8. Bee’s knees

22 Jul

Once upon a time Mr B. Franklin, champion wise cracker of his day, stifled a yawn at a dinner party and coyly remarked to the eye-widenin’ flapper on his right: “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in  no other.” “Grandpa, you’re the bee’s knees, for a fact!” the flapper prob’ly says admirin’ly, with a killin’ smile.

— H. C. Witwer, “The Wages of Cinema”, Cosmopolitan, vol. 73:4 (October 1922), pp. 69-73,  146-49 (p. 69).

Here’s a cocktail whose name instantly evokes the flapper, that new breed of young carefree woman who emerged after the First World War. The flapper was the twentieth-century’s first teenage rebel, challenging the standards of acceptable behaviour in what would become time-honoured fashion: by wearing daring new clothes, smoking cigarettes, adopting a more casual attitude to sex, and drinking. If the Suffragettes and other reformers of the previous generation had fought for women’s legal rights, their daughters, who came of age in the Roaring Twenties, demanded the same social freedoms as their male counterparts, the right to enjoy themselves as men did. Although the actions of the flappers scandalized their prim elders, and fed the gossip columns of major newspapers, their commitment to hedonism did in fact have a radical purpose.

Some of their sympathisers recognized that. Dr Lee A. Stone, head of the Chicago Department of Health, argued in an address that a flapper was merely “a female who has lived down thousands of years of hypocrisy and how has become what she has most desired to be for ages—a human being . . . Flapperism—or modern feminism—is just the revolt of youth. It is the resumption of the original status of mankind” (New York Times, 17 March, 1922). That point was echoed by the journalist Helen Bullitt Lowry, perhaps the flappers’ greatest champion in the US:

The real reason for the flapper’s cigarette, the inciting cause of her pocket flask, the motive that lurks behind her petting parties is her assertion that she has become man’s equal—and as such has a right to the sins he’s been 20,000 years accumulating. In other words, this twentieth century product, whose wild doings have been feeding the thirsty ears of the gossips, is nothing more nor less that the left wing of the feminist movement.

— Helen Bullitt Lowry, “From Flappers to Girl Scouts”, New York Times, 23 October 1921, p. 39.

Flapper and girl scout

As Lowry put it elsewhere, the flapper was the symbol of women’s emancipation from puritanical double standards (and the girl scout the symbol of women being put back in their place). In the person of the flapper, who was ironically a product of repression and prohibition, society was passing from the “Mid-Victorian era into the cocktails and jazz of our Mid-Victrolian period” (“The Uninhibited Flapper”, in Heyward Broun et al, Nonsenseorship (New York: Putnam, 1922), pp. 69-82 [p. 70]). Even the way the flapper dressed pointed to her deeper cultural significance: she had abandoned the suffocating, crippling corset; hem lines retreated to the knee, revealing that, yes, women had legs (or “stilts”, as a flapper would say) ; the iconic bobbed hair, straight waists and flattened breasts resulted in a youthful, boyish appearance; and their heavily made-up faces, a look that had rarely been seen outside of the theatre or the bordello, announced their rejection of conventional feminine virtues such as modesty and chastity.

From Nonsenseorship, p. 69.

Like every youth movement, the flappers evolved their own slang. The “bee’s knees”, which, like the similar expressions “the cat’s pyjamas” or the “cat’s miaow”, expressions which had actually been around for a while and meant “something good”, were closely associated with the flappers. And the cocktail named in honour of that phrase lives up to its moniker—sweet, certainly, but the honey and lemon juice really helped to take the edge of that bathtub gin. I’ve adapted the recipe from Ted Saucier’s Bottom’s Up, where it appears courtesy of the Hotel Ritz in Paris:

Juice of 1/4 lemon

1 teaspoon honey

1/2 glass gin [3/4 oz.]

— Ted Saucier, Bottoms Up (New York: Greystone Press, 1951), p. 38.

My version is:

2 oz. gin

1/2 oz. lemon juice (that’s roughly 1/2 lemon)

2 teaspoons of honey

Lemon peel for garnish.

From: Punch, vol. 172 (25 May 1927), p. 574.


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