1. Colleen Moore, Clara Bow, and Louise Brooks became famous for portraying flappers in
silent films, but the first was Olive Thomas in the 1920 film “The Flapper.” Thomas died later
that year in Paris after ingesting husband Jack Pickford’s syphilis medicine (mercury
bichloride) in what was officially ruled an accident, though some believe it was suicide or
2. Olive Thomas’s death was the first of five notorious Hollywood scandals during the first half
of the 1920s. The others: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s manslaughter trials for the death of actress Virginia Rappe in 1921; director William Desmond Taylor’s mysterious murder in 1922; movie star Wallace Reid’s drug-related death in 1923; and director Thomas Ince’s death after a cruise on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924.
3. William Randolph Hearst pioneered the sensationalized, fact-challenged form of reporting called “yellow” journalism. His newspapers were largely responsible for shattering the careers of three major silver screen players—slapstick king Roscoe Arbuckle, slapstick queen Mabel Normand, and screen ingenue Mary Miles Minter—with lurid, often false innuendo, exaggeration, and outright fabrication.
4. The stereotypical flapper image, promoted by Hollywood, included a waif-thin, androgynous look, bobbed hair, a shapeless party dress with fringes, beads or sequins, rolled stockings, modish cloche hat or feathered headband, and a cigarette in a long holder.
5. Along with Hollywood, tobacco companies helped create and capitalized on the flapper image by advertising smoking as a weight loss method and a mark of sophistication for women.
6. Smoking is one of the flapper behaviors, often depicted on the big screen, that outraged traditionalists. Others included driving, visiting bars, dating, close dancing, and public displays of affection.
7. Jazz Age frivolity and progressive attitudes prompted a backlash from conservatives. The culture wars of the 1920s bore a close resemblance to those one hundred years later. Other than the more recent addition of LGBTQ rights, the flash points were the same: Gender, race, abortion, immigration.
8. The Ku Klux Klan, which had been in decline since the Civil War, had undergone a resurgence following D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, which reinforced racist stereotypes and glorified the Klan as patriotic heroes. The revitalized Klan of the 1920s held enmity for Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and Jazz Age liberalism as well as African Americans. The organization also viewed itself as the arbiter of morality. By its peak in the mid-1920s, the KKK had grown to over four million members—approximately fifteen percent of the eligible U.S. population of native-born white Protestants.
9. Before the Jazz Age, the idea of two young people going on a date wasn’t a thing. Previously, suitors “called on” young women at their home, where their parents could keep an eye on them. Now the man picked the woman up in his “machine,” as automobiles were commonly called, and took her to a dance, a restaurant, or a movie. But with the more casual interaction between the sexes, parents worried that they might end up a speakeasy or a hotel. With birth control and abortion illegal, the danger of an unwanted pregnancy was ever-present.
10. An unwritten Victorian moral code in the patriarchal society placed a disproportionate burden on women to prevent pre-marital sex. Until married, a woman could not allow a man to touch her and the only birth control needed was to keep her legs closed. That shouldn’t be hard, it was thought, since women were not considered sexual beings anyway. The man was supposed to “do the right thing,” but when he didn’t the woman had no good options.