January 15, 1990 12:00 PM

by Brenda Wineapple

Long before most of us who are 30-some-thing or older scraped together the fare to make that first visit to Paris, we knew its more colorful landmarks, side streets and personalities, thanks to journalist Janet Flanner. For 50 years, using the nom de plume Genêt, she wrote the New Yorker’s, “Letter from Paris.” Her columns, later collected in three volumes, including Paris Was Yesterday, were snappily written, detailed accounts of whatever was culturally, artistically and politically au courant in the French capital.

Flanner, who died in 1978 at age 86, came to depend upon cloaking herself as Genêt. The androgynous pseudonym—picked by New Yorker editor Harold Ross—was both the key to her success and perhaps her undoing as a writer. After adopting the Genêt persona in 1925, Flanner published an autobiographical novel, The Cubical City, in 1926 under her own name but never again wrote an extended piece of fiction or nonfiction. Biographer Wineapple, who teaches English at Union College, says Flanner suspected the pen name “kept her not only from confronting her real thoughts and feelings but also from taking risks.”

With good reason, actually. Flanner was a lesbian at a time when one didn’t admit to that life-style in print. Born in Indianapolis to an upper-class family, she moved to New York in her mid 20s with her husband, a banker. She fell in with a bohemian crowd and found herself more attracted to women than to her husband. She left him in 1921 for Solita Solano, a fellow journalist, and the two women moved to Paris, where they became part of a community of expatriate lesbians, including writer Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. By 1925, Flanner had landed what turned out to be a lifelong gig with the then fledgling New Yorker. Other than living in the United States during World War II and the decade before her death, she stayed in Paris. “If you don’t go home after 10 years, you know you’re hooked,” Flanner wrote.

If this carefully researched, agreeably written biography is oddly flat, it’s mostly Flanner’s fault—if one can be blamed for not being a scintillating enough biographical subject. She wrote matchlessly about exciting times and people, but her own life, other than her sexual bent, was decidedly bourgeois. Our advice: Skim the bio, linger with Flanner’s own pieces. (Tick-nor & Fields, $24.95)

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