Thursday, 15 May 2014

Women of the Left Bank series: Having a drink with Janet Flanner

This post is part of my Women of the Left Bank series which started with this article on Gertrude Stein

(Apologies for not putting in correct accents on the French names - am having issues with Word)

I recently went to Paris to work on my book (seriously – my favourite phrase in the English language right now!) and to walk in the footsteps of my literary heroines through the narrow streets that open up into Church flanked squares and verdant parks of Montparnasse. Walking down Rue de Fleurus past Gertrude Stein’s house, along Rue Bonaparte and Janet Flanner’s pad, turning left down Rue Jacob to see where Colette (and Claudine) lived, and where Natalie Barney had her Temple d’Amities, on to Rue de l’Odeon where Sylvia Beach set up the original Shakespeare and Company, with Adrienne Monnier’s shop across the road. It was a wonderful week, soaking up a world of poetry, paintings and literary experimentalism.

‘If I could go back in time and have a drink with anyone,’ I said to a friend of mine when I returned, my heart still left somewhere in the Left Bank, ‘it would be Janet Flanner.’

‘But that’s such a hard decision to make!’ he cried.

‘If you had a drink with Janet,’ I explained wisely, ‘everyone else would turn up.’

She should need no introduction. But because she is less famous than many of her female contemporaries (who in turn are less famous than their male contemporaries), I’ll give you one anyway.

Janet Flanner was a writer who, in the early 20s, left her husband in Indiana and came to Paris with her lover, Solita Solano, to write. Like so many of the women and men expats who flocked to Paris in the 1920s, Janet arrived at the Left Bank determined to shape her own life – and to have the freedom to be a creative and sexual woman. She explained her reasons for coming to Paris as:

I was looking for beauty with a capital B. And I couldn’t find it in Indiana.’

Janet and Solita settled on Rue Bonaparte and started writing novels. But it is as a journalist where Janet found her calling, and where her real talent shines through. From 1925 to the outbreak of World War Two (during which she became a war correspondent with that other famous Left Bank alumni, Ernest Hemingway) and for the years after, she wrote the Letter from Paris for the New Yorker magazine, under the pen name ‘Genet’.

Her editor thought Genet was French for Janet, proving just how much The New Yorker needed their Parisian! Through her letters, Janet's prose style came to epitomise the tone of voice of the New Yorker, and her unique tone of voice has been a huge influence on journalists and columnists for decades.

Janet was at the heart of the Parisian expat community that created the artistic waves that are still loved by us today. She was a true Paris enthusiast, claiming that:  

When America was making candles, France was making Voltaire.’

Shortly after her arrival in Montparnasse, Janet became close friends with Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, and a much-loved member of their circle. Stein was at the cultural centre of the most cultural city in the world, and through their friendship, so was Janet. From her seat at Les Deux Magots, coffee and cigarette in hand, she recorded Paris’ activities with an insight and wit that transported her American readers to the City of Light’s dusty and buzzing streets.

Janet’s letters cover all aspects of creative Paris. She was there when Josephine Baker danced on the stage of the Moulin Rouge for the first time, when Paris’ streets filled with mourners of Isadora Duncan and when Kiki de Montparnasse first exhibited her own paintings. She wrote about art shows, about book publications, about the scandalous memoirs of Liane de Pougy and 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 – or eighty years – away.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Janet knew everyone - which is why she would make such a perfect person to have a drink with. As such, she is a fabulously funny and sharp guide to the people of Left Bank Paris, introducing us today to the foibles and fancies of the women and men who have been mythologized in countless novels and films about the 1920s.

From Janet, we learn that Gertrude Stein had a laugh like a ‘roaring oven’. She tells us that when Gertrude 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 as follows:

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.’

I would love to know what she means! It’s such a sharp remark, and it clearly means something to Janet, but we are left to wonder just what Gertrude was fishing for…

One of my favourite Janet stories is about Nightwood author, Djuna Barnes. She begins by explaining:

I was devoted to Djuna, and she was, in her own way, very fond of me’ 

(I love that – ‘devoted to Djuna’). Barnes had just written The Antiphon and was asking Janet for her thoughts. Janet confessed that she couldn’t understand it.

‘Oh Janet,’ Djuna responded. ‘I never thought you would be as stupid as Tom Eliot.’

Janet acknowledged that it was one of the best compliments she had ever received. In 1928 she was immortalised with Solita as the journalists ‘Nip and Tuck’ in Djuna Barnes’ Ladies Almanack

Another typical Janet quote is her assessment of Picasso, who she teases for always taking the same route home from Montparnasse to Montmartre. Describing his conventionality when it comes to walking the city streets, she remarks:

You’d think for a mad modernist he’d change the route every once in a while!

In her essential guide to the women of the era, The Women of the Left Bank, Shari Henstock writes that Janet, like her friend Natalie Barney, was a happy and optimistic person who wasn’t given to feelings of shame or depression about her sexuality (unlike say, Radclyffe Hall). This is something I love about Janet – she was fun loving and funny, with an effervescence that bubbles through in her writing and her recorded interviews. You can almost tell what an awesome woman she was just from the women who loved her – Solita Solano was one of the most fabulous (and beautiful) women on the Left Bank and the pair had a non-monogamous relationship for fifty years. Then there was Noel Murphy, an absolutely stunning singer from outside Paris.

Janet’s letters weren’t just about the arts and fun of the Parisian Left Bank experienced in La Rotonde, Select, La Coupole, Le Dome and Lipps. She was a very incisive and insightful recorder of the rise of fascism in Europe, and on the Spanish Civil War. She understood that dark clouds were gathering, and what those dark clouds meant for her world. Her reflections and analysis of what was happening in Europe and her adopted country make up some of her best letters. 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.

Returning to Paris after the war, Janet went on to cover the Suez Crisis, the Soviet Invasion of Hungary and the troubles in Algeria. Whatever was happening in the world, you could trust Janet would be there, bringing the world of the crisis to her readers with her incredibly personal and intelligent understanding.

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. On top of the fact that our cultural legacy favours the male creators of the Left Bank over its women, 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.

When you look through her letters from Paris, Janet’s voice sings out as clear as a bell, despite the eight decades separating our time and hers. When you read ‘Genet’, you feel you are sat there, beside her at Les Deux Magots, as she updates you on who has published what and who is rivalling with who. She opens up a half forgotten world to you, until you can smell the sweat and excitement at the Moulin Rouge, until the wails at Isadora Duncan’s funeral are ringing in your ears.

You can read a selection of Janet’s letters in the Virago collection Paris was Yesterday. Whether you are interested in 1920s Paris, women’s history, or just want to read some damn fine journalism, I cannot recommend Janet Flanner enough.

Cheers, Janet. 

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