When Janet Flanner arrived in France in 1922, Paris was a festive hub as described by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. Countless American artists and intellectuals such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes, Nancy Cunard, and Berenice Abbott found freedom, frivolity, and cultural effervescence in the city. She moved into the Hôtel Saint-Germain-des-Prés with her partner, Solita Solano, frequented the salons of Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney, regularly visited the Shakespeare & Company bookshop run by Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, and learned French.
In 1925, the editor of the recently created New Yorker asked her to write a bimonthly letter recounting French people’s perspective of their country. Harold Ross wanted style, humor, lightheartedness, and above all, no politics. “Her columns described, in no apparent order, micro-events of Parisian life, the fashion of peach melba-colored silk stockings, the rise in champagne prices, and the strikes by bank employees,” writes Michèle Fitoussi, Janet Flanner’s biographer. “Their coherence came from her choice of writing style, a slightly removed tone that invited complicity.”
During the 1930s, Flanner grew terrified of the rise of both fascism and communist ideas in Europe. She realized that her neutral stance was no longer possible. Everything clicked into place after the crisis of February 6, 1934, when several far-right leagues organized an anti-parliamentary protest in Paris. She pushed Ross to allow her to write about the political situation in Europe and became an international correspondent. She even published a portrait of Adolf Hitler in 1935 (despite the fact they never met), describing him as a dangerous fool, half clown, half psychopath.
While she refused to go to Spain with Hemingway and Nancy Cunard, she did travel to the camps in Southern France. In Argelès-sur-Mer, Saint-Cyprien, and Amélie-les-Bains, she reported on the tragic situation of the defeated soldiers from the Spanish Civil War, confined like prisoners. After Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, she decided to move back to New York. “In seventeen years, she had accumulated enough memories for a century,” writes Michèle Fitoussi. “Of course, Paris had changed enormously in the late 1930s. It had become more Americanized and times were not always happy, but she loved the city as much as when she had arrived.”
Despite being based in New York, Flanner continued to observe France from abroad. At Ross’ request, she spent five years recounting the daily lives of French people under the Occupation, with pinpoint precision and writing under her real name. She investigated remotely by listening to the radio, poring over the press, and recording testimonies from French refugees and American expats. Corroborating her sources, she described the “despair and anguish” of some French people, the systematic pillaging, and the racial obsession of the Germans. “Like termites that have been walled in for years and on a diet, the Germans, since the middle of June, have steadily advanced through the Paris shops, absorbing, munching, consuming lingerie, perfume, bonbons, leather goods, sweet silly novelties – all the chic, charm, and gourmandise of Parisian merchandise,” she wrote in “Paris, Germany” (December 7, 1940), the first column in the recently translated collection.
Fascinated by General de Gaulle, “one of the greatest men ever to appear in French history,” she paid homage to him in “Soldats de France, Debout!” (February 1, 1941), and to Free France and its American branch, France Forever. Published in three parts, “The Escape of Mrs. Jeffries” (May 1943) portrayed the extraordinary journey to America made by Mary Reynolds, Marcel Duchamp’s former partner. In “La France et le Vieux” (February 1944), a long essay on Marshal Pétain, she donned her historian’s cap and retraced the life of the Verdun war hero, portraying the Vichy regime as a sinister comic opera. “The Vichy population,” she wrote, “grew accustomed to seeing the somnolent figure of the elderly man riding through the streets on clement afternoons in his limousine, which flew on its bonnet the official marshal’s ensign — a baton, flanked with battle axes, on a tricolor field.”
Flanner traveled back to Europe after the Liberation, eager to reunite with her American friends. But Paris had lost its soul, stolen by the Germans, and the Parisians were starving. “Genêt’s return was a historic moment for journalism,” Ross told the New Yorker staff when “Letters from Paris” reappeared. Flanner was a tireless columnist, a society figure, and a respected journalist who invented a style and a tone that she humorously described as writing while “looking out the window of a second-best Paris hotel.”
Paris est une guerre : 1940-1945 by Janet Flanner, translated from English by Hélène Cohen, forward by Michèle Fitoussi, Editions du sous-sol, 2020. 272 pages, 20 euros.
Article published in the May 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.