The Frenchwoman from Indianapolis

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Janet Flanner, ca. 1925. Berenice Abbott, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Here is Norman Mailer in his fine black boots, high-cut and shiny and very snug on the ankle, like something you might pick out if you were the prop master for an expensive production of Richard III. Sweating a bit under the TV lights, he seems to be doing an imitation of a scowl, as if to gesture toward his reputation as a guy who goes around scowling. He sits angled toward the host, Dick Cavett, who bends slightly away from him, as do the other two guests. One of them is Gore Vidal. Like Mailer, Vidal is doing an impersonation of himself. He strikes various languorous attitudes as the camera begins to roll, reclining deeper into his chair as Mailer leans forward, toying idly with his glasses and smiling as Mailer yaps and bares his teeth. A cat and a dog.

Compared to these two, both positively radiant with the excitement of showing off, the third guest seems to have been invited on by mistake. She is, basically, an old lady. She wears white gloves and a neat skirt suit, with a scarf knotted at her neck. She doesn’t say much at first, waiting patiently as, according to the description on the YouTube clip, “the infamous feud between novelist Norman Mailer and writer Gore Vidal comes to a head in a battle of wit, sarcasm, and condescension with the audience and Janet Flanner”—that’s her—“(reluctantly) in the front row.”

This is all wrong. First, if you have come to this old episode of The Dick Cavett Show to witness an invigorating exchange of white-hot barbs, you are in for a disappointing half hour. It’s not so much a mighty clash of intellect as two exceptionally vain men seizing the opportunity to come out with bons mots they have been practicing in the mirror for weeks beforehand. These include zingers like “intellectual cow.” It never really rises above this level and is often even more mortifying than that—five minutes in, Mailer affects an air of fascination as he wonders if Muhammad Ali “came out of a good (bleep) or a bad one.” He repeats this a couple of times, his delight in himself so childlike it is almost touching. Second, the suggestion that Flanner is a reluctant participant, in fact barely a participant at all, is inaccurate. She is evidently having fun, making droll remarks and winking at the audience; she, at least, is aware of the silliness of what is unfolding. She maintains her good humor for a solid fifteen minutes as the two men toss their dignity to the far winds, finally interrupting Vidal just as he is about to respond to Mailer’s accusation that his work smells of “intellectual pollution.”

It’s very odd, she says, that the two of you act as if you’re the only people here. “Aren’t we?” Mailer burbles. She gestures to the audience and says, “They’re here.” She points to Cavett—“He’s here.” She points at herself, doing a funny little mime of indignation—“I’M HERE, and I’m becoming very, very bored.” The audience bursts into laughter and applause. She blows a kiss at Mailer, and the applause increases. Mailer’s shoulders shoot up even higher, and he can’t rid his voice of a disconsolate note as he assures Flanner that he wouldn’t hit her, because she is “intellectually smaller” than he is. Flanner laughs uproariously.

Her writing is like this too: sharp, fearless, and always informed by an awareness of her audience, whom she never talks down to but addresses with the assumption that they are as smart as she is. The pleasure that comes from reading her prose is often accompanied by a kind of relief that here, finally, is an actual adult.

Born and raised in Indianapolis, Flanner reported on European affairs for The New Yorker from 1925 until just before her death in 1978. She is most well-remembered for her column Letter from Paris, in which she (mostly) wrote about the city where she lived for much of her life. She could write about anything: murder trials, Josephine Baker, Ulysses, the death of one unimaginably grand old woman after another, the death of Monet, of D. H. Lawrence, the impact of the Wall Street crash of 1929 on French jewelers, the Ballets Russes, Edith Wharton, the buildup to World War II, and the evacuation of Paris. She had the outsider’s ability to register cultural shifts that might have escaped people who had lived in Paris all their lives, but her dispatches also clearly communicate the extent to which she was a part of that culture. She went to parties with Isadora Duncan and knew Picasso. Her circle of friends: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Toklas, Sylvia Beach, Djuna Barnes. She was especially close to Stein and Toklas and seems to have been one of the only people standing between Toklas and outright destitution at the end of her life (in her profile of Toklas, she describes her attempts to keep the old lady in the style she was accustomed to: “She thought the best was none too good and, as a matter of fact, sometimes not good enough. One November, I troubled to find her a fresh peach, vainly hoping she would not notice its flaws”).

