Janet Flanner · 2009
By Ray Boomhower
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 a stalwart 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 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 86 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. 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 [theStar’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 covered 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 50 years.
While in New York Flanner tried to produce freelance articles for magazines and met and became friends with the writers and critics who 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 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 — figures such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein.
Her fascinating life with 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 writing on a 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.
Driven from Paris by the Nazi invasion during World War II, Flanner returned to New York. She went back to Paris in 1944, after the U.S. Army liberated France. In addition to continuing to produce her “Letter from Paris,” she wrote several weekly 15-minute radio broadcasts for the NBC Blue Network. The work took its toll. “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 Nov. 17, 1978, Flanner received numerous honors. In 1948 the French government made her a knight of the Légion d’honneur. She also received an honorary doctorate from Smith College and in 1966 won a National Book Award for her work ParisJournal: 1944–1965.
Asked by a reporter late in her life how she accomplished all she had done through the years, Flanner said 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.”
Thanks to Lawrence “Bo” Connor for providing research material on which part of this article is based. By Ray E. Boomhower Editor of Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History