“Quite a Flap
1915 saw the name jazz
attributed to the exciting music created in
New Orleans but was then being played in Chicago. It burst forth from
Congo Square, from funeral processions with marching bands and from
the brothels and saloons of Storyville. New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll
Morton (real name Ferdinand Lamothe) had the first published jazz
arrangement in 1915, his “Jelly Roll Blues”. He and others had taken
this New Orleans style of music up to Chicago and New York where it
soon created quite a storm.
Down in the Birthplace of Jazz, the New Orleans Hurricane of 1915 was
a powerful storm, as well. Making landfall on September 29 near
Grand Isle with 125 mph sustained winds, it entered the city at 7 am.
Knocking the cupola off the Presbytère and leveling the Presbyterian
Church on Lafayette Square, the hurricane also wiped out half the
rides at Old Spanish Fort Amusement Park. Electricity to drainage
pumps failed, and parts of Mid-City suffered significant flooding. 275
people perished, although only 21 in New Orleans.
Earlier that year on May 22 in New York, there was again another
tempest. Nineteen-year-old banking heiress Eugenia Kelly was
causing quite a flap on her way to court on the fashionable Upper East
Side of Manhattan. Coming into a sizable fortune in just two years,
Eugenia’s mother had her daughter arrested with the threat of
committing her to a correctional institution. Afraid that she would
“become depraved”, Mater complained of the young belle’s love for
jazz, cigarettes, absinthe and brandy. And all with a married man
named Al Davis, a “tango pirate” preying on the naïve rich girl.
Readers were captivated by the accounts of the trial proceedings. On
the third day, Eugenia finally gave in and agreed
, “mother was right”.
A settlement had been reached. But she would soon elope with the
recently divorced Mr. Davis after all. And, surprise, they’d divorce, too
(but she did inherit the money). By then she was old news, and
almost every young girl in the country was a flapper.
R L E A N S
O S T A L G I A
Remembering New Orleans History, Culture and Traditions
By Ned Hémard
Acerbic critic of American culture, H. L. Mencken wrote, “The Flapper
of 1915 has forgotten how to simper; she seldom blushes; and it is
impossible to shock her.” Scholars disagree on the origin of the word
“flapper”, but the term itself predates the 1920s by at least a century.
The word’s origins range from a “young female prostitute” (akin to the
flapping of a fledgling partridge or duck) to the “unstrapped buckles of
her shoes” (mocked in the cartoons of John Held, Jr.). Mencken wrote
that, in early nineteenth-century England, the word denoted “a very
immoral young girl in her early teens”; but in America he believed it to
be “one of a long series of jocular terms for a young and somewhat
foolish girl, full of wild surmises and inclined to revolt against the
precepts and admonitions of her elders.” The insouciant flapper said
adieu to the “Gibson Girl” and came to symbolize the flamboyant,
reckless spirit of the Jazz Age.
Flappers were All-American, but they had a French connection. In
1913, Coco Chanel opened up her very first shop. By 1923 she told
, “simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance”. Her
androgynous la garçonne look (“boy” with a feminine suffix)
epitomized the image of the 1920s flapper, and provided the freedom
of movement this musical style called jazz required. Short bobbed
hairdos, flattened breasts, and straight corsetless waists accentuated
the look. The flappers adored their newsboy caps and bell-shaped
hats (created by Parisian milliner Caroline Reboux). They
sported broad bright neckties (like Eugenia Kelly) and layers of long
Flappers strove to refashion gender roles in the 20s, having assaulted
the ideal of femininity in America’s Gilded Age. These young women
(ultra-modern, full of pep and sexually emancipated) were seemingly
unflappable, disdaining convention by smoking, drinking and dating
frequently. They wore heavy makeup and “kiss proof” lipstick. They
attended “petting parties” with their "snugglepup", (an affectionate
name for their dashing sheik) who might “see a man about a dog"
(buy whiskey). He was, after all, “the cat’s pajamas”. These girls
abandoned pantaloons for “step-in” panties and wore simple bust
bodices to hold their chest in place while dancing. And they loved
“speakeasies” where they could dance lively dances like the
“Charleston” or “Black Bottom”.
The “Black Bottom” originated in the African-American community in
New Orleans, worked its way to Georgia and then moved on up to New
York. The dance’s stomping steps, the knees swaying and the
shuffling movements helped the dance replace the “Charleston” in
popularity. Said to imitate a cow’s hind legs mired in the mud, the
dance was performed all over the South before Perry Bradford wrote
his version in 1919. Jelly Roll Morton’s composition in 1925 was the
“Black Bottom Stomp”. Ginger Rogers danced DeSylva, Brown and
Henderson’s 1926 “Black Bottom” quite well as “Roxie Hart” in the
original 1942 film version of the 2002 movie “Chicago” with Renée
Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
Mrs. M. A. Davis of New Orleans (no relation to the “tango pirate”),
while visiting the Hotel Astor in New York, gave a 1922 interview to
the New York Times mourning the “flapper’s passing” in Gotham since
the popularity of longer skirts. The headline further stated, “New
Orleans Woman Says Bobbed Hair Is Now Popular There.”
“I really think it is a shame to lose the flapper, for you have lost a
type,” said Mrs. Davis. “The New Orleans flapper hasn’t realized yet
that she must put her skirts down; in fact, she has just commenced to
bob her hair. It was interesting to note during our Mardi Gras last
Winter that at one of the carnival balls, where a Queen with six
attendants was the outstanding feature, not a single one of the girls
had bobbed hair, but the fad is just taking both old and young there
now. We always seem to be just behind New York, no matter how
often we come to see you.”
Perhaps Mrs. Davis forgot that New Orleans was always in vogue,
sending its creations (jazz
and the “Black Bottom”) up to New York.
The writer who became spokesman for this generation, found himself
lauded as “F. Scott Fitzgerald, who originated the flapper”. And he
had his Zelda, “the most popular girl at every dance”. In his “Tales of
the Jazz Age” he wrote of “My Last Flappers” and Jim “the Jelly-bean”,
“one who spends his life conjugating the verb to idle in the first person
Call “a Memphis man a Jelly-bean” and he’ll possibly “hang you to a
convenient telegraph-pole”, he wrote. “If you call a New Orleans man
a Jelly-bean he will probably grin and ask you who is taking your girl
to the Mardi Gras ball.”
Jim fell for Nancy who had “a mouth like a remembered kiss”, who
“left a trail of broken hearts” all the way “to New Orleans”. But the
flighty flapper fled and married the other guy. Poor Jim, but that was
The Era of the Flapper crossed over into the Jazz Age, a period
following the end of World War I through the Roaring Twenties, and
culminating with the onset of the Great Depression. After Wall Street
flopped in 1929, finances went flat and flappers faded from the scene.
The high-octane hedonism of the Age was now out of place amidst the
economic hardships of the 30s. But the carefree flapper paved the
way for bolder ideas to come, even in the City that Care Forgot.
New Orleans Nostalgia
"Quite a Flap"