March 13, 1892– Janet Flanner:
I act as a sponge. I soak it up and squeeze it out in ink every two weeks.
Hey kids, have I ever mentioned that I have had a perpetual subscription to The New Yorker for 55 years? My aunt gave me a year’s worth of the magazine for my birthday when 10-years old. Rather heady stuff for one so young, and so cosmopolitan for a little lad living in Spokane, but I read it each week, then, as now, finding the most enjoyment from the reviews and the cartoons. When my aunt left this world in the early 1970s, my mother continued with her sister’s birthday tradition. My mother is gone now, but I am now paid-up through 2020, if I should live so long.
Today marks the birthday of The New Yorker writer, Janet Flanner, an American who lived for many years in Paris with her lover Solita Solano. Together they traveled in the most fashionable gay social circles and knew everybody who was anybody.
Born in Indianapolis, in 1918 she married William Rehm, an artist friend that she had met while at the University of Chicago. She later admitted that she married him to get out of Indianapolis. They divorced amicably in 1926. Rehm was supportive of Flanner’s career his entire life. Flanner:
I was looking for beauty with a capital B. And I couldn’t find it in Indiana.
Flanner is best known for her Letter From Paris column which she wrote for The New Yorker from 1925 to 1975 under the pen name Genêt, which treated readers a coded glimpse of the Parisian in-crowd. the column ran for 50 years. The dispatches contained some of the most cosmopolitan and insightful reportage from France in that period, reflecting the stern directive imparted to Flanner by the idiosyncratic Harold Ross, her first New Yorker editor, in 1925. Ross:
I’m not paying you to tell me what you think. I want to know what the French are thinking.
Flanner and Solano were part of the group of American ex-pat writers and artists who lived in the city between the two world wars, when Paris was the cultural capital of our pretty spinning blue orb. Flanner knew and saw everyone and everything about them: Edith Wharton, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Andre Gide, Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Lindbergh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, e. e. cummings, Hart Crane, Djuna Barnes, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Stein’s girlfriend Alice B. Toklas, even Charles de Gaulle, and she wrote about all of them. She even profiled Adolf Hitler. I simply ate up her column when I was a youth.
With a keen eye for what was happening in politics, art, and theatre, and the changing conditions of life in Paris, she condensed her observations every two weeks into 2,500 words of chatty but polished prose, in which the word “I” never appeared. Even as she narrated the lives of other with panache, Flanner herself remained, characteristically, distanced, detached. She portrayed Paris as a world beyond the reach of most readers: beautiful, foreign, rich in sensations and style.
Flanner worked hard to produce her characteristic style. The weekend before she dispatched her copy, she would seclude herself in her tiny top floor room at the Hotel Continental on the Rue Castiglione , writing day and night. Flanner:
I keep going over a sentence. I nag it, gnaw it, pat and flatter it.
Flanner’s personal life was passionate and problematic, and as provocative as her public life. In Paris she found the freedom to live and love as she chose. Flanner had a lifelong relationship with Solano, but it was trenchant and turbulent. You know how bad girls get. They each had many other affairs on the side. Flanner tried to keep these relationships separate by commuting constantly from Paris to New York City to Rome, but the balance was precarious and painful.
Flanner was a chain-smoking, driven perfectionist, an intense and compelling writer, and she was easy to spot around Paris and Manhattan, sporting breeches, with her short cropped hair, wearing a monocle.
She won the 1966 National Book Award for her Paris Journal, a riveting account of the years just after the Occupation. Her highly readable memoir, Paris Was Yesterday (1972) made me fall in love with her probity and wit. Flanner:
Genius is immediate, but talent takes time.
Flanner lived in NYC during World War II, taking up with a new lover who she moved in with, Natalia Danesi Murray, a publishing executive and book editor. I suppose she just needed someone to keep her warm at night, because after the war she returned to Europe to be with Solano, only to return to Murray five years later. They were together until 1978 when Flanner put down her pen at last. When Murray left this world in summer 1994, her ashes were scattered with Flanner’s over Cherry Grove on Fire Island where she and Murray first met. Murray’s son, William, who lived with the women while growing up, wrote his own charming and captivating memoir, Janet, My Mother, And Me (2000), where I got some of this research.
Flanner remains synonymous with the bittersweet, romantic view of Americans in Paris between the two wars. She was deeply disturbed by the war’s implications for the future of European civilization. In both her private correspondence and New Yorker column, Flanner often expressed her concern over the long-term damage to the cities in Europe, noting with despair:
With the material destruction collapsed invisible things that lived within it…
In 1971, Flanner was a guest during the now infamous scuffle between Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer on The Dick Cavett Show. It remains one of my favorite astonishing moments in television history. Flanner came on second after Vidal and won over the audience instantly by telling a dry, amusing story of her annoyance at finding Ernest Hemingway in her bathtub in Paris, “using all my hot water”. Mailer was the third guest and he came on stage doing his pugilist thing: his hands were fists and carried at chest height, and he looked as if he visited a favorite bar on his way to the studio. He was disheveled, his bow to Flanner was courtly, and his refusal to shake Vidal’s hand caused a murmuring in the audience.
Mailer told Cavett that he did not approve of Vidal and found him intellectually shameless. Seeming to sense quickly that Flanner would take Vidal’s side, Mailer then quoted himself on something he had written about Vidal in his book The Prisoner Of Sex.
Mailer: “I said that the need of the magazine reader for a remark he could repeat at dinner was best satisfied by writers with names like Gore Vidal.”
Flanner: “All those writers called Gore Vidal.”
Vidal: “I know. There are thousands of them, yeah.”
Mailer: “There are two or three.”
Cavett: “Who are some of the others?”
Mailer: “I don’t know.”
Cavett: “Who wants to host the rest of this show?”
Mailer: “We all know that I stabbed my wife years ago, we do know that, Gore. You were playing on that.”
Vidal: “Let’s just forget about it.”
Mailer: “You don’t want to forget about it. You’re a liar and a hypocrite. You were playing on it . . . Are you ready to apologize?”
Vidal: “I would apologize if… if it hurts your feelings, of course I would.”
Mailer: “No, it hurts my sense of intellectual pollution.”
Vidal: “Well, I must say, as an expert, you should know about those things.”
Flanner: “Not only do you insult each other, not only in public, but you act as if you were in private. That’s the odd way.”
Mailer: “You still haven’t told me whether you’re Gore’s manager or the referee.”
Cavett: “If you make history here by punching a lady.”
Back in the greenroom, Mailer headbutted Vidal, taking revenge for a negative review that Vidal published in the New York Review Of Books. Cavett and Flanner navigated the whole scene rather remarkably, as you can see: