I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Harold Ross founded The New Yorker in 1924, but by early 1925, the magazine was bleeding cash and he needed to boost circulation. Ross went looking for writers who could cover “the week’s events in a manner not too serious.” He wanted “gaiety, wit, and satire.” And, in through the door came 23-year-old Lois Long, the epitome of “gaiety, wit, and satire.” She was one of the geniuses that Harold Ross called “Jesuses.”
She became a fixture at the journal for the next 45 years.
The Quintessential Flapper
Using the pen-name “Lipstick,” Lois Long was assigned to write about the speakeasies and nightclubs and their customers in New York City. She took over the rather staid beat of Charles Baskerville and started to inject her own sarcastic and witty style into a column entitled “Tables for Two.”
She took on the foolishness and failure of the ban on liquor and summed up her lifestyle in her own phrase, “Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love.” Years later she told Harrison Kinney, who was writing a biography of James Thurber at the time: “You were thought to be good at holding your liquor in those days if you could make it to the ladies’ room before throwing up.”
We women had been emancipated and we weren’t sure what we were supposed to do with all the freedom and equal rights, so we were going to hell laughing and singing.”
Lois Long in 1955
In his 2011 documentary Prohibition, Ken Burns notes that Long would arrive at the offices of The New Yorker in the wee small hours of the morning after a night of carousing. Drunk and still in her evening dress she would try to inelegantly climb into her cubicle, the walls weren’t that high, because she was always forgetting her key.
In hot weather, she stripped down to her slip and took to roller-skating between desks.
To try to keep the hard-drinking of his staff under control Harold Ross opened a speakeasy for employees close to The New Yorker offices. Long recalled one morning managing editor Ralph Ingersoll found cartoonist Peter “Arno and me stretched out on the sofa nude and Ross closed the place down … Arno and I may have been married to one another then; I can’t remember. Maybe we began drinking and forgot that we were married and had an apartment to go to.”
Lois Long was box office gold. Her columns could make or break a night club, and readers who could not afford to spend the night drinking high balls and dancing to jazz, could not get enough of her writing.
It was customary to give two dollars to the cab driver if you threw up in his cab.”
Secret Identity of Lois Long
Writing under the pseudonym of “Lipstick” kept her identity secret for a while. In his 2006 book Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern, Joshua Zeitz wrote about how the columnist maintained her anonymity: “Long only encouraged the sense of intrigue, variously claiming to be ‘a short squat maiden of forty who wears steel-rimmed spectacles, [and] makes her son pay her dinner checks ...’ ”
Sometimes, the slim, young, and beautiful Long would end her column by signing off as the “kindly, old, bearded, gentleman who signs himself―Lipstick.”
Some of her fans tried to score better tables in clubs and restaurants by claiming to be “Lipstick.”
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According to Zeitz, “She was absolutely a wild woman.”
An Early Feminist
Long broke many of the taboos that constrained her Victorian predecessors.
Zeitz notes that her “columns were laced with a wicked sort of sexual sense of humour. She openly flouted sexual and social conventions.”
In one review of a nightclub she said there was no need for a floor show because “In a place as dark as that people ought to be able to entertain themselves.”
In writing about young women in the 1920s, the Montreal-based feminist group Wall of Femmes notes that Lois Long was the archetypal flapper who “voted, worked, drank, smoked, and made love not just like men, but with men. For the first time, women and men were not cloistered among their own gender most of the time, but were beginning to occupy the same social, professional, and political space.”
Opponent of Prohibition
She attacked Prohibition as unenforceable and complained in her column when Manhattan District Attorney Emory R. Buckner ordered raids on nightclubs she happened to frequent: “Really and truly, Mr. Buckner is not one bit funny any more, and he is far from considerate.”
She contended, tongue firmly in cheek, that Prohibition would have been unnecessary if the young had been taught to “drink with aplomb.”
In the nursery and classroom “We will teach the young to drink. There would not be so many embarrassing incidents of young men falling asleep under the nearest potted palm or playing ping-pong with Ming china if little Johnny at the age of six, had been kept in regularly at recess to make up his work because he had failed to manage his pint in Scotch class …”
In one column, she describes how her evening was spoiled by “a good old-fashioned raid … where burly cops kick down the doors and women fall fainting on tables and strong men fall under them and waiters shriek and start throwing bottles out of windows.”
Of course, Prohibition came to end in 1933 and by then, Lois Long had moved on to cover the world of fashion. Vasser Encyclopedia credits her with “inventing fashion criticism.”
- The word “speakeasy” entered the public domain in about 1889 in New York. It referred to an unlicensed saloon the location of which was spoken about easily, meaning quietly, by patrons so as not to alert the attention of neighbours or police.
- There are various theories about the origin of the word “flapper,” few of them complimentary. One suggestion is that it comes from an English slang word “flap” that refers to a young woman of loose morals or even a prostitute. Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary of 1900 vintage says “flappy” refers to persons who are “wild, unsteady, flighty.” Dig back further in history and “flapper” is a “young, wild duck or partridge.”
Here I go plodding around, in my conscientious, girlish way, to all kinds of places at all hours of the night with escorts only reasonably adept at the art of bar-room fighting, and nothing ever happens to me …”
- “Prohibition.” Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, PBS, 2011.
- “Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern.” Joshua Zeitz, March 2006.
- “Lois Long.” Vasser Encyclopedia, 2009
- “Lois Long (1901-1974).” Wall of Femmes, March 7, 2011.
- “In the 1920s, this Writer’s Flapper Lifestyle Put the Sex in the City.” Stephanie Buck, Timeline.com, December 9, 2016.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor