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05/15/2013

The real life flappers who would have been at Jay Gatsby's parties

The Great Gatsby film adaptation debuts today at the Cannes Film Festival with hundreds of celebrities. In these bland times few of the blonde, tanned clones on the red carpet would be a match for the 1920s flappers who truly were originals and the forefront of great social, political and cultural change.

Sure they threw off their corsets – for the first time in centuries women could do so – cut their hair and danced the Charleston while drinking champagne. But they also lived through turbulent times including World War I, segregation and the Great Depression.

Here are a few real life flappers who would have been on the dance floor at Jay Gatsby’s wild parties:

Zelda Fitzgerald: F. Scott Fitzgerald called his wife Zelda the first American flapper.  Zelda was a writer and novelist, known for her book "Save Me The Waltz" but eclipsed by her more famous husband. They had a dysfunctional marriage – Zelda was an alcoholic and in last years of her life hospitalized in a mental institution. Her biographer Sally Cline told The Observer: "Her melodramatic life was in real terms the stuff of fiction.”

Zelda
 American author F Scott Fitzgerald dances with his wife Zelda Fitzgerald and daughter Frances.  (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Josephine Baker: She was the exotic, American-born dancer who found fame and fortune on the Paris stage. Baker cleaned houses for rich white families in St. Louis, Missouri before becoming a chorus girl and dancer, according to her estate’s website. She went to Paris to dance in La Revue Negre which made her an overnight sensation, all long glossy limbs, uninhibited movements and exotic skirts made from feathers or banana skins.

She was of course trading on the European public’s racist perceptions of Africans – she once dryly said “since I personified the savage on the stage, I tried to be as civilized as possible in daily life."

Josephine Baker
A poster for a Josephine Baker movie. (Star files)

Tamara de Lempicka: Her Art Deco paintings captured the Jazz Age with all its style and refinement.  The Polish born artist lived at the centre of bohemian Paris life, painting the rich and famous. Her friends included Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Author Judith Mackrell has written that de Lempicka would snort cocaine from a silver teaspoon to help her stay up all night partying or painting.

But these women were no airheads, either. De Lempicka spoke six languages and at the age of 17 helped her lawyer husband escape the Bolsheviks in St. Petersburg, Russia, according to her official website.  During WWII, Baker worked for the underground French Resistance against the Nazis, then went on to adopt 12 children she called her “rainbow tribe” because they were from all over the world.

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at The Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour

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