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November 7, 1978
Janet Flanner   (1892 - 1978)
 
Janet Flanner, France
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1978 Janet Flanner died. For a half-century her bi-weekly "Letter From Paris" was published under her pen name, "Genet," in The New Yorker. These were afterwards collected in a handful of volumes, most notably Paris Journal, 1944-1965, which won a National Book Award in America. Flanner also wrote a novel (The Cubical City), and translated several of Colette's, but she is most famous for profiling the famous politicians, artists and events of her era in a new form and a unique style. In her preface to Paris Was Yesterday, Flanner says that when she started in 1925 the "only specific guideline I had received from the editor, Harold Ross, was his statement that he wanted to know what the French thought was going on in France, not what I thought was going on." She saw this as the opportunity for "a new type of journalistic foreign correspondence," and attempted to develop a witty, fluid style that was "precisely accurate, highly personal, colorful, and ocularly descriptive."

Many who know France still rank Flanner's stylish articulation of the je ne sais quoi as among the best. Now that the specific people and events which she profiled are no longer topical, she is read for history and painterly mood -- a better and more reliable alternative to such memoirs as Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, from one as close to the Lost Gen crowd and closer to France. In her preface to Paris Was Yesterday, written just a few years before her death, Flanner recalls a suicide talk with Hemingway at the Deux Magots, and the first copy of Ulysses, and the lesbian salon hosted by Djuna Barnes, but the real event is the Paris they all shared. We get a taste of the "civilized, countrified, appetizing" thirty-cent lunch, eaten daily for years in a small restaurant in the rue Jacob "in the company of some minor Surrealists." We follow her up "a narrow circular staircase, which like the newel of a snail's shell wound upstairs to the second floor" -- follow carefully, as one of the Surrealists "had painted a series of false steps in a Cubist design." We get this larger view of Paris:
    At any season, and all year long, in the evening the view of the city from the bridges was always exquisitely pictorial. One's eyes became the eyes of a painter, because the sight itself approximated art, with the narrow, pallid facades of the buildings lining the river; with the tall trees growing down by the water's edge; with, behind them, the vast chiaroscuro of the palatial Louvre, lightened by the luminous lemon color of the Paris sunset off toward the west; with the great square, pale stone silhouette of Notre-Dame to the east. The stance from which to see Paris was any one of its bridges at the close of the day. The Pont Neuf still looked as we had known it on the canvasses of Sisley and Pissarro.
Flanner's preface to Paris Was Yesterday eulogizes what "seemed immutably French" but which proved vulnerable, especially to American encroachment. France between the wars felt no modern resentment; the first "Letter From Paris" excerpted in the book describes the welcome given to an American invasion of sorts, the sensational Josephine Baker:
    Josephine Baker has arrived at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in La Revue Negre and the result has been unanimous. Paris has never drawn a color line. Covarrubias did the sets, pink drops with cornucopias of hams and watermelons, and the Civil War did the rest, aided by Miss Baker....

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Related authors:  Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach
 
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