Tag Archives: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Crop of illustration from Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Bernice Bobs Her Hair–and I Bob Mine!

In 1920, 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald was flying high. His first novel, This Side of Paradise, the story of a Princeton student who’s a lot like F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published in March. Reviews were glowing* and sales were strong.

Dust jacket, This Side of Paradise, first edition.

He married Zelda in April.**

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald on their honeymoon, 1920.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald on their honeymoon, 1920 (Library of Congress)

The real money was in short stories, and his were starting to sell.*** “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” appeared in the May 1 edition of the Saturday Evening Post.

Saturday Evening Post cover, Norman Rockwell, May 1, 1920, man and woman at Ouija board.

Norman Rockwell

Meanwhile, back in 2020, my hair was getting long. Not this long,

Shampoo ad showing woman with long red hair, Ladies' Home Journal, April 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1920

but long.

Mary Grace McGeehan with long hair, May 2020.

It could be months before the salons opened in D.C. Something had to be done.

Hey, I thought, how about a bob of my own to celebrate Bernice’s centennial? I had read the story in college and vaguely recalled it as the jolly tale of a popular young woman who gets her hair bobbed to the shock of all around her, but then all her friends decide she looks fantastic and they all go dance a celebratory Charleston.**** Or something along those lines.

Headline, Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

The real story turned out to be nothing like that at all.***** Here’s what really happens.

Bernice, who hails from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is visiting her aunt and cousin Marjorie, who live in an unnamed city that that could be Fitzgerald’s home town of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Bernice is attractive enough, but she’s a total buzz-kill. No one ever cuts in on her at dances. (She’s more popular in Eau Claire, but it hasn’t dawned on her that this might have something to do with her father being the richest man in town.) Warren, who’s miserably in love with Marjorie, has the misfortune of sitting with Bernice on the veranda at intermission at a country club dance. “He wondered idly whether she was a poor conversationalist because she got no attention or got no attention because she was a poor conversationalist,” Fitzgerald writes.

“She’s absolutely hopeless,” Marjorie complains to her mother one night. “I think it’s that crazy Indian blood in Bernice. Maybe she’s a reversion to type. Indian women all just sat round and never said anything.”

Marjorie’s mom calls her “idiotic,” more fondly than you should when your daughter’s being racist.

Bernice, you will not be surprised to hear (especially if you looked at the picture), has been standing behind the door the whole time. The next day at breakfast, she tells Marjorie that she heard everything. If that’s the way things are, she says, she might as well go back to Eau Claire. Marjorie is not as horrified by this concept as Bernice had expected, so she goes off and cries for a while.

Then she goes to confront Marjorie. She has barely gotten three words into her little lecture on kindness when Marjorie cuts her off, saying, in essence, “Cut the Little Women crap.” Bernice ponders this while Marjorie’s off at a matinee and when Marjorie returns she proposes a new plan: she’ll stay, and Marjorie will give her popularity lessons. Marjorie agrees—IF Bernice promises to do every single thing she tells her to. Deal, says Bernice.

Pillsbury ad, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920

The Eliza Dootlittle-ing of Bernice begins. There’s some eyebrow-tending and remedial dancing, but most of the focus is on repartee. A few days later, Bernice tries out her new line at a country club dance. “Do you think I ought to bob my hair, Mr. Charley Paulson?” she asks. “I want to be a society vampire, you see.” Mr. Charley Paulson has nothing useful to say on this subject, but Bernice announces that the bobbing is on. Servier Barber Shop. The whole gang’s invited.

Glidden ad, men on scaffolding, Satruday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920

Of course she’s not really going to have her hair bobbed. Short hair on women is considered immoral in respectable circles in 1920 (or 1919, if you allow for publication lead times). It’s just a line. But it works! The new Bernice and her inane babble are the toast of the town. As the weeks go by, she compiles an impressive list of admirers. Including—uh oh!—Warren. Remember him? Marjorie’s admirer who got stuck with Bernice on the veranda? Marjorie, who is not as indifferent to Warren as she lets on, is NOT amused.

At a bridge party, Marjorie confronts Bernice. “Splush!” she says. The hair bobbing business is just a line—admit it! Bernice is out of her league here, and next thing she knows the gang is at Servier Barber Shop. “My hair—bob it!” she says to the nearest barber.

Bernice at barber shop, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

And the barber does. Or, rather, he hacks it off. And…disaster! It turns out that Bernice’s lustrous brown locks were a major element of her attractiveness. Now, with her hair hanging in lank lifeless blocks, she looks, she thinks, “ridiculous, like a Greenwich Villager who had left her spectacles at home.” Warren and the other guys are instantly over her.

