Janet Flanner: aka Genet 

Janet Flanner and Ernest Hemingway, (1945)
  • Janet Flanner and Ernest Hemingway, (1945)

In the first decades of the last century, Indianapolis was rivaled by few other American cities in terms of literary productivity and achievement.

Writer Booth Tarkington is the most well-known author of the era and for good reason.

Creator of the literary classics The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams, among Tarkington's litany of successes is the honor of being the first writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice, an accomplishment since achieved by two more writers—William Faulkner and John Updike.

Tarkington was rivaled in popularity only by Indiana author Gene Stratton Porter at the time. The publication of Freckles (1904), A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), and Laddie (1913) were but a few in a string of popular books that kept Indiana authors on the best-seller lists year after year.

Poet James Whitcomb Riley was already an American institution by his death in 1916, and novelists such as Meredith Nicholson (The House of a Thousand Candles) and Lew Wallace (Ben Hur) were household names as well.

Growing up in Indianapolis among all of these influential and successful writers was a young woman by the name of Janet Flanner who, writing for The New Yorker under the pen name Genet, would go on to become one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

AN ARTISTIC UPBRINGING

Janet Flanner was not quite seven years old when her family moved from their home at 14th and Delaware Streets to the edges of a growing Indianapolis in 1899. Her father, Frank Flanner, was making quite a name for himself, along with his partner and brother-in-law Charles Buchanan, operating the city's most successful funeral business.

The 10-acres of land purchased on North Meridian Street was a cherry orchard at the time, and the Flanner's built a large country home near what is now known as 40th Street. While they were one of the first upwardly mobile families to move so far north, the trend continued for several decades and eventually the area became home to Tarkington, the Vonnegut family, and most of Indianapolis' wealthiest residents.

Like many families of their class, the Flanners had an appreciation for the arts that dominated the education of Janet and her sisters Marie, who would become a pianist, and Hildegarde, a poet of some renown by the time of her death in 1987.

It was Janet's mother, Mary, who instilled a love of the arts in her daughters.An actress and poet herself, Mrs. Flanner frequently made headlines for her dramatic readings and literary gatherings, which often featured her daughters in as many roles as she could find suitable.

While Mary and the girls concentrated on art, Frank Flanner exercised a more civic-minded commitment to the city, particularly in terms of improving the conditions of the city's Negro population. His donation of land and buildings for a settlement aimed at improving job skills and providing services to the poorest residents of Indianapolis was the first of its kind in Indiana and still exists as the Flanner House on the near Westside.

So thorough was Flanner's commitment to diminishing bigotry in Indianapolis, that when Booker T. Washington visited the city in 1896, and no downtown hotel would rent a room to a man of his color, Frank Flanner picked up Washington at the train station and brought him home to stay with his family, a move that resulted in quite a bit of social stigma for the Flanners and a lasting memory for the then four-year old Janet.

The Flanner business and family enjoyed great success for many years that characterized Janet's upbringing. When Frank took his wife and daughters for an extended tour of Europe in 1909, Janet had just graduated from Tudor Hall a few months earlier, and the 17-year old was eager to explore all that Europe had to offer.

CATAYLST FOR CHANGE

While the year spent in Europe was, by all accounts, an enjoyable one for the Flanner family, the trip was cut short by a bad business investment that halted the family's cash flow and required Frank to return home immediately.

A few months later, Flanner would commit suicide without ever fully revealing the extent of his business troubles to his wife.

Her father's death acted as the first major catalyst for Janet to leave Indianapolis, and in the fall of October 1912, she began her studies at the University of Chicago as an English major. Academic life didn't suit her, however, and she left college a few years later without graduating.

After a failed job at a girl's reformatory in Pennsylvania brought Janet back to Indianapolis in 1916, she was given a job writing for the Indianapolis Star as its first female and first arts reporter. Her bylined column appeared as Excursions and Impressions in the Field of Art and had the young writer reviewing everything from vaudeville and burlesque shows to books of poetry and literary criticism.

Flanner is also credited as being one of the first newspaper writers to review films. After getting a raise from $25 to $30 per week in 1916, she began writing a new column, Comments on the Screen for the Indianapolis Star in which Flanner reported on a burgeoning film industry and Hollywood culture that was making its way to Indianapolis via one of the country's most luxurious film palaces, the Circle Theater.

While she was earning a living as writer in Indianapolis by the time she was 25, Flanner was eager to leave the Midwest behind and test her literary skills in bigger, brighter cities.

A short-lived marriage to college friend Lane Rehm provided the perfect opportunity.In 1918, the young couple moved to New York taking a small apartment in Greenwich Village where she planned to embark whole-heartedly on a literary career.

NEW YORK STATE OF MIND

While Flanner had earned a solid reputation as a newspaper writer from her time at the Indianapolis Star, the experience failed to earn her much income or respect in New York.

Initially, the young writer took freelance jobs to supplement her income and keep her byline in the papers. She worked on a few stories and manuscripts, but found little success until meeting painter Neysa McMain who quickly became a close friend and mentor.

McMain was from Quincy, Ill. but had already established a reputation as a New York bohemian artist by the time Flanner arrived in the city. It was in McMain's studio where she first met Dorothy Parker just after the conclusion of World War I.

Flanner was impressed with Parker's literary gatherings and friends the company when she later joined the famed table at the Algonquin Hotel. Flanner, in turn, impressed Parker with her quick and sardonic wit, but was never entirely comfortable with this New York set of friends.

