I was looking for beauty with a capital B. And I couldn’t find it in Indiana.
So said writer and journalist Janet Flanner, when she explained her decision to move to Paris in 1922 with her lover, Solita Solano. The pair settled on rue Bonaparte in Saint-Germain and started writing novels. But it was as a journalist that Flanner really found her voice.
When Harold Ross and Jane Grant founded The New Yorker magazine in 1925, they hired Flanner to write a regular letter from Paris. Under the pen name Genet (which Ross amusingly thought was French for Janet), Flanner’s letters became a staple of the magazine right up until she was forced to leave Paris prior to the German invasion. When she returned after the war, the letters started up again.
From her pension in Saint-Germain, Flanner was at the centre of the literary and artistic revolutions that were sweeping through the city. Often found sat with a cigarette and a coffee on the patio at Les Deux Magots, Flanner observed and recorded the words and the works of the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and the Modernists. Friends with everyone from writer Gertrude Stein and salon hostess Natalie Barney, to novelist Hemingway and bookshop owner Sylvia Beach, Flanner placed herself at the heart of Paris’ cultural scene, bringing life to the city of light for her readers in New York and right across the States.
Flanner is remembered as a happy and optimistic person who, unlike some of her contemporaries, wasn’t given to feelings of shame or depression about her sexuality. She and Solano were partners for many years, enjoying a fairly open relationship. Flanner’s lovers included the beautiful actress Noel Murphy and Oscar’s flamboyant niece Dolly Wilde, and both she and Solano were immortalised as ‘Nip and Tuck’ in Djuna Barnes’ 1928 guide to lesbian Paris, The Ladies Almanack.
Reading Flanner’s Letters from Paris is a fascinating and immersive experience for the modern reader. Through her eyes, we witness Josephine Baker’s first performance in Montmartre, and the acrobatics of tightrope walker Babette. We line the streets with crowds of mourners at Isadora Duncan’s funeral, admire Rousseau’s paintings at an art opening, take in the paintings of Kiki de Montparnasse in an offbeat gallery, reflect on the Surrealists’ ballets, and catch up on the gossip about the Yussupoffs, the Duchesse de Clermont-Terre, and the Steins.
She wrote about art shows, about book publications; her subjects ranged from the scandalous memoirs of famed courtesan Liane de Pougy to who the real people were behind the characters in The Sun Also Rises. Nothing happened in Paris without Janet seeing it, recording it and bringing it to life for a reader thousands of miles away.
From Flanner, we learn that Gertrude Stein had a laugh like a ‘roaring oven’. She tells us that when Stein laughed ‘it was like a signal’ and everyone joined her. In a wonderful interview in the documentary Paris Was a Woman (watch this film – you won’t regret it!), she explains the influence Stein had on Hemingway.
So Hemingway would write, “it was a nice day. It was a very nice day. It was a very nice day for fishing”. Not that Gertrude was one for fishing, except at the dinner table.
But it wasn’t all parties, publications and performances. With fascism on the rise throughout Europe, Flanner recorded the political changes that led to the Second World War. Like her friend Hemingway, she wrote about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, providing a sharp analysis and accurate predictions on the tensions and regimes that tore Europe apart. She was one of the last Americans to leave Paris (on a boat) and from her new home in New York she reported on the war and its aftermath – including the Nuremberg trials.
Janet Flanner isn’t well known today and I wonder if that is partly because the medium that she was working in, journalism, can have a shorter shelf life than the novels, plays, poetry or visual art that her contemporaries were creating. With this and the fact that our cultural legacy favours the male creators of the Left Bank, it is perhaps of little surprise that Janet is not a household name. But throughout her career, her letters were loved and cherished by thousands. She was made a Knight of Legion D’Honneur and awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Smith College.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Flanner knew everyone who was anyone in Paris. From her insider’s perspective, she is a fabulously funny and sharp guide to the people of Left Bank Paris, recording the foibles and fancies of the women and men who have been mythologized in countless novels and films about the 1920s. You can read her wit and wisdom for yourself in a selection of her letters, entitled Paris was Yesterday, published by Virago.