Her editor at The New Yorker was Gardner Botsford. In his fantastic memoir, A Life of Privilege, Mostly, Botsford writes that Flanner spoke “completely fluent, strongly accented French. She sounded like a Frenchwoman from Indianapolis.” For twenty years after the war, Flanner lived at the Hotel Continental. Every afternoon at five thirty, she would come down to the bar and take her usual seat at a horseshoe sofa overlooking the Tuileries, where a dry martini would be waiting for her. Then, writes Botsford, her guests, both invited and not, would start to arrive: “friends, petitioners, gossips, visitors from New York, political aspirants, bearers of tidings, bearers of manuscripts … Before long, the places on the horseshoe sofa would be filled, and late arrivals—carrying their first chapters or second acts in their briefcase—would have to wait their turn on little gilt chairs that Henri [the barman] had forehandedly lined up against one wall; every time a postulant on the horseshoe sofa left, the person at the head of the line would take his place, and all the others, in unison, would move up one notch.” At the end of each evening, she would retire to her tiny room on the top floor and start turning “all she had heard downstairs, all she had read, all she had reported, all she had thought during the day and during the week” into one of her “letters.”

Most of Flanner’s Paris dispatches have been collected in one volume or another, as have her letters to her partner of many years, the publisher Natalia Danesi Murray. The best of her writing, though, can be found in Janet Flanner’s World: Uncollected Writings, 1932–1975, published in 1979, a year after her death, and now out of print. It’s become a commonplace to praise a reporter’s “gift for the illuminating detail,” which, for conflict reporters in particular, usually means a paragraph of densely factual information with a sentence at the end describing a child’s discarded shoe—reminding us that war is not about statistics but human lives, et cetera. Flanner’s way with details is different: she had the confidence to allow them to speak for themselves, laying one fleeting image on top of another to show us that how people queue for the opera, or handle loose change, or tie their shoes, or speak to their children is as important, is more important, than what they look like after a bomb has been dropped on their house. In “Paris, Germany,” published in The New Yorker six months after the Nazi occupation of France, she turns a description about what time Germans eat lunch into an acute observation about the thickening atmosphere of greed and spite that hangs over the city:

The Germans, since the middle of June, have steadily advanced through the Paris shops, absorbing, munching … all the chic, charm, and gourmandise of Parisian merchandise. In order to save for themselves what little they themselves have allowed to remain in the city’s stores and warehouses, the Germans have just decreed that all the big Paris shops and department stores must close from noon till two o’clock, hours in which French employees normally go out for lunch and shopping, but also hours in which the Germans are housed in their garrisons or Speiselokale, eating their slowest, largest meal. Under the new ruling, the empty-handed French go back in to work just as the Germans, digesting, come out to buy again.

She ends the piece with a scene of German soldiers going swimming at Biarritz, marching row by row into the sea under the eye of their commanding officer, plunging under once, marching out of the sea, putting their boots back on, and filing off across the sand in lockstep. Flanner understands that elaboration is unnecessary, that the scene is striking enough to stand alone. She ends with: “These are the boots, this is the system, marching around half of France.”

In a short piece about a new production of Norma in Rome starring Italy’s newest diva, Caterina Mancini, she includes not only the information that Mancini has phenomenal range and “can sing E flat above a high C … and usually does, just for fun” but the detail that a member of her large family always accompanies her to the theater and that “she recently turned down an offer to appear in Il Trovatore in the provinces because no relative was free to go along at that moment.” In a 1949 dispatch from the Ligurian coast, she provides a thrilling breakdown of the relative conspicuousness of different sorts of wealthy Italians: the Milanese textile families are “the most obvious millionaires in all of Italy,” the aristocrats of Turin are models of restraint, the rich Genoese are “the most ornate; recently, the sunburned wives paraded on the beach in silken décolletage, blazing with jewels.”

The problem with quoting from her work like this is that it imparts no sense of the cumulative force of her writing, the way her patient layering of detail flowers into a world. I have raked over her profile of Adolf Hitler several times, trying without success to extract a neat set of quotes that would give some indication of what makes the piece so remarkable—she manages somehow to portray him both as a flesh-and-blood person with likes and dislikes, who once had parents and who was once a baby, and as the terrifying animating spirit of a country going mad, a poison that has leeched into the water supply. Same thing with Flanner’s dispatches from the Nuremberg trials, or her profiles of Bette Davis and Thomas Mann. Perhaps it’s enough to say that no one writes like this anymore, and that I wish they would.


Rosa Lyster lives in London.

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