Janet Flanner was born and educated in Indianapolis, Indiana. After a year abroad, she entered the University of Chicago in 1914, yearning for culture and experience. Returning to Indianapolis after little more than a year, she took a position as an art and drama columnist for the Indianapolis Star.
By early 1918, tired of life in conventional Indianapolis, she married William Lane Rehm and moved with him to New York’s Greenwich Village. Her early years gave her a lifelong distaste for conservative morality and provided a springboard for her ultimate career in journalism.
In New York in the years after World War I, Flanner mingled with a bohemian crowd. She met Harold Ross and the Algonquin Circle and was well-liked for her witty conversation. These years in Greenwich Village are the subject of her 1926 novel, The Cubical City.
During this time, she realized that she was physically attracted to women. She fell in love with actress and writer Solita Solano. New York City came to seem increasingly restrictive for Flanner. The opportunity to escape came when Solita was offered a job traveling for National Geographic.
In 1921 Flanner left New York with Solita, in search of a new life that would offer her a freedom from sexual restrictions that was not available in America. The two women traveled and wrote their way through Europe, settling in Paris in late 1922. Solita was selling her travel articles, Flanner had a small family income, and their money went far in postwar Europe. Flanner took her place in the world of expatriate Paris, frequenting the Deux Magots café, working on The Cubical City, and practicing the art of living among the literary celebrities of the Left Bank.
In 1925 Harold Ross asked her to write a “Letter from Paris” for his new magazine, The New Yorker. He wanted a series of letters similar to the ones she had been writing to his wife, Jane Grant, a friend from the Greenwich Village years. Descriptive, witty, and filled with news of Paris, theater openings, and the expatriate community, these letters were signed with the pseudonym Genêt, a name coined by Ross. They appeared regularly in The New Yorker for the next fifty years.
Writing the letters from 1925 through 1939, Flanner developed her style and powers of observation. The letters provide a contemporary record of experiences and events of the period. Through the 1920’s, the letters discussed the concerns of the expatriate community in Paris for a New York audience. She seemed to know everyone, including Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. By the 1930’s, Flanner’s point of view had become more European. She traveled widely on assignments for The New Yorker, writing profiles and a “Letter from London.” In the Paris letters leading up to the occupation of Paris, politics and literature, and the parallels between them, became her subjects.
The 1930’s were years of self-examination for Flanner, as she found a professional commitment to journalism. She learned to make her Paris letters serve her literary ambitions. She found her voice, her method, and her subject. She became a skillful political analyst and re-created characters and events with a witty, understated style that made life in Paris immediate to American readers. Flanner left Paris in 1939 after England and France entered World War II. She spent the next few years writing about occupied France from The New Yorker offices in New York. In 1940 An American in Paris, a collection of her profiles, was published. In late 1944 she returned to France as an official war correspondent for The New Yorker.
Returning to a devastated Europe, she resumed the “Letter from Paris,” describing the difficulties of daily life. Throughout the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, she traveled in France and Germany, covering the Nazi war trials, the rebuilding of Europe, and French politics. Until she was well into her seventies, she continued to travel between New York and Paris and throughout Europe, always hard at work covering current events for The New Yorker.
Flanner was increasingly recognized for her years of careful documentation, elegant prose, and passionate commentary. Collections of her profiles and letters for The New Yorker were published as Men and Monuments, Paris Journal: 1944-1965, Paris Journal: 1965-1971, and Paris Was Yesterday, 1925-1930.
Even as her health began to fail, she continued to work and travel. In 1975 she wrote her last Paris letter at the age of eighty-two. She died in 1978, having lived and written long enough to see her own record of culture and current events become history. Janet Flanner’s gift was to analyze and react to news, to place events in context, and to make history immediate to the reader. She kept her private life, including her lesbianism, separate from her public career. She elevated journalism to a literary form through her attention to detail and style, her wit, and her lively understatement.