Janet (Genet) Flanner on Her 'Pets' from 50 Years in Paris (de Gaulle Wasn't One of Them)
“Genius is immediate, but talent takes time.” Janet Flanner savors her words, adding—”That’s very good. Put it down. Get it in print!” Described 30 years ago by Gertrude Stein as a dead ringer for “the Indian head on the buffalo nickel,” Janet Flanner, The New Yorker’s famed Paris correspondent (under the byline “Genet”) for half a century, changed very little. Her features are perhaps more craggy, her nose more questing, while her eyes—”seldom reacting, always registering”—retain their old inquisitive luster. Born in Indianapolis of Irish-Quaker parents, Janet Flanner still vividly remembers, as a child of 7, sitting on Booker T. Washington’s lap. “He was a very homely man,” she says, “but kind.” Kindness has been the leitmotiv of her life. Literary friends, including the caustic Mary McCarthy, call her “generous, humorous and wise. “Pundits from Alexander Woollcott to Walter Lippmann have called her prose “pure fire” and “the mastery of progressive perspective.” Currently wintering in Manhattan, Janet Flanner will celebrate her eighty-third birthday in March and later in the spring will publish her eighth book, London Was Yesterday—1934-1939. Recently she talked with Patrick O’Higgins of PEOPLE.
How do you like living in New York compared to Paris?
Nothing’s more natural. After all, I am an American who just happened to live abroad. I hear that America is going through a sad period. Rubbish! Such silly rumors disfigure the face of our country. Recession is a temporary thing, like adenoids. It can only lead to recovery. As for France and the French, I know I’ve improved, but I’m not so sure they have. France is a very old, civilized and impossible country. It really takes great peace of mind to live there.
For the past 50 years, you have always lived in Paris hotels. Why?
I’m a hermit crab. I believe in traveling light. I have few possessions and fewer clothes. I never wanted a home. The Continental in Paris, where the Empress Eugenie once lived, suited me. I had a single room there under the roof and could see the Tuileries gardens where Louis XVI took his last walk with his little son before being guillotined. The king said to him, “I think it’s going to be a nice day after all.” The old Continental has now become the new Intercontinental Hotel and a place for city-bred buccaneers. I prefer the Ritz, which is a rather ill-developed country hotel set in a garden in the middle of Paris. My window is level with the trees. It gives me a rural feeling.
William Shawn, your editor at The New Yorker, claims that you are “a national monument.”
How kind of him. He’s really the nicest of men. Why, he even blushes when you look at him. I am a monument. Some people have even called me a “romantic monument.” But prose, or the creating of prose, to which I have dedicated a lifetime, isn’t a romantic occupation. What’s romantic is my attitude.
Your writing has been described as “enriched with mordant wit and perceptive journalistic accuracy.”
I’ve tried. It hasn’t always been easy. I’m a nitpicker. Writing, contrary to what a lot of readers think, isn’t just a question of knocking out words. The thoughts count just as much. So does the information and the rhythm. Most young writers are so slapdash. They think a tape recorder will do it for them. It doesn’t. If something doesn’t work, I start again from scratch—using the same thought but new words.
How did you start writing?
I took to it like a duck takes to water—tentatively at first and then with a wild abandon. I first wanted to be an actress, but Harold Ross, who founded The New Yorker in 1925, asked me to write a letter from Paris telling what was going on—but from the French point of view. He was truly the greatest of editors, with a passion for words that doesn’t exist today. Do you know he would sit back in his office chair and have his secretary read to him aloud from the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus? “Keep on, keep on!” he would murmur. She might have been reading him erotic poetry!
How did you get the name Genet?
It sprang from Harold Ross. He was deeply in love with the English language, but had none other. One theory is that he somehow thought that Genet was the French for Janet. It has stood me well. Ross once asked me, when I had proved my worth, to sign my own name, but after one column he cabled back, “Looks so peculiar, your name. Mind being Genet forever?”
