lovers of both genders, though the great love of her life was an African-American man. She later became a political activist, a newspaper correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, and the author of Negro, an 850-page tome on African culture.

Gladys Bentley

Philadelphia-born blues singer Gladys Bentley became an icon of the Harlem Renaissance, known for her risqué cross-dressing performances. Bentley, who was openly lesbian (although later claimed she was “cured”), was often backed by a chorus line of drag queens. From a great write-up on Bentley by Collectors Weekly:

With short cropped hair and a tuxedo, the lesser-known Gladys Bentley commandeered the crowd at Harlem’s Clam House in the 1920s, singing cabaret, tickling the piano keys, and flirting shamelessly with the women in the audience. The only one of these women to openly exploit her lesbian identity, she was known for taking popular songs and giving them lewd lyrics; and she asked the audience to help her improvise naughty lines. “Harlem’s 133rd Street was called ‘Jungle Alley,’ because there were so many nightclubs on it,” Philipson says, explaining that Harlem had the only Roaring Twenties jazz clubs and cabarets in the country that drew white “tourists” curious about “race music.” “The Clam House was famous because it had Bentley, reveling in her image as a ‘bulldyker.’ Because of her, it became a place where black lesbians and gay men would go to hang out. White sightseers from downtown would check out her show as well.”

Sophie Tucker

Comedian and singer Sophie Tucker, known as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” sang songs like “I Don’t Want to Get Thin” and “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love.” Sex was a big part of her act, emphasized in the tune “My Pet.” During her vaudeville days, Tucker was forced to wear blackface in one of her acts and felt deeply ashamed by the incident since she was friends with many African-American stars of the time, including tap dancer and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The BBC has a fantastic write-up about Tucker’s bawdy legacy, which includes a story about defying a racist hotel doorman. “I’ve always made up my mind to do what I wanted to do,” she told the BBC in 1964. “With numbers, with songs, with dresses, with anything with people. If I make up my mind that’s what I want to do it’s done. I get what I want, I do what I want, I am the boss.”

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith, “Empress of the Blues,” was the highest-paid African-American entertainer of her time. The pioneering vocalist rose to popularity from the streets of Chattanooga as a busker and later the vaudeville circuit. Smith, who worked with the musical giants of the era, including Louis Armstrong and James P. Johnson, was married and had affairs with men and women while on the road. “I got twelve women on this show and I can have one every night if I want it!” she reportedly shouted at lover Lillian Simpson. Smith’s shows were elaborate and often included dozens of troupers, who toured with the singer in a custom-built railroad car.

Evelyn Brent

With dark looks and a seductive scowl, silent film actress Evelyn Brent was known for playing the vamp in films by Josef von Sternberg. But the thrice married brunette bad girl, who was reportedly the obsession of actor Gary Cooper, wasn’t intent on becoming a big star and saw nothing wrong with accepting roles in the poverty row studio films after her career at Paramount took a turn. No fucks were given.

Alla Nazimova

Russian actress Alla Nazimova wasn’t shy about her relationships with women (during her lavender marriages with men) and hosted wild parties at her mansion on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood that was nicknamed “The Garden of Alla.” She pursued her filmmaking dreams, writing and producing a series of adaptations based on Oscar Wilde’s plays. They weren’t successful, but she continued to act. She also had sex with Wilde’s niece, Dolly Wilde. Nazimova had a taste for young Hollywood ingénues, whose careers she helped launch and sometimes carried on with romantically. Both of Rudolph Valentino’s wives, Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova, were reportedly involved with Nazimova.

Kiki de Montparnasse

Born Alice Prin, French model, performer, and actress Kiki de Montparnasse became an icon of bohemian Paris during the 1920s. She went against her family’s wishes and posed nude for artists by the time she was 14. The list of names she worked with reads like a who’s who of the Montparnasse social scene, including Tsuguharu Foujita, Jean Cocteau, and Man Ray. She became one of Man Ray’s muses. Kiki was also a painter (her exhibitions were a smash hit), author (Hemingway wrote the introduction to her memoir), dancer, singer, and had a taste for booze and dope. Her independent spirit captured the essence of an era.

Madge Bellamy

The daughter of a professor, beautiful stage and screen star Madge Bellamy was usually cast as the innocent or sophisticate, but she yearned to play stronger, more complex women throughout her career. Bellamy, who was an atheist, vegetarian, and leftist, had a temper (on and off set), which caused friction with studios and gave her a difficult reputation. She walked out on Fox after refusing to star in the 1929 film The Trial of Mary Dugan (a vehicle written for her). Execs eventually cast Norma Shearer in the movie, which became her first talkie. Bellamy’s name was in all the papers after she shot her millionaire lover A. Stanford Murphy, after he ditched her and married another woman. But that wasn’t enough for Bellamy, who later took Murphy to court for mental cruelty and eventually settled with him out of court for six figures.