Archive Stories 2019 is part of an ongoing relationship between Hope College and the American Library in Paris. Hannah Jones and Aine O’Connor worked with Kelly Jacobsma and Dr. Natalie Dykstra in order to define and complete a project on American writer Janet Flanner. They are grateful to Grand Challenges and the American Library for their support.
Indiana-born Janet Flanner (1892-1978) arrived in Paris at the perfect moment. She more than lived in her adopted city; she breathed in all the life it could give her. In fact, this city became an important character in her work. In her own time, thousands of Americans read Flanner’s work in The New Yorker, and her singularly acerbic style continues to resonate with modern readers. Yet, she is often lost amidst scholarly discussions on other American expats, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein.
Flanner remained an exceptionally private woman, refusing to write a memoir and decrying the use of the personal “I” in her writing, telling composer David Diamond, “‘I’ is like a fortissimo. It’s too loud.” Instead, the pseudonymous Genêt wrote of exciting happenings in Paris– art, fashion, publishing, gossip, food, and any other cultural events she deemed important for her readers to become aware of. She herself had “left this [masculine] America for Paris, a city with ‘an old girl’s countenance, shaded by a trollop’s gay wig.’”
“I wanted Beauty with a capital ‘B’… I was consumed by my own appetite to consume– in a very limited way, the beauties of Europe.”
The anonymity provided by her publishing pseudonym Genêt allowed Flanner to have romantic relationships with several women. She fell in love with Solita Solano first, a reporter for magazines like National Geographic. Solano and Flanner were friends and lovers for almost sixty years; Flanner wrote to her, decades after meeting, “rarely does a day go by that I don’t think of you.” Flanner also became close with Noël Haskins Murphy and Natalia Danesi Murray. All three women took care of Flanner in different ways, and her life became infinitely better because of this intimacy. However, the 20th century world did not see their intimacy as something to celebrate, and it became increasingly important for Flanner’s private and public lives to remain separate.
“a gentleman of the press in skirts”
–Janet Flanner on Genêt
While Flanner’s personal life continued on behind the scenes, her professional writing increased in popularity. In 1925, she began writing for the brand-new New Yorker, a job she would hold for five decades. Each week, or sometimes biweekly, a “Letter from Paris” appeared, and Americans lapped up Flanner’s distinctive storytelling and ability to make a distant city come alive. She wrote on politics, noting how “it is as if Europe were slowly entering a new ice age” as the Soviet Union and United States fought for control after the Second World War. She famously wrote profiles of notable persons as divergent as Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe), Adolf Hitler, and Edith Wharton. Of Mendl, Flanner wrote that “she likes fine French furniture, white flowers, watching acrobats, traveling, pearls, and reading French memoirs.” These people, politics, and passions of Paris fascinated Flanner, and because they fascinated her, they fascinated her readers.
Flanner died in New York in 1978 while living with Natalia Danesi Murray. Some years later, her old friend Noël Haskins Murphy donated books from Flanner’s personal collection to the American Library in Paris.
We have written a new, detailed finding aid, which allows any visitor to the library a chance to delve into Flanner’s life and work. Janet Flanner appears as a whole person–as a famous journalist, as a gay woman, and as a writer who possessed immense talent.
To learn more about this project, check out the Paris Stories blog.