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What The 1920s Was Really Like

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There are seasons in American life, of culture and politics and sensibility that give distinct identity to decades. Yet, our memories of a time aren't always true to the entirety of an era. Often popular sentimentality captures feeling more than fact, and what we want to believe supersedes what we should truly know.

When I began writing my novels of the Jazz Age, including the recently released The Big Town, it was easy to chase flappers and fedoras. However, the 1920s were not just gangsters and bootlegging portrayed by "The Untouchables" and "Boardwalk Empire," nor were they only a gin-soaked riot of parties and high-toned glamour illuminated by F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels and "The Artist."

Instead, let's witness this decade through some of the biggest news stories and significant cultural movements that helped to define the era that has become so popular of late.

Begin with New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1922, where Reverend Edward Hall and a woman named Eleanor Mills are found shot dead near a crabapple tree outside of town. No charges are filed and the story disappears until 1926 when the tabloid New York Daily Mirror digs up enough evidence to reopen the case. Mrs. Hall and her two brothers, Henry and Willie Stevens, are indicted for the conspiracy largely on the testimony of Jane Gibson, a hog farmer, who, awakened by corn-robbers one night, says she followed a rattling wagon down her lane and came upon four people in a cornfield. Identifying two of them as Mrs. Hall and Willie Stevens, she was "peeking and peeking and peeking" until she heard a voice asking someone to "explain these letters."

Next she claims to have seen both Stevens brothers in the gleam of a flashlight, then heard gunshots, and rode off on her mule. Summoned to court, "the Pig Woman," now supposedly dying, is carried in on a stretcher and placed on a bed facing the jury where she tells her harrowing tale and finishes with a plaintive, "I have told the truth, so help me God!" But she wasn't dying. Her appearance was a sham orchestrated by the prosecution, and Mrs. Hall and the Stevens brothers escape imprisonment. Millions are captivated by the scandal, but the lurid murders go unsolved.

Now look across the Atlantic to the French Riviera, where American expatriates, Gerald and Sara Murphy, are inventing a new and youthful way of life on the warm sands at Cap D'Antibes.

There on the shore under a canvas sun umbrella and wearing a jaunty hat and short trunks is Pablo Picasso, enjoying a picnic of sherry and biscuits under a broad sun umbrella. At twilight, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald arrive to share cocktails at the Murphy's Villa America with Cole Porter, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway and Archibald MacLeish.

Another beautiful evening goes to smash with Fitzgerald tossing figs at a houseguest of the Murphy's, slugging MacLeish in the jaw, and tossing a trio of Sara's gold-flecked Venetian wineglasses across her garden wall. The summers go on and on, and only later when they're over and done does anyone really see how wonderful it all was.

Because this is a fast moving decade, too. Lucky Lindy takes flight from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, aiming east across the Atlantic, and thirty-three and half hours later, touches down at Le Bourget Aerodrome outside Paris.

Two years later, Hugo Eckener's great airship, Graf Zeppelin, flies around the world in twenty-one days. Johnny Weissmuller breaks Duke Kahanamoku's world swimming record in the 100 meter freestyle. Man o' War sets a track record at Pimlico in the Preakness Stakes and another at the Belmont. Babe Ruth hits bigger home runs, and more of them, than anyone imagined possible. And don't get into the ring with Jack Dempsey, or try to tackle Red Grange.

Now, notice that Model A Ford speeding down a dark country road in fast pursuit of a milk truck packed with barrels of whiskey? The truck belongs to George Remus, and the Ford to the local police. A mile ahead under a stand of oak trees is a filling station where another Ford is waiting to ambush Remus's boys and hijack the liquor. Half an hour from now, nine men will be shot dead and the barrels of whiskey will be en route to Chicago to be served in suites at the Drake Hotel. Widows will weep, revenge plotted by both gangsters and Prohibition agents, and somewhere in America a man tells his wife over supper that he's going to jail for a while because he had a beer in the wrong cellar after work.

Yes, speed-lines are everywhere. Follow them in a crowded Pullman car down locomotive tracks aboard the 20th Century Limited to the great American metropolis of glittering showrooms and bright galleries and huge department stores and swank restaurants and express elevators, shooting to the top floors of Art Deco skyscrapers where eager up-and-comers study the ticker tape and make plans with fresh debutantes from Palm Beach to crash a fancy dress ball or see Fred and Adele Astaire in Gershwin's Lady, Be Good, maybe even mingle with that new jazz up in Harlem.

Then, suddenly, the decade is ending, as tens of thousands are criss-crossing the nation in club cars and boxcars, by Chrysler motor cars and Ford Tri-Motor airplanes. But more than a few are on foot now, too, sensing somehow that something different, something extraordinary and puzzling, another age, is already at hand.