Dress-down Friday: Janet Flanner

Dress-down Friday is back!

For the newcomers, Dress-down Friday is where I salute sartorial individualists, with past subjects including a cross-dressing Orientalist, a bohemian English writer and a whip-wielding Australian who became an early Bollywood star.

Today’s fashion plate is Indianapolis-born Janet Flanner, The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent from 1925 to 1970. It was a stretch extraordinary in both its duration and for the tumultuous events and cultural upheaval with which it coincided. Her “Letter from Paris” was interrupted only by the Second World War, during which time she distinguished herself as a war correspondent (that’s her with Ernest Hemingway, right).

For non-fiction writers, I can think of few better models to aspire to than Janet Flanner. She crafted prose of the rarest clarity, elegance, insight and wit, aided by a faint air of detachment which allowed her to pin-point her subjects with piercing accuracy. These qualities, along with her boundless curiosity and outsider’s viewpoint, contribute to one of the greatest accounts of 20th century Paris, embracing all levels of society from the causes célèbres and crimes passionels which shocked and titillated the capital to the comings and goings of the great and good, including Lindbergh’s landing and de Gaulle’s death.

Through her Left Bank set Flanner was also keenly aware of the city as a sanctuary for all manner of rare birds, some of which will be familiar to Strange Flowers readers, including Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, La Goulue and Felix Yusupov. She introduced her American readership to fellow expatriates who had made a similar journey to the liberating atmosphere of Paris, including Josephine Baker, Sylvia Beach, Barbette and Natalie Barney.

The most readily available volume of Flanner’s New Yorker reports is Paris Was Yesterday. It covers the years 1925 to 1939, with their glittering between-the-wars diversions in sharp relief against glowering doom-laden skies. The three other volumes comprising articles up to 1970 are harder to find but well worth seeking out.

Flanner’s most enduring emotional attachment was of even longer duration than her New Yorker tenure. Her relationship with American writer Solita Solano dated from the end of the First World War and continued until Solano’s death in 1975. The two were part of a circle of liberated, mostly gay women who gravitated around Natalie Barney and Gertrude Stein, as chronicled in Andrea Weiss’s book and documentary Paris was a Woman.

On top of all that Flanner was, as these photos prove, effortlessly chic (incidentally the top hat in the main image belonged to Nancy Cunard’s father).

I’ll leave you with some hilarious footage of  La Flanner gamely coming between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal on a talk show in 1971.

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15 comments

  1. must wonder why there has been no film about this group-If she ever gets on the screen Sigourney Weaver- is the actress to play her..

  2. John Hastings

    Great post Amigo! The clip is priceless. Those days are gone forever and more’s the pity. Flanner can be easily accessed in all her glory with a trip to the library for the complete New Yorker discs. J was a good friend to Djuna Barnes and that speaks volumes. Right with the top five of my favorite lesbians. Thank God for women like her!!!

    • Steve

      Gone forever is right. Can you imagine anything like this on now? “Stars” come on for a few minutes, flog their latest book/cd/movie/tv show and leave. Leno/Letterman shows are monuments to boredom.

  3. Linda Hollander

    These are beautiful pictures of her that I’ve never seen (well, except for the hat…she was going to a costume party with Djuna I believe, I can’t quite re member). My favorite thing she ever said was something like: “I never thought of myself as Lesbian. I just loved Solita.”
    I loved her, and I’ve been thinking of her all week, how strange to have this come into my mailbox!
    Keep it up, James. Strange Flower post are always the high point of a day.

  4. John Hastings

    Dear Linda,
    the photos are indeed lovely. I have always thought that Flanner was a very handsome human specimen. Imagine my shock when I read Miss Gertrude Stein dismissing Janet as being,”Ugly as the buffalo side of an Indian head nickle”. But , as a rule, Stein did not like women. I addressed this to you because of the beautiful quote that you employed in your response. You are half right. The words are correct but the girls are not. It was Djuna not Janet that said,”I am not a lesbian, I just loved Thelma”. Thelma Wood being the great love and greater agony of Djuna Barnes’ life.
    Janet and Solita loved each other the most, yet over the arc of their partnership, both strayed mightily down the circumambient avenues of same sex eros. Two, among the very several of JF’s side pieces:Natalie Murray and Noel Murphy.
    Djuna included S and J in her ripsnorting, “Ladies Almanac”. They appear as Nip and Tuck.

  5. Linda Hollander

    Dang, I sent such a pithy reply and it is now lost in cyberspace. I’ll try to recap: I am going to check my biogs of the two of them (Barnes and Flanner), because I have apparently been delusional about this for YEARS! Perhaps because I read both biographies close together. Hmmm, the mind. And, thanks too, you’ve reminded me to go dig out my Ladie’s Almanack.
    And, thanks for the quote about Janet being ugly, I forgot that too! (I am very old and senile). Meanwhile, that Gert should not be talking trash about other women, she who lived with the most homely (and nasty)of them all…

    Thanks for the heads up.

    Linda

    • Chaya

      I would not call Alice B. Toklas “the most homely of them all.” She had a beauty about her–as do many women who don’t fit conventional standards. And I definitely would not call her “the nastiest of them all.”

      I was saddened, after reading this beautiful article, to see it ended on this note.

  6. Linda Hollander

    How interesting to see the comments here written almost a year apart. I have to stand by my statement about Alice being homely…I have seen hundreds of pictures of her, many never published, and although I agree she had a certain something in youth, and was probably mightily sexual, she was not pretty, ever. She was quite feminine, however, I’ll give her that.

    And, Chaya, who gets your vote for “nastiest of them all”, may I ask? Alice was relentless, unforgiving and very quick to cut…what a mouth!

    Whatever…it’s so great to have a discussion via “Strange Flowers”, the best damn blog on the net!

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