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Thursday, 12 March 2015

Janet Flanner

Hotel Intercontinental
PARIS [WC News Service] -- For more than thirty years, The New Yorker, arguably America's most respected middle-brow general circulation magazine, surveyed this city and French life from a 12 feet by 15 feet perch overlooking the Palais Garnier, the wonderful Beaux Arts structure that houses the Paris Opera.
That is, until 1978, when 86-year-old Janet Flanner, the magazine's Paris correspondent known by her sobriquet 'Genêt,' who had occupied the pocket-sized room, suffered a fatal heart attack during one of her periodic visits to New York. It was, as they say, an end of an era.

Not, necessarily, the era that might most readily come to mind, however. Given, that Flanner's 'Letter from Paris' spanned more than half of the 20th century, her era, of course, was shared with the likes of Lost-Generation Left Bankers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and later-day French literary luminaries like Camus, Sartre, and Malraux. And, yes, these gallants and many more were long gone by the time Genêt -- Gen-NET was close enough to a Franco variant of 'Janet,' Flanner thought -- 'posted' her last Paris letter.

The Flanner I remember -- I met her briefly in Paris in 1967 when I was living in Paris as a student -- was a disagreeable, cranky lesbian who embodied the last gasps of another era -- one in which creative and/or rich American homosexuals (repressed back home) fled to Europe to express their sexuality in a more tolerant society. Thankfully, for New Yorker readers, Flanner, born in the then-insufferable backwater of Indianapolis in 1892, decided to move with her girlfriend, Solita Solano, in 1921 to Paris, four years later launching her column for then-new upstart magazine back home. Her reporting was polished, detailed, and, in the signature New Yorker manner, exhibiting a worldly insouciance. And fair-minded and mild-mannered, hardly  the work of the cantankerous woman I interviewed at the student event in which she and Mary McCarthy were featured.

When I was in the French capital last week I experienced a Flanner 'moment' when I passed the Hotel Intercontinental at 2 rue Scribe, the digs where the writer and author (Paris Was Yesterday, among others) maintained her 180-square foot garret. A posh one, to be sure. The Intercontinental, constructed in 1878 and originally known simply as the Continental, is and was a five-star home away from home. That is, if Second Empire monumental is your idea of home. (The hotel features more than 500 rooms and suites).

Of and on, Flanner lived in other hotels; they suited her taste for traveling light, having earlier been a resident of the Hotel St.-Germain until 1949, when she moved from Left Bank to the Continental, on the Right Bank. Indeed, later, she even moved to the Ritz. But, complaining about exorbitant costs, she soon returned to her true home, the Continental.

Katherine Anne Porter described Flanner's room as 'charming' with 'a real elegance.' But she admitted to a 'baffled admiration' of how Flanner, surrounded by her possessions, could 'still have room to move about, keep a coherent and pretty appearance, and even have the simple courage to keep things cleared out!' 

Her New Yorker editor, Gardner Botsford, explained that Flanner actually lived in the hotel's public rooms, holding court each afternoon in the hotel bar. As for dining, there was always room service, yet another amenity of hotel life.