But Bernice has more spirit than we’ve given her credit for. That night, as Marjorie lies sleeping, her blond hair in braids, Bernice steals into her room and picks up a pair of shears. Snip snip, good-bye golden locks! As Marjorie sleeps on, Bernice heads out for the train station, braids in hand, and flings them into Warren’s front yard.

“Ha!” she giggled wildly. “Scalp the selfish thing!”
Then picking up her suitcase she set off at a half run down the moonlit street.

Hartford Fire Insurance ad, red wolf, May 1, 1920.

Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

All of this left me cheering for Bernice but second-guessing my choice of her as a tonsorial role model. The barber at Servier might not have been a bobbing expert, but at least he was a hair-cutting professional. Maybe I should leave well enough alone. Hardly anyone ever sees my hair these days, and when they do it’s tied up under a mask.

Mary Grace McGeehan outdoors in mask, May 2020.

But I have to look at my hair constantly, what with all the hand-washing while reciting 20-second snippets of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I can’t take it anymore, I decide. Steeling my courage, I set a towel on the floor, wet my hair, and prop up my iPad to use  as a mirror.

Towel around my head, I tell myself it’s not too late. I can still back down. But Marjorie’s mocking voice says in my head, as it said in Bernice’s, “Give up and get down. You tried to buck me and I called your bluff.”

Mary Grace McGeehan, head in towel, May 2020.

Am I going to take that from a twit like Marjorie? No, I’m not! I lift the scissors****** to my head and start to snip.

Mary Grace McGeehan cutting hair, May 1920.

Halfway through, no turning back now. I smile bravely.

Mary Grace McGeehan halfway through haircut, May 1920.

Finished!

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut, May 2020.

I show myself the back, like a real hairdresser. A little crooked, but not too bad considering the awkward angle and lack of visibility.

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut from back, May 1920.

But the blow-dry is the true test. Which will it be? Limp, lifeless blocks, or chic new do?

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut horror, May 2020.

Just kidding. That’s Bernice. I love it!

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut thumbs-up, May 2020.

When the decade changed, a few friends asked me if I was excited to be moving into the 1920s. The answer was no, not really. Everyone knows about the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation. The 1910s felt more mine, somehow. But, as I read “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” in its original setting, with the illustrations and the ads and this photo stuck under the end of the story,

Photograph of house in country, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

I felt like I was discovering Fitzgerald–not the canonic writer everyone reads in high school, not the man who knew so much disappointment and misery in his short life, but an ambitious and promising young man who brilliantly skewers the young people in his privileged social circle but rises above satire because he loves them too. I’m in at the beginning of something exciting and important, and I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold.

Stay safe, everyone, and don’t fear the scissors!

squiggle

*Here’s the opening of the New Republic review:

New Republic review, This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald, May 12, 1920.

The New Republic, May 12, 1920

**The timing was not a coincidence. The sale of This Side of Paradise sealed the deal on the engagement.

***Fitzgerald’s first published short story, “Babes in the Woods,” appeared in The Smart Set in September 1919. Summary: popular boy and popular girl meet at a party. Will they kiss?

Smart Set cover, September 1919, woman in hat.

****Yes, I know, the Charleston wasn’t actually a thing until 1923.

*****In my defense, college was quite a while ago.

******Presciently ordered way back in March.

Princeton interlude: Orange and black is the new black

I only have a sample of three to draw from,* but I doubt that there’s any college anywhere that beats Princeton, where I recently attended my 20th graduate school reunion, for school spirit.

The school mascot, the tiger, is all over town, at Firestone Library

and Palmer Stadium

Tiger sculptures outside Palmer Stadium, Princeton University.

and in store windows along Nassau Street.

Princeton memorabilia in store window

So are the school colors, which, naturally, are orange and black. There are even teeny-tiny orange and black onesies so that you can give your baby a head start on feeling terrible if he or she applies for the Class of ’31 and, like the great majority of applicants, is rejected.**

Princeton insignia wear for toddlers, U-Store

And the jackets—

Princeton P-rade, 2019

Princeton P-rade, 2019

Princeton P-rade, 2019

oh, the jackets!

Princeton P-rade, 2019.

Princeton P-rade, 2019

Princeton P-rade, 2019

They were everywhere, including on the Amtrak train on the way up from D.C., where I restrained myself from taking photos. Not being an undergraduate alum, I didn’t have a jacket of my own, but luckily some classmates organized a class t-shirt, which I wore with pride in the P-rade, the graduate promenade that’s the centerpiece of Princeton reunions. (That’s where the jacket photos are from.) Unfortunately you can’t see much of it in my selfie, but let the record show that I wore orange.

Mary Grace McGeehan at Princeton P-rade, 2019

At this point, you may be saying, “This is very gung-ho and all, but what does it have to do with 1919?” Well, there was my trip to Firestone Library to visit some 1919-era books,

Pile of library books by and about Winnifred Eaton.

