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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Writing under the pen name of Genêt, Janet Flanner was The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent from 1925 until her retirement in 1975. Thus, she was able to witness and record her reactions to many of the great events of the times, including World War II and its aftermath; the Nuremberg trials; the McCarthy years; the Korean and Vietnam wars; and the student rebellions of the 1960’s. In addition, she knew well or was acquainted with various literary celebrities, especially those attached to the Paris scene after World War I, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, Kay Boyle, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and those who visited Paris after World War II—Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Carson McCullers, to name but a few.

Flanner’s writings brought her critical acclaim and recognition, including membership in the American Institute of Arts and Letters and the French Legion of Honor. She published eight books before her death in 1978, including Paris Journal 1945-1965, which won for her the National Book Award. Nevertheless, she was a private person, except to those who knew her well, almost anonymous, hiding behind the pseudonym she used or the imposing but masked figure of a celebrated writer.

Probably Natalia Danesi Murray knew her best. Their friendship lasted from 1940, when they first met, until Janet Flanner’s death thirty-eight years later. Although not as well-known as Janet Flanner, Murray also had a distinguished career as a broadcast journalist and as a book publisher. In 1938, she began broadcasting daily to Italy for the Voice of America. She spent several of the war years in combat zones and, after the war, became the head of the first United States branch of the Arnoldo Mondadori Editori publishing company of Milan. She worked also in other publishing ventures.

As Murray notes in her introduction to the volume, she and Flanner were in some ways interesting counterparts. Both were expatriates—Flanner, an American but living most of her life in Paris, trying to explain to American readers what it was like on the Continent; and Murray, Italian by birth but spending most of her life in New York City, trying to bridge the cultural gaps in her own ways. Flanner was Quaker; Murray Catholic; neither was religious in an orthodox way. Both were divorced. Murray had a son, Bill. There was a ten-year difference in their ages, Flanner being the elder. Both were devoted to their work and to personal ideals of freedom and commitment.

There was one important difference. Flanner left her home desiring to escape family. She lived in hotels, had few material possessions, and cared not a jot for close family connections. Murray, on the other hand, had never been without a home. Her connections with her own mother (an early feminist and the first Italian female correspondent on the Italian front during World War I) and with her two sisters and her son remained strong, even intimate. Murray apparently had a need to make a home. Flanner did not. Although neither Murray in her commentary nor Flanner’s letters say directly, these differing attitudes toward home were probably the reason why these two women, alike in many ways and having a strong attachment to each other, remained apart during most of the thirty-eight years of their relationship. It is possible also that the separation caused by the differing attitudes is what kept the relationship vital, always interesting, always being renewed, and long-enduring.

Forced to remain away from Paris, Flanner did share Murray’s home from 1940 to 1944, and it is in the letters written after Murray left for the war zone (with Flanner remaining behind in Murray’s apartment) that Flanner seems most to miss her companion’s presence. Flanner writes about the beauty of the flowers in the rooftop garden and the verbena planted in the tub with the one barren tree. Yet she quickly stops to apologize, noting that when she should be...

(The entire section is 1,712 words.)