A Good Writer

Janet Flanner's World: Uncollected Writings 1932-1975

edited by Irving Drutman, introduction by William Shawn
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 368 pp., $12.95

The Cubical City

by Janet Flanner
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1926; reprinted 1974, University of Illinois Press, $8.95

An American in Paris

by Janet Flanner
Simon & Schuster

Pétain: The Old Man of France

by Janet Flanner
Simon & Schuster

Men and Monuments

by Janet Flanner
Harper & Bros

Paris Journal: Vol. I, 1944-1965

by Janet Flanner, edited by William Shawn
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $5.95, paperback edition (paper)

Paris Journal: Vol. II, 1965-1971

by Janet Flanner, edited by William Shawn
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $4.95, paperback edition (paper)

Paris Was Yesterday, 1925-1939

by Janet Flanner, edited by Irving Drutman
Penguin, $2.95

London Was Yesterday, 1934-1939

by Janet Flanner, edited by Irving Drutman
Viking Press

Citizen Genêt came to the United States in 1793 as minister from France’s First Republic. Though on account of political indiscretions a recall was asked for by President Washington in that same year, he actually stayed on as a resident and married here. During his short diplomatic tenure he had sent home letters loaded with information. In 1925 the late Janet Flanner, already resident in France’s Third Republic, adopted the revolutionary Citizen’s name for signing a fortnightly letter from Paris to The New Yorker. Why she took on a pseudonym for reporting is not clear, save possibly to distinguish a journalistic function from a literary, since she was already author of a novel, to be published the next year.

Some years later, easily thirty, when the present witness referred to Miss Flanner as an “ace journalist,” she took umbrage at the term. “I am not an ‘ace journalist,’ ” she said, “I am a writer, a good writer.” Well, by that time a good writer she was, a very good one; and a fine reporter too, imaginative in her coverage and alert in phraseology. If the snippets of early work quoted from The New Yorker in Paris Was Yesterday are typical, she had started off as a journalistic writer of concision with a bright carrying power, whereas her literary style in The Cubical City, though still perhaps readable, is weighed down by descriptive overwriting.

Actually, if one reads the books in something like reverse order beginning with the most recently published, Janet Flanner’s World (or better still, the two volumes of Paris Journal, which cover the years 1944 to 1971), it becomes clear that their reporting, though vivid, became substantial only in the early 1930s. An exception would be the short profile of Isadora Duncan from 1927. Then in 1933 the Flanner account of how two housemaids of Le Mans, the Papin sisters, murdered their lady and threw her remains about before going at last upstairs to bed together—the original events on which Jean Genet later based his play Les Bonnes—is crime reporting unquestionably brilliant. And so were her extensive 1934 reports of the Alexander Stavisky case, a swindling affair which led to his assassination (almost certainly by the police) and to the bloody firings on February 6 into a mass of citizens on the Place de la Concorde (also by the police and with no warning by trumpet-call).

Another complex swindling story, that of the famous Madame Hanau, was written up in 1935. In the meantime Flanner had told about French crimes (not always in The New Yorker) with such liveliness that a publisher asked her for a whole book of them. She declined on the ground that Americans might have trouble believing that “in France nobody ever murders anybody he doesn’t know.”

With the 1935 full-length portrait from London of H.R.H. Queen Mary and the 1936 profile from Berlin of Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler, Janet Flanner became visible as an almost political observer—well informed, picturesque as to language,…

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