It was in DJ Taylor’s book Bright Young People that I first encountered the Jungman sisters, and while recently dipping back into this delightful read, a social history of England in the 20s, I was inspired to blog about them.

Zita and Teresa (nick-named Baby) Jungman were the daughters of Dutch artist Nico Jungman and his English wife Beatrice Mackey. Both girls were still young when their parents divorced, and in 1918 their mother married Richard Guinness (distantly related to the beer family).

Their mother’s remarriage opened up a whole new world for the girls; a world of wealth and privilege. Already blessed with good looks and good minds, they now also had the benefits of good connections and money. Armed with these advantages, the sisters took London by storm … literally.

For them and their friends, London in the 20s was a round of masquerades, scavenger hunts, pranks and parties. Or as Evelyn Waugh described it in his novel Vile Bodies: “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood.”

The Wilsford Group, photographed by Cecil Beaton (Zita is on the left of the group, and Teresa second from the right)

Cecil Beaton described Teresa as “like a white Gloxinia, with her Devonshire cream pallor and limpid mauve eyes.” Older sister Zita was the quieter, deeper one, described by her friend Loelia Ponsonby as a “master of unusual ideas.” Another friend, Edith Olivier, remembered that she “never moved with the herd.” The sisters were leaders, not followers. They pioneered the famous treasure hunts that became all the rage among the Jeunesse Doree, and by 1930, when the next generation of Bright Young Things was already burning out, Zita and Teresa were living quiet, exemplary lives out of the spotlight.

And this is what I find so fascinating about these two young women: in the midst of all the partying and debauchery of the 20s, they remained true to their own beliefs and to themselves. Devout Catholics, they never compromised their principles. Both refused to get involved with divorced men, and though both sisters were later divorced themselves, they never re-married. Lord Longford once said of Teresa that she was “more like a nun, like a very friendly and fascinating nun.”

Zita Jungman

Between parties, they attended mass and delivered meals to the needy. During the second world war, Zita worked as an ambulance driver in France, coming dramatically close to being caught by the Germans when France fell. After the war, they lived quietly and modestly together, for more than half a century.

For a more detailed inside glimpse into the lives of these two remarkable women, read this article by biographer Hugh Vickers, who met the sisters several times while researching his biography on photographer Cecil Beaton.

There are just two serendipitous moments in their lives I’d like to share:

Teresa Jungman

One of Teresa’s greatest admirers was the novelist Evelyn Waugh. His other great unrequited love was Diana Mitford (one of the famous -and infamous- Mitford sisters, who married first Bryan Guinness, then Oswald Mosley). In 1985 Teresa’s daughter Penelope married Diana’s son, Desmond Guinness.

Later in life, Teresa and Zita moved to Ireland, to live in a garden cottage on the estate of Teresa’s daughter and son-in-law. Both sisters lived to the ripe old age of 102, Zita dying at that age in 2006, and Teresa at the same age in 2010.

These kinds of coincidence would be unbelievable if written in a novel!

I’ve known of Sergei Diaghilev, master of the famed Ballets Russes, since I was a girl, but it was only when I researched this post that I discovered he was so much more than just a ballet icon. He was an impresario in the truest meaning of the word, the Cameron Mackintosh of his day.

More than that, he was a man who brought all the artistic disciplines together: art, music, dance, drama. He was a man who pushed boundaries. His collaborations with composer Igor Stravinsky, ballet master Leonide Massine and designer Leon Bakst changed the face of the ballet, if not all stage performances.

Sergei was raised in a wealthy, cultured home, (the family’s wealth coming mostly from vodka distilleries). The heaviest influence during his adolescence was his artistic stepmother. He studied music and singing in St Petersburg, but when it became evident he would not have a successful career in music, he moved instead into management at the Imperial Theatres, under Prince Sergei Volkonsky. However, he challenged the authorities and after the turn of the century he was discharged and branched out on his own.

