For 50 years Janet Flanner, EX 1914 (1892–1978), shared her witty, sharp observations of Europe with New Yorker readers.
Janet Flanner, EX 1914, longed to write fiction. An Indiana girl, well brought up, she had abandoned her husband in New York and fled to Europe with her lover, the writer Solita Solano.
The couple settled in Paris, where they lived in a modest hotel on the Left Bank (apartments were so scarce that hotels were cheaper, and both women detested housework). In the morning they breakfasted at the café Les Deux Magots; in the afternoon they worked on their novels; in the evening they drank and chatted with expatriate American friends, among them Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
Flanner described her glamorous new life in letters to friends back in America. One friend, Jane Grant, showed the witty, gossipy letters to her husband, Harold Ross. Flanner, she suggested, should be the Paris correspondent for their new, struggling humor magazine. Ross agreed, offering Flanner $35 (about $600 today) for a letter every two weeks—a generous sum in Paris between the wars. Ross specified he had no interest in what Flanner thought. He wanted to know what the French were thinking.
Flanner’s first letter from Paris appeared in the October 10, 1925, New Yorker with the byline Genêt; at the time, everything in the magazine ran under pseudonyms. She had thought Ross might choose “Flâneuse,” the feminine form of flâneur. “Genêt” was probably based on her first name and intended to obscure her gender; she never knew exactly why Ross chose it.
A breezy digest of current happenings—a bank clerk strike, a lecture series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a popular new nightclub called the Florida—Flanner’s first letter set the tone for her regular dispatches over the next five decades. Her writing was defined by her wit and sharp observations, as well as the lack of the first-person pronoun: “You’re safer with one or it,” she once said. “I is like a fortissimo. It’s too loud.”
Beginning in the 1950s, as more and more of Flanner’s New Yorker pieces were published in book form, the literary world took notice of her as a writer, not just a foreign correspondent. An anthology of her postwar writing, Paris Journal, 1944–1965 (Gollancz, 1966), won the 1966 National Book Award in arts and letters.
With the exception of the war years and occasional travel, Flanner remained in Paris, always living in hotels, always writing for the New Yorker, for the next 50 years. She considered Ross to be her inventor; in return, her arch, knowing, witty tone came to define that of the New Yorker.
Flanner, the second of three daughters, was born March 13, 1892, in Indianapolis. As an adult, she claimed her father was in real estate; he had investments, but his primary occupation was co-owner of the mortuary Flanner and Buchanan.
The Flanners were an artsy, cultured family. Her mother had hoped to be an actress, and she continued to write and produce plays after her marriage. She wanted Janet to become an actress as well, “but of course I was peculiar-looking,” Flanner recalled in an interview with her friend Mary McCarthy. “I suffered so at the sight of my nose. … I just shuddered at this beak.” In 1910 the entire family went to live in Germany for several months. Janet Flanner, then 17, fell in love with Europe and dreamed of returning.
At 20, when she entered the University of Chicago, Flanner already had a gray streak in her hair. She embraced the social whirl wholeheartedly, keeping schoolwork at arm’s length; only the writing courses taught by novelist Robert Morss Lovett held her interest. “I was a very poor student. Such a pity,” she told McCarthy. At her dormitory, Green Hall, “they did object to my coming in so often at 3 in the morning. I was mad on dancing.” Flanner lasted two years until, as she told McCarthy, “I was requested to leave.” (A passionate affair with a woman gym teacher may have had something to do with it.)
Back in Indiana, she reviewed vaudeville and burlesque shows for the Indianapolis Star; within a year she had her own bylined column. She kept in touch with college friends, including William Lane Rehm, PhB 1914, who occasionally came to Indianapolis to see her. During a visit in 1918, Rehm and Flanner suddenly decided to marry. At a time when young men were being sent to fight in the Great War, last-minute marriages were not uncommon—and Flanner, despite her newspaper job, was desperate to get out of Indianapolis.
The couple settled into a small apartment in Greenwich Village and quickly made friends in literary and artistic circles. She wrote satirical poems and occasionally published articles and stories; he worked as a bank clerk and painted in the evenings. But the marriage was not a success: Flanner felt “so at sea in my disappointment in not being in love as I had been with women.”
Less than a year into her marriage, she met Solita Solano, drama editor of the New York Tribune. Solano had lived in China, Japan, and the Philippines, and spoke Spanish and Italian. When National Geographic sent her on assignment to Europe, she asked Flanner to come too. Flanner was torn; Solano insisted. They departed in the summer of 1921.
The two traveled throughout Greece, then visited Constantinople, Rome, Florence, Dresden, and Berlin, searching for somewhere to call home. By 1923 they had arrived in Paris—“I wanted Beauty, with a capital B,” Flanner explained—settling in an oddly shaped room on the fourth floor of the Hôtel Saint-Germain-des-Prés. They remained there for 16 years.
Flanner took twice-weekly lessons to polish her schoolbook French; in a few months, she spoke fluently with a Parisian accent. She had her graying hair bobbed with bangs.
In cosmopolitan Paris, Flanner and Solano could live together without social censure. Although Flanner was dedicated to Solano, the relationship was nonmonogamous from the start. When asked, Solano once observed that Janet still lived with her—when she remembered to come home.
In the autumn of 1925 Flanner submitted her first letter to the New Yorker. She quickly established a routine: she read the daily Paris newspapers—at least eight when she first began—clipping items that caught her interest, which she would then follow up on. She credited the French papers, as well as Ross, for teaching her how to write.
When composing her letter—a process she often found painful—she remained in her hotel room for up to 48 hours at a time, pecking out her copy with two fingers, always with cigarettes nearby. She took her finished copy to the Gare Saint-Lazare, where the French post office had a special desk that sent mail on the fast ship to New York. Often, she heard nothing until her letter was in print.
