I suppose it is another sign of my dreadful lack of culture that I didn't know who Janet Flanner was. I had heard her name and knew she was a writer but for some reason thought she was an Australian short story writer (I have know idea where I got that). It was only while looking for information about another book that I found out that Flanner was better known as Genet, the Paris correspondent for The New Yorker for many years. Genet's reports began appearing in 1925, which made me think that I needed a good dose of the Lost Generation and Paris in the '20s. I set out to find a suitable biography, settling on Genet, by Brenda Wineapple, primarily because there weren't really any other choices.
Flanner was born in 1892 and brought up in a climate of Midwestern, upper-middle class gentility in Indianapolis. While things looked lovely and prosperous enough on the outside, as usual, things weren't quite so perfect on the inside. Flanner's mother was a frustrated actress who channeled her ambitions for a stage career into a tamer life on the lecture circuit, a hobby that took her away from the family for long periods of time. When she was there, she could be somewhat cold and demanding. Frank Flanner tended towards the melancholy and was plagued by money problems. He committed suicide when Janet was in her late teens/early twenties (sorry, had to return the book!).
Janet enrolled in the University of Chicago but spent her year there pretty much partying and enjoying the city. She returned home to Indianapolis and wrote a column for a local newspaper for a while, then in 1918, married William Rehm, a young man she'd met in Chicago. She later admitted that she'd married him to get out of Indianapolis and in that they admirably succeeded, moving to New York to live in bohemian Greenwich Village. They fell in with a crowd of artists and writers, and Janet soon recognized that she was in love with someone else, a writer named Solita Solano. They set off for Europe to pursue various writing assignments, eventually settling in Paris. Steady income for Janet arrived when her friend from New York, Harold Ross, asked her to be the Paris correspondent for his new magazine for sophisticates, The New Yorker. Flanner's "Letter from Paris" was mostly her observations on life amongst both the expatriates and natives, which included going to parties, cafes, dances, art openings, salons, etc, etc. She and Solita found a niche with the other fabulous lesbians of Paris, such as Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Margaret Anderson and Natalie Barney. They all seemed to spend a lot of time being artistic and modern, a lot more time drinking, and a fair amount of time dressing well. Flanner was good friends with Nancy Cunard and Ernest Hemingway as well (yes, that was an extremely awkwardly written paragraph because, well, I'm bored…)
Okay! Now that I've admitted the truth, that I didn't particularly care anything about this book, I'll just sum up quickly—Flanner's fun Paris life was cut short by war and politics and she became a bit of a reluctant war correspondent. After the war she stayed on in France primarily, although she also shuttled a great deal between New York, California, Italy, London, and various other locales. If they had had frequent flyer miles or frequent ocean liner miles in the 1940s and '50s, Flanner would have earned herself several round the world trips. Her most interesting achievement (outside, I'm sure of all those years of writing for The New Yorker) was her ability to juggle lovers; indeed, Flanner literally had a girl in every port, or at least every coast. And each one seemed fully willing to take care of her in every way throughout her life. Sometimes, as I read, it felt a little like Flanner coasted through life with an amazing lack of responsibility. Not that she was irresponsible; she always did her work and was reliable in that way, but do you know what I mean by emotionally responsible? Okay, I'm not even sure what I mean. I guess I would say that she never really had to care for anyone in her family; each of her lovers took care of her (Solano and her ex-husband even managed her finances throughout Flanner's life, and Solano acted as a virtual secretary); she didn't have children; and I doubt she ever had a pet to take care of. There is a great deal of charm in a life where you get by with everyone doing everything for you, where you can pick up and come and go as you please and someone else will always run everything for you, but there is also a certain hollowness and I felt that a bit about Flanner in this book. She had lots of friends, but didn't seem very often like the friend anyone would first turn to if they needed help (with one notable exception when some journalist friends were suspected of being communists and she testified as to their patriotism), and I don't know if that's a great thing to say about someone.
Wineapple's book is clearly and easily written, although there are the occasional distasteful forays into speculation with statements of the "Surely Janet must have thought" or "Janet must have felt.." type. I never feel comfortable with those. It is diligently researched with a long bibliography and notes section; she seems to have documented every conversation, though in my memory (as I said, I had to return the book) more of those were from the other side rather than Flanner's side. There weren't many excerpts from Flanner's own writing. I don't know if there was some kind of copyright issue but whatever the reason I came out of it not knowing anything about Flanner's writing style. It's a good enough, especially if you were researching Flanner's life and needed good facts and a solid outline. Nothing about it, though, made me want to read more and I do not find myself rushing out to get a book of Flanner's collected works.
If I was a correspondent writing a "Letter From New York" I wouldn't be writing about a glittering social whirl. Other people would be telling you about the hottest club, the latest art opening, the most important concert to be seen at, the chicest restaurant, and the best party. I lead a rather tame life, though, so my letter would have to be about things like the color of the sidewalk at 6 am, the blue walls in an apartment on a faraway floor, the sound of rain outside my window. I'd have to write about the chipped bricks, the narrow doors, and the broken steps. I'd have to show the dogs playing in the park, the bored doormen and the girls in clattering heels chasing the late night crosstown bus. I'd have to tell about the dark, black box theaters, the emptiness of the last car on the 1 train, and the shouting and singing from the building next door. And I'd have to write about the endless sky and the eternal river and how they never stop astonishing me.Love, Yours