His first excursion to Paris was in 1906, and he returned several times in the following years with different performances and exhibitions. In 1909 he was invited back to Paris and the Ballets Russes was launched. Included among the company’s first performers were Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Diaghilev remained in Western Europe and never returned to his homeland. His career, however, continued to ascend. His reputation was as a stern, demanding taskmaster, but his legacy lives on to this day.

He died in Venice in 1929, at the end of that glorious decade he so epitomizes, the Roaring Twenties.

If you are interested in reading further, Amazon has dozens of books about Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

“Tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles.”
- Pablo Picasso

Born into poverty in Missouri in 1906, Josephine Baker grew up in a world barely a step away from the days of slavery (her mother was raised by former slaves). But Josephine triumphed over poverty and racism to become an icon.

Dancing on street corners led to roles in vaudeville, and by the start of the 1920s she was a chorus girl on the New York stage, part of the glorious Harlem Renaissance. In 1924 she was the highest paid chorus girl in America, but she disliked the racism and segration prevalent at that time, and left for Paris, where her career truly took off.

Josephine loved the freedom and acceptance she found in France, and France loved her. While in America her nickname had been ‘ragamuffin’. In Paris she became an exotic beauty, known for her glamour and sexuality. But she was so much more than just a pretty face. During the second world war, she worked for the resistance. In the 1950s she supported the civil rights movement.

She spent the rest of her life in France, dying there in the mid 1970s, having achieved the headiest heights of fame and fortune.

You can find out more about this fascinating woman on Wikipedia and at her official website. There are plenty of biographies of her life; perhaps the closest to her real story Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart, written by her adopted son, Jean-Claude Baker.

 

 

I welcome my friend and fellow South African writer Anthony Ehlers, who guests today to talk about 1920s icon Rudolf Valentino.

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The Tango Pirate

Rudolph Valentino, that sensual dark-eyed lover of silent films, remains a romantic icon more than a hundred years after his death.  His legend continues to smoulder in every sheikh novel we devour, and the fire of his Latin Lover looks fulminate the pages of historical sagas.

Born in Italy in 1895, Rudolph Valentino was a restless student and a romantic dreamer who came to New York to pursue a new life. After living in the streets for a time, he became a tango pirate at the famous Maxim’s – giving dance lessons to bored, rich women. To escape the scandal of a trumped-up vice charge and the image of a gigolo, he fled to Hollywood. After bit parts playing the villain in frivolous fare such as The Married Virgin and The Eyes of Youth, Rudolph got his big break in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. His erotic Argentine tango stole the show and the first screen sex god was born.

Leading roles as a cruel but misunderstood desert ruler in The Sheikh and a fearless Spanish matador caught up in a love triangle in Blood and Sand made the young heart throb the object of desire for millions of young woman, thrilled by his slick looks and sensitive, expressive acting.  Valentino’s reach went further than the silver screen. His style and fashion sense forever changed the way women looked at men and how men perceived themselves – for example, he was one of the first men to wear his watch on his wrist rather than on a chain on a waist-coat. His lifestyle was extravagant and luxurious, travelling abroad and decorating a magnificent Los Angeles Home called Falcon Lair.

However, the screen idol’s private life was beset with problems – he was not always able to cope with his sudden fame and two unhappy marriages ended in divorce. His later movies, such as Monsieur Beaucaire and The Hooded Falcon, didn’t fare well at the box office. Behind the movie persona, it seemed, lay a sensitive, artistic young man who wanted only to create beauty and elegance and he felt the early Hollywood studio too stifling and controlling. A lawsuit against Famous Players-Lasky saw him take a break from films to take on a dance road show as the spokesperson for a beauty product and judging beauty contests.

Valentino returned to the movies for a sequel to The Sheik, although he was loathe to perpetuate a stereotype. The Son of the Sheikh was a massive success, but it was to be his last film. At age 31, he collapsed in New York and died a few days later from a complicated appendicitis.  Some 100, 000 people lined the streets of New York City to pay their final respects. Windows were smashed as fans tried to get a last look at the dark lover of the silver screen and an all-day riot erupted on August 24, 1926. Movie studios had to shut down and there was more than one grief-struck fan who committed suicide.