Frontispiece and title page of The Love of Azalea by Onoto Watanna.

Frontispiece and title page of When Patty Went to College, by Jean Webster.

and this painting I saw at the university art museum by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, paramour and eventual husband of Elizabeth Gardner, whom I wrote about here,

Woman with Iris, William-Adophe Bouguereau, 1895

and representation in the P-rade by the 100+-year-old Class of 1939.

Princeton P-rade, Class of 1939.

I know–pretty slim pickings. My search for a hook continued.

I considered writing about Princeton’s early 20th-century history as “the pleasantest country club in America,” where academics took a backseat to socializing. F. Scott Fitzgerald has already covered that ground, though,

Dust jacket, This Side of Paradise, first edition.

and in any case Princeton had already started to change by the time This Side of Paradise was published in 1920.

Like many other universities, Princeton transformed itself into a military training institution during World War I.

Picture of Princeton student drill squad.

American Review of Reviews, August 1918

After the Armistice, it began a period of soul-searching aimed at becoming a “national university.” This led to a revamp of the curriculum that, as School and Society reported in April 1919, eliminated entry requirements, like Greek, that kept out public school students, divided the university into departments, and put Princeton on the path to becoming the first-rate institution that it is today.

School and Society headline, Educational Events, The Princeton Curriculum.

School and Society, April 19, 1919

Social change was slower in coming. In 1917, Grover Cleveland’s son led a boycott against Princeton’s exclusive eating clubs, but these efforts, like an earlier one by Princeton president Woodrow Wilson to abolish them altogether, had little impact.

Headline, Can a College Abolish Snobs?

Independent, March 19, 1917. (Answer: no.)

The clubs still exist today—more egalitarian, but still controversial.

As for diversity, Princeton lagged behind other Ivy League schools for many years. I didn’t need to look up statistics; I could see it in the P-rade, where no class until the 50th reunion Class of ’69 had more than a handful of students who weren’t white.

Princeton P-rade, Class of 1969

With so many wives*** in the parade, coeducation was harder to track, but these Class of ’73 alums made sure this historic event wasn’t forgotten.

Princeton P-rade banner, Coeducation Begins.

As the classes marched by, I wondered what the deal was with the jackets. Once the reunion was over, I did a Google search–and found my 100-years-ago hook. In the spring of 1912, some seniors were sitting around at the Nassau Inn,

Postcard of Nassau Inn, ca. 1910.

Postcard of Nassau Inn, ca. 1910

drinking beer and sloshing it all over their spiffy college-man togs, like the suits these members of the Triangle Club are wearing. (Try to spot F. Scott Fitzgerald. If you can’t read the tiny writing under the picture, the answer is below.****)

Princeton Bric-a-Brac photo wih F. Scott Fitzgerald

Princeton Bric-a-Brac, Classes of 1915-19

With lots of mental energy to spare after four years of not studying very hard, the seniors turned their attention to this vexing problem. The obvious solutions, 1) dress like normal people, or 2) drink moderately enough that you don’t spill your beer, apparently weren’t on the table.

Instead, they designed an outfit consisting of denim workmen’s overalls and a jacket. The class of 1913 came up with the “beer suit” moniker, and the class of 1914 upped the fashion ante by substituting white duck for denim. When World War I came along, the suits were abandoned, such pursuits presumably deemed too frivolous during wartime, but they reappeared in 1919. The class of 1920 added a black armband to protest prohibition, and the tradition of the class logo was born. There were strict rules surrounding the jackets: they were for seniors only, and washing them was forbidden. Here are the earliest beer-suited students I could find, from the class of 1926.

Princeton students in beer suits, ca. 1926.

The overalls were phased out after World War II, and “beer suits” became “beer jackets.” The jackets became official university attire for graduating seniors and the more dignified moniker “senior jacket” was adopted. At the 25th reunion, the senior jacket is traded in for a reunion jacket, which is worn from then on.

So a drinking hack by a small group of upper-class white men at a college that proudly called itself a country club lives on as a beloved tradition at a world-class university where white students are now in the minority.

Princeton hasn’t become a post-racial utopia, and the legacy of snobbery and hard drinking hasn’t died, but the “best old place of all” has come a long way in a hundred years.

THEN:

Nassau Literary Society, Princeton Bric-a-Brac, Classes of 1915-1919

NOW:

*The other ones being Harvard, where I attended my undergraduate reunion last year, and NYU, where I did my MFA, but low-residency with residencies in Paris, so I didn’t have much of a chance to experience Violet Pride.

**On the bright side, his/her odds are way higher because you went there!

***Wives march alongside their husbands in the P-rade, often in outfits made of the same material as the jackets.

Marchers in Princeton P-rade, 2019.

****Second from right, third row.