Like the other aspiring American novelists and artists who crowded into Paris, Flanner and Solano wanted to become famous as quickly as possible. In 1926 Flanner published her first (and only) novel, The Cubical City (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), a roman à clef about her family and her struggle to love a man the way she loved women. Reviews were mixed. She was amused by one that compared her to John Dos Passos and Sherwood Anderson, calling her writing “too masculine” to be measured against that of women writers.
Flanner started a second family-centric novel with the working title “A State of Bliss,” calculating she could finish it in months if she wrote 4,000 words a day—but she didn’t. She had thought the New Yorker job would underwrite her career as a novelist, but she increasingly realized that her New Yorker writing was her career. When The Cubical City was reissued decades later as a “lost” work of American fiction, Flanner added a blunt afterword: “I am not a first-class fiction writer as this reprinted first novel shows. Writing fiction is not my gift.”
Instead, Flanner began contributing profiles. A New Yorker profile, a 3,600-word essay on an individual, was usually assigned to a writer who knew the subject personally. Flanner published her first—signed “Hippolyta,” after the queen of the Amazons—on modern dancer Isadora Duncan in 1927. Despite the new byline, the copy, with its wry, cosmopolitan tone, was indisputably Flanner: “The clergy, hearing of (though supposedly without ever seeing) her bare calf, denounced it as violently as if it had been golden.”
Even more successful was her 1935 profile of England’s Queen Mary, grandmother of Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II). Denied any official information, Flanner patched together a deeply personal article based on information from English journalists, royal dressmakers, and other tradespeople. Ross’s opinion: “Superb.”
Not all readers appreciated Flanner’s obsessive attention to quotidian detail. Hemingway, a close friend, was appalled by her 1937 article on bullfighting, which included a long description of a matador’s complicated clothing and noted that after the fight bull meat was available at the local butcher. “Listen, Jan,” he told her over drinks at the Deux Magots, “if a journalistic prize is ever given for the worst sports writer of the western world, I’m going to see you get it, pal.”
In the 1930s, as the mood in Europe darkened, Flanner’s letters grew more serious. The New Yorker had been born apolitical, but politics was unavoidable.
Flanner produced a three-part profile of Hitler in 1936, based on sources close to him, as her Queen Mary profile had been. She read Mein Kampf in French—although the book was illegal in France—and skewered its ideas in print. As was typical, her piece poked fun at the Führer’s quirks: he was a teetotaler and vegetarian in a country of beer and sausages, she pointed out. When the story was collected in An American in Paris: Profile of an Interlude Between Two Wars (Hamish Hamilton, 1940), Flanner added a note that its only value was as a period piece from a time when Europe, at its peril, considered Hitler a joke.
Flanner and Solano departed for New York soon after the Nazis invaded Poland. Flanner had no interest in war reporting: send “a writer who is male, young, fighting-minded,” she advised the New Yorker. For five years, as war decimated Europe, Flanner did not return to her beloved Paris.
When the war in Europe was nearly over, Flanner did go to England as a war correspondent. She traveled the continent wherever she could, heartbroken at the extent of the devastation. The full horrors of the Nazi concentration camps were first beginning to be known: “This is beyond imagination,” she wrote to Solano, after she toured Buchenwald with a man who had survived it.
Her first postwar Paris letter ran in December 1944 under her usual pseudonym. Its tone was so angry, editor William Shawn rewrote the letter to soften it and changed her “we” to “I.” Flanner was not sure whether she wanted to stay or leave; in middle age, she had lost faith in the world. Paris was no longer her Paris.
She covered the Nuremberg trials for the New Yorker, describing stomach-turning films and snapshots, taken by the Nazis themselves, of what they had done to other human beings. Almost as astonishing to Flanner: the defendants’ cowardice and disloyalty to their cause. The 22 Nazis on trial, she observed, “helped put millions of people to death, quickly or slowly, by torture, murder, or starvation. But not one of them seemed to want to die for the thing they killed the millions for.” In 1948 Flanner was named a knight of the Légion d’Honneur, a token of gratitude for her writing since her return to France.
After the war, Flanner’s personal life was complicated. In New York she had Natalia Murray, an Italian broadcaster, whose partnership had become the central relationship in her life. In France she had another American woman, Noel Murphy, a friend and lover since before the war. Flanner also remained close with Solita Solano.
Murray pleaded with her to give up her Paris post so they could be together in New York, away from her old attachments and independent way of life. Flanner seriously considered it, even tendering—but then rescinding—her resignation. “You complain that I have three wives,” she wrote to Murray, “and the truth is, as you know, that I also have a husband, The New Yorker.”
In 1949 Flanner moved into the Hôtel Continental, on the rue de Castiglione near the Tuileries gardens; from her small balcony, she could look out over the city. Here she lived alone, “like a monk,” as she described it, for the next 20 years. She loved her writer’s life, with no distractions, no responsibilities, and room service. In the afternoons, she often held court in the hotel’s cocktail bar.
At times Flanner was nostalgic for the Paris of the Lost Generation. “The uglification of Paris,” she wrote in the New Yorker, “the most famously beautiful city of relatively modern Europe, goes on apace, and more is being carefully planned.” Even its beautiful language was being corrupted by American slang. Flanner detested all slang, including “okay.”
In one of her final Paris letters, which ran in September 1975, Flanner reminisced about the long-ago days of her youth, sitting “on the broad, hospitable terrace of the Deux Magots café.” From there she had watched the brides and grooms outside the church opposite “with vagrant curiosity”—the same way she observed everything in Paris.