Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Happy Birthday Janet Flanner

The New Yorker writer Janet Flanner was born on this day in Indianapolis in 1892. In honor of her birthday, the following is a piece I wrote on her life upon her induction into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 2009.

As a young girl growing up as part of one of Indianapolis’s leading families, Janet Flanner had a path in life already set for her by her mother, Mary, who wanted her daughter to be what she strived to be—an actress. Janet balked at her mother’s plans, pointing to her prominent nose as a barrier to any career on the stage. “I pointed out that with this nose I’d be playing Juliet’s nurse or Juliet’s nurse’s nurse, and never Juliet,” she later told a reporter from the International Herald Tribune. Instead of a life in the theater, Janet aspired to a different artistic endeavor, that of a writer.

Flanner achieved her ambition, becoming one of the stalwarts of one of America’s finest magazines, The New Yorker. From 1925 until her retirement in 1975, she produced—under the pen name Genêt—hundreds of thousands of words as the magazine’s Paris correspondent. In her “Letter from Paris” she sketched profiles for her readers of such notable figures as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Albert Camus, and Charles de Gaulle. Her later editor at The New Yorker, William Shawn, described Flanner as “a poet among journalists.” Flanner, who died at the age of eighty-six in 1978, said of her long career: “I love writing. I’m just nuts on writing. Just give me an inkpot and a paper and a pen, and away I go.”

Born on March 13, 1892, Flanner was the second child of Mary Hockett and Francis Flanner, one of the founders of Indianapolis’s Flanner and Buchanan Mortuaries and a leader in the community regarding business and philanthropic ventures, including the Flanner House. Although at first educated in public schools, Janet later attended Tudor Hall School for Girls, a private college preparatory institution. After graduation, she spent time with her family visiting Germany. Financial pressures and personal problems drove Francis Flanner to commit suicide in 1912. After her father’s death, Janet attended the University of Chicago, taking several writing classes. “I went there two years,” she noted. “I was requested to leave. Lawless. They [university officials] did object to my coming in so often at 3 a.m. I was mad on dancing.” After leaving the university, she worked for nine months at a reform school in Philadelphia.

In 1916 Flanner returned to her hometown to work on the Indianapolis Star. Under the tutelage of the newspaper’s drama critic, Frank Tarkington Baker, she broke ground as one of the country’s first movie critics. “It was an intelligent decision for Frank Tarkington Baker [the Star’s drama critic] to treat movies, though newcomers, as important,” Flanner later told Star reporter Lawrence “Bo” Connor. Baker assigned her to review the first movie for the paper—Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. She wrote three-quarters of a column on the film and was later delighted when her review was used to promote the movie, a common practice today. Flanner also turned her writing skills to covering numerous burlesque shows, but was not allowed to stay by management for the program’s second act. “That’s where you saw the Jewish and Irish comedians,” Flanner recalled. “Behind the chorus girls. That’s really the kind of theater I took to innately, much to my mother’s shock.”

Flanner left Indianapolis shortly after her marriage to William Rehm, a New York City artist she had known at the University of Chicago. The marriage lasted only a few years, however, and Flanner later met Solita Solano, drama editor for the New York Tribune, in Greenwich Village. The two women became partners, staying together for approximately fifty years. While in New York Flanner tried to produce freelance articles for magazines and met and became friends with the writers and critics that made up the Algonquin Round Table. One of them was Jane Grant, a strong feminist and the wife of Harold Ross, later one of the founders of the sophisticated weekly magazine The New Yorker. When Solano went to Greece for an assignment in 1921, Flanner traveled with her and the two eventually settled in Paris. She quickly made connections with the expatriate literary community of the Left Bank that included such figures as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein.

Her fascinating life with the members of the Lost Generation and the culture and people of France were regular features of letters Flanner wrote to Grant. Impressed by her friend’s writing, Grant urged Ross to include them as a regular department in his struggling magazine. He agreed; Flanner’s first “Letter from Paris” appeared in The New Yorker’s October 10, 1925 issue. For her work, Flanner received, at first, $35 a column, a “great sum,” she noted, at that time. Ross helped to shape the style of Flanner’s writing, cautioning her: “I’m not paying you to tell me what you think. I want to know what the French are thinking.” Every two weeks, Flanner produced 2,500 words of copy in a conversational style about significant happenings in French politics and culture under the pseudonym Genêt, a name selected by Ross that puzzled Flanner for years. “I looked up the French meanings and found three, none of which mattered,” she said. “Ross never told me what it meant. Frankly, I think he thought it was a nice French way of spelling Janet.”

Living most of the time in a room at the Hotel Continental on the Rue Castigilione, Flanner took her writing seriously, often preparing by reading eight different newspapers a day and pounding out her copy on an small Olivetti typewriter. “I work with a conscientious kind of discipline,” she said. “I work like a beaver, I go over each Letter for clarification, for mining, for a spot of gold.” Flanner noted she reviewed her work again and again, going over a sentence several times. “I nag it, gnaw it, pat and flatter it,” she said. Flanner became a familiar sight on Parisian streets in her tailored suits, bobbed gray hair, and monocle. “I look rather like an 18th century judge off the bench,” she observed.

Driven from Paris by the Nazi invasion during World War II, Flanner returned to the United States, living in New York. She returned to Paris in 1944, following the advancing U.S. Army as it liberated France. In addition to continuing to produce her “Letter from Paris,” she also did several weekly fifteen-minute radio broadcasts for the NBC Blue Network. The work took its toll on Flanner. “I was down to 99 pounds after those 11 months,” she noted, but added that she “liked every minute of it.”

Before her death on November 17, 1978, Flanner received numerous honors for her work. In 1948 the French government made her a knight of the Légion d’honneur. She also received an honorary doctorate by Smith College and in 1966 won a National Book Award for her work Paris Journal: 1944–1965. Asked by a reporter late in her life how she accomplished all she had done through the years, Flanner noted that she was not “one of those journalists with a staff. I don’t even have a secretary. I act as a sponge. I soak it up and squeeze it out in ink every two weeks.”