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Editor’s Choice: The Best of Vanity Fair’s first incarnation in the magazine world

Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers and Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair edited by Graydon Carter with David Friend, Penguin Press, 420 pages ($29.95). You’ll find some of the best poetry and prose of Vanity Fair’s first incarnation in this wildly stellar anthology of essays, interviews, poems, journalism and whatnot (lots of whatnot) from the “Bible of the Smart Set” 1913-1926. You’ll also find, if you’re looking, some of the damnedest and eeriest precursors of so much that bursts out of the Internet in the 21st century, particularly the humor pieces.

Change some names and syntax and try this from playwright Robert Sherwood limning the Higher Education acquired by young students of the silver screen ca. 1920. A future child of the screen, says Sherwood, “will have an adequate working knowledge of conditions in the badlands of Montana, the Limehouse Wharves in London, and the Downtown Districts of Shanghai.” The attitude would fit right into the Huffington Post.

Now check out Thomas Mann admitting that from his Bishopric in the High Church of Literary Modernism, he is “contemptuous” of films but admits “I love them.”

Hugh Walpole tells us about Somerset Maugham, Djuna Barnes about James Joyce, Max Jacob about Pablo Picasso, and Bertrand Russell tells us about behaviorism. But then Douglas Fairbanks also writes about Joan Crawford, Alexander Woolcott about Harpo Marx and, get this, EE Cummings about Calvin Coolidge. Try this from Paul Gallico’s profile of “George Herman Erhardt, who is now known as Babe Ruth.” In the days before universal sensitivity, Gallico identifies him as “the great ugly baseball player,” and says, “is the only man I have ever known as spectacular in failure as he is in success.” Later, Gallico admits “snoopiness is a national disease with us. We are a nation of gossip.” How did that seem true in the age of Walter Winchell, not TMZ?

Consider a condensed roster: Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser, Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Wolfe, T.S. Eliot, Noel Coward, Sherwood Anderson, D.H. Lawrence, A.A. Milne – a festival of high and low but all of it as “smart” as advertised. Still.

– Jeff Simon