In part, her reticence was based on insecurity. She had only begun to try her hand at fiction, the newspaper work was slow and paid little, and her marriage was quickly coming to an end.

Flanner herself left little record of her personal life separate from her published columns and little is known about her marriage or subsequent divorce. What is clear, however, is that Flanner ended the marriage after meeting and falling in love with another Midwest transplant to New York, Solita Solano.

Solano was an established journalist when the women first met in 1918, and Flanner was more than impressed with her new friend. When Solano was assigned a one-year stint in Constantinople by National Geographic a few years later, Flanner sold most of her belongings, quit her freelance jobs, and climbed on board the ship with Solano for a new life abroad.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

In 1922, McMain's Portrait of Janet Flanner appeared in a Town & Country magazine feature about the artist. Despite Flanner's socialite pose, elegant gown and prop book, the caption describes her as "an Indianapolis newspaper woman."

click to enlarge Neysa McMain's 'Portrait of Janet Flanner' (1922)
  • Neysa McMain's 'Portrait of Janet Flanner' (1922)

The same month, Flanner and Solano finished their time in Constantinople and arrived in Paris. The women settled into a large room in a small hotel in St-Germain-des-Pres where they continued to live for the next 16 years.

Both women quickly got busy writing in their new city. In 1924, Solano published her first novel, The Uncertain Feast, and two more books in the trilogy being published over the following two years.

Solano's novel was well-received. In 1924, the Paris Tribune listed her as one of the "highly gifted American writers who live in France" and praised her prose as that of a "poet in crisis."

Flanner's first novel, The Cubicle City, was finished the same year, but not published until 1926. And while she was quite thrilled at the time, she had already discovered fiction was not her forte.

"Writing fiction is not my gift," she would tell a reporter years later. "Writing is my gift. But not writing fiction."

The writing assignment that would change Flanner's life and cement her literary reputation came her way in 1925, the year between the novel's completion and its publication.

As a favor, Flanner agreed to help the husband of a college friend who was launching a new magazine and in desperate need of good writers. The wife had recalled Flanner's letters from Paris as being full of detail and color, interesting narrative and superior intellect, and she recommended Flanner as a possible columnist.

LETTERS FROM PARIS

Correspondents in European capitals were standard for magazines and newspapers at the time, particularly in Paris. But this magazine was to be called The New Yorker and its publisher, Harold Ross, was looking for a particular kind of writing that would set his magazine apart from his competitors.

He wanted, according to his wife, "anecdotal and incidental stuff on places familiar to Americans and on people of note whether they are Americans or internationally prominent—dope on fields of the arts and little on fashions, although he does not want the latter treated technically; there should be lots of chat about people seen about and in it all he wants a definite personality injected."

Flanner took the job, 1,000 words every other week for $35 per column, the first of which appeared in the October 10, 1925 issue. Ross called it simply Letters from Paris, and The New Yorker continued to run the column under the byline of Genet until Flanner retired in 1975.

Writing about the American newspaper men and women who flocked to Paris during the 1920s and subsequently made a living writing about it for the folks back home, Ronald Weber notes in News of Paris that Flanner's dispatches were the superior of the lot.

"For nearly fifty years Paris letters were both the staple commodity of her lucrative writing career and a relaxed, commonplace form she elevated to stylish higher journalism.

At the urging of her editors, Flanner published her work from The New Yorker in a series of 'Paris Journals" beginning in the 1940s and continuing until her death in 1978. The books have been reissued several times and remain as relevant and respected today as they did when she first began publishing in 1925..

Covering all things Parisian, from art, theater, literature, politics and popular culture, the Letters also chronicle World War II, including Flanner's three-part essay on Hitler, lengthy reporting from the Nuremburg Trials and a host of other political events that still resonate.

"Flanner's dissection of the student-led demonstrations of 1968 should be required reading in context of the street opposition to Jacques Chirac's ill-fated proposal last fall to reform the work contracts of new employees," said a New York Times reviewer while recommending the anthology as the "mother of all travel journals" in 2007. "Those protests preceded, if not exactly foreshadowing, Nicolas Sarkosy's successful succession campaign this spring."

Following Flanner's death in 1978, William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, praised both her storytelling and substantive style in a manner fitting for a young woman born into one of Indiana's richest literary communities.

"Her eye never became jaded, her ardor for what was new and alive never diminished, and her language remained restless. She was a stylist who devoted her style, bedazzling and heady in itself, to the subtle task of conveying the spirit of a subtle people."

And while Paris might have been her adopted hometown, even her longtime editor knew that Janet Flanner never lost her ties to home.

"She was an Indiana optimist perched in a small, cluttered room on the top floor of the Hôtel Continental in Paris, and when she looked down over her adored city she saw, even at the most unlikely moments, reason to hope."

JANET FLANNER: Bibliography

The Cubicle City

GP Putnam, 1926; So. Illinois University Press, 1974

An American in Paris

Simon and Schuster, 1940

Men and Monuments

Harper, 1957

Paris Journal, (1944-1965)

Atheneum, 1965

Paris Journal, 1965-1971)

Atheneum, 1971

Paris Was Yesterday, (1925-1939)

Atheneum 1971

London Was Yesterday (1934-1939)

Viking, 1975

Janet Flanner's World: Uncollected Writings (1932-1975) Harcourt, 1979

Darlinghissima: Letters to a Friend

Random House, 1985

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