Reliving the Jazz Age

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  • Dressed up for a dance contest on Governors Island. Photo: Lorraine Duffy Merkl

  • Model T on Governors Island. Photo: Lorraine Duffy Merkl

After spending last Saturday in 1922, I returned to 2018 on the Upper East Side.

I always believed I was born too late. My favorite decade is the roaring twenties, which I fell in love with when I was nine and saw the movie “Thoroughly Modern Millie” with Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore. How I wished women still dressed and accessorized as they did. When I was old enough and realized the styles could be gotten if one looked hard enough, I got into vintage jewelry and bought myself a cloche.

Over the years, my favorite works of fiction became the classics by F. Scott Fitzgerald, with “Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles at the top of my list of modern fiction. My non-fiction favorite (one of many) is Calvin Tomkins’s “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” about when the Mark Cross heir Gerald Murphy and his wife Sara hosted the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Picasso, Hemingway and other expats in Antibes. I’ve also seen the movie “Mrs. Parker and Her Vicious Circle” more times than anyone should be allowed to re-watch a film.

So, it’s about time that I forked over the clams to attend the Jazz Age Lawn Party — now in its 13th year — on Governors Island. Every summer I read about it after the fact and said, “Next year.” This season, I made a point to be one of the people who everyone else was reading about.

Hosted and conceived by musician/crooner/bandleader/impresario, Michael Arenella, the event started as a small gathering of fans and friends who, like him, wanted to revel in the raucous, party-loving decade, when the world had just emerged from the grip of World War I, and everyone was ready to have a good time. This period in history became known as the “Jazz Age,” a term that many believe was coined by F. Scott, but he just made it popular and familiar by using it in his books.

My husband Neil and I took the 6 train to Bowling Green and then the ferry to Governors Island. Once there, we followed some flappers showing off their gams in fringed dresses and dapper dandies in straw hats and suspenders.

Neil and I weren’t mistaken for a couple of swells — we didn’t dress up. I figured most people, even though embracing the spirit of the event, would show up in regular clothes, with a handful dressed in costume. Boy, was I wrong.

A lot of people came in modern day designs created to look like antique fashions and styled up so there’d be no doubt they were bobbed haired jazz babies. Many though took the opportunity to appear as though they had time traveled to join the well-curated event in actual wardrobe from the era.

Although there were picnic tables and food trucks (and hooch for those old enough to drink), those in the know brought blankets and picnic baskets, so they could relax on the lawn while listening to the musical stylings of the aforementioned Michael Arenella & His Dreamland Orchestra featuring Caravella’s Canarsie Wobblers and The Dreamland Follies, virtuoso piano-man and crooner Peter Mintun, as well as Queen Esther and her Hot Five. Indeed, the joint was jumpin’ on the make-shift dance floor.

There was a Charleston Dance Contest and plenty of tents selling archetypal everything. A croquet game was ongoing and the planners made sure to offer a variety of ways to remember one’s visit via a photo taken in a Model T or under the word “Bootlegger,” which had more of a mug shot quality.

There was even a tintype camera/developing system for a photo that would have you mistaken for a great-great grandparent. With the caricature option, the artist supplied the epoch outfit, in case, as Neil and myself did, you left your speakeasy glad rags at home.

At the end of our Prohibition era-inspired, Tin Pan Alley-filled day, we started the first leg of our journey home by taking the ferry back to Bowling Green. My only regret was that I hadn’t dressed for the occasion.

“Next year,” said Neil.

I’ve already begun planning my outfit. Trust me, it’ll be the bee’s knees.

Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels “Fat Chick” and “Back to Work She Goes.”

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