During the ’20s and ’30s you knew and wrote about practically everyone making a mark in Paris. Looking back, who were your particular pets?
I like the word “pet.” It’s so equivocal. Most of them were unknown—the cafe owner where I ate, the lady who sold me muguet—and Hemingway. He was a pet and the most generous of men. When short of funds, a fate that can happen to the best of people, he would borrow a hundred francs from the barmen of the Ritz, give it to them as a tip and promise, “I’ll pay it back to you next week.” Gertrude Stein was another pet. Her laughter was the most warming human sound I have ever heard—like the rumble of a country stove. De Gaulle certainly wasn’t a pet, but no one will ever equal him. He was the first French politician to allow the small ambitions of the French people to truly flower. He altered the pattern of society.
How did de Gaulle change the French?
By creating his own society—based on himself and his immense ego. Success and failure is all a question of ego. Nixon might have succeeded, but his ego required those tapes to prove to himself that he was the all-powerful. That was his downfall. Americans are overfond of the wonders of technology. Technology may be our downfall.
Who was the most Parisian of your friends?
Besides my laundress, a saucy woman, only one was really Parisienne: Chanel. She was an angry whippet of a woman who couldn’t stop talking but somehow got things done. Even when her mouth was full of pins as she worked, she would chat on, spraying them around the room like shrapnel.
If you hadn’t picked France, what country would tickle your fancy now?
Any Southern country or city near the Mediterranean. I find it such a useful body of water. Besides, I’m fond of anything that comes out of the sea—and that includes sailors.
Are you a gourmet?
No, I’m a gourmand. I have a good healthy appetite. My favorite dish is chicken wings. It’s the most refined part of the creature. That, with a brace of hot Irish potatoes cooked with their skins, sprinkled with fresh parsley, ladled with butter, and I’m a happy octogenarian. A glass of white wine helps too—two glasses, shall we say, for the sake of even numbers.
What about Picasso?
Picasso, of course, was Spanish. He was warmth itself and a welcoming spirit. But I found him tiring. He could stare so. It was unnerving. Of course, genius is unnerving.
In your new book, London Was Yesterday—1934-1939, you write about Queen Mary and Mrs. Simpson, who became the Duchess of Windsor. What were your feelings about these ladies?
Queen Mary was unique. She represented the infallibility of anointed sovereigns. Why, do you know she never held a telephone to her ear in her life! A footman always did so for her. And from three paces she yelled into the apparatus. The Duchess of Windsor has obviously spent all of her life on the telephone. We are always nice to one another. She is essentially a kind person—but one who accidentally pushed a king off his throne. Queen Mary epitomized the word duty. By the time Mrs. Simpson came along it had lost much of its meaning. Duty, dutiful, duty-bound, duty free!
How do you feel about women’s lib?
Hurray for it, I say! Anything that will advance women to something more than equality calls for my full applause. Women need to have their superiority acknowledged. I’m not speaking about things like weight lifting. But it’s the women who have the babies, who keep their little noses dry, run the home. I know of an ideal couple. There should be more of them today. He makes the beds and she’s a carpenter.
You were never married?
Oh, yes I was, but it’s so long ago that the details of the union escape me. I am essentially a single woman who has, on occasion, enjoyed lasting friendships.
As perhaps the dean of American correspondents, what do you think of your competitors today?
James Reston and Tom Wicker of the New York Times are truly excellent. They have style and stylishness—a rare combination. I dote on Ada Louise Huxtable [also of the Times]. She’s pithy. But my current favorite is Walter Cronkite. He really lays the news on the line. That’s what journalism is all about.
What do you look forward to?
A woman my age doesn’t make any plans for the future. I am currently writing a very involved piece about Cézanne. Little is known about him. He was a lonely, ugly man who reduced beauty to essentials. I’ll go on writing until I must stop. Oh, look! The sun’s just come out. But there isn’t really enough of it for us to gossip about.