Although he was finally laid to rest in a grand crypt in Beverly Hills, his name and his image continue to live on. Rudolph Valentino taught the world sex and seduction, the art of the silent language of the eyes and the sinuous grace of the tango.

Rudolph Valentino gave us everlasting romance.

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For Anthony’s delightful blog post on what Rudolf Valentino and Robert Pattinson have in common, click here.

Much of the footage I used in my book trailer for Let’s Misbehave comes from a documentary about the life of Louise Brooks entitled Looking for Lulu. The entire documentary can be viewed on YouTube, starting with this first instalment.

Even if you don’t know her name, you might recognise the face and the haircut. Long before Princess Diana or Jennifer Aniston, the most copied hair style was Louise Brooks’ iconic bob.

Louise was a small town girl from Kansas who began her career in New York as a dancer, first with the Denishawn Modern dance Company, then with the Ziegfeld Follies. It was while she was still in New York that she attracted the attention of Charlie Chaplin, and the two had a brief affair.

In 1925 the 19-year old Louise was offered a five year contract in movies with Paramount. Her naturalistic acting style, coupled with her expressive eyes, gave her performances a subtlety that was quite new in its time.

During this stint in Hollywood, her outspoken, independent attitude and unapologetic sexuality became as much her trademark as the bobbed haircut. Louise was no-one’s puppet, and when Paramount tried to use the advent of sound to strong-arm her, she simply turned her back on Hollywood.

Effectively black-listed in America, Louise moved to Europe where she made three movies with German director Georg Pabst. It was these films, Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl and Prix de Beaute, that secured her immortality and an iconic status that lasts to this day.

Returning to America in 1931, she made a few unremarkable sound films before retiring into obscurity. For many years it seemed that she would be remembered more for her troubled personal life and alcoholism than her movies, until she was discovered living as a recluse in New York by James Card, curator of the George Eastman House. With his encouragement, she moved to Rochester, NY and started a successful second career as a film historian and writer. She died there in 1985 at the age of 78.

Like Gabrielle, the heroine of Let’s Misbehave, Louise’s life was filled with conflict and tragedy. And both women were determined to live life on their own terms. At least Gabrielle got to have her happy ending.

The Roaring Twenties saw the rise of a phenomenon we know only too well today: The Celebrity.

Charles Lindbergh became an overnight sensation at the age of 25 when he achieved the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, winning the Orteig Prize.

The media circus that turned him into a national hero was the first of its kind. He appeared in newspapers, magazines and books, on the radio and even in motion pictures. He was also one of the first celebrities to use his fame to promote causes he believed in.

However, the media frenzy that followed the abduction of his eldest son in 1932 was so intense that it forced the Lindberghs to leave the United States. They moved first to England and then to Brittany in France.

The subject of Lindbergh’s celebrity, and what it meant to America, is explored in the book Charles A Lindbergh: The Power and Peril of Celebrity 1927-1941 by Randy Roberts and David Welky.

I won’t give biographical details for Charles Lindbergh here, as these are readily available via a Google search, but here are a few interesting facts about this dashing hero of the 20s:

  • He taught his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, to fly and she became a celebrated pilot in her own right.
  • While living in France, Lindbergh worked with medical pioneer Dr Alexis Carrel to develop a perfusion pump that would enable human organs to survive outside the body during surgery – a ground-breaking innovation that paved the way for transplant surgery.
  • He flew combat missions in the Pacific during World War 2.
  • In his later life he was an active environmentalist, campaigning for the protection of endangered wildlife.
  • For many years he lived a double life, conducting secret affairs with sisters Brigitte and Marietta Hesshaimer, and their friend Valeska who was also his private secretary. Between them, he fathered seven children. And this was in addition to the six children he had with his wife!
  • The popular 20s dance, The Lindy Hop, was named in his honour.

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