BOOK REVIEW / Above politics, beyond the pale: Genet: A Biography of Janet Flanner by Brenda Wineapple - Pandora/HarperCollins pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
'WHEN good Americans die they go to Paris,' wrote Oscar Wilde. Many can't wait for death to get there, and ever since the days of Benjamin Franklin Americans both good and bad have striven to pitch their tents on the Champs Elysees.

The American Janet Flanner settled in Paris in 1922 with her lover, the journalist Solita Solano. Three years later, the recently founded New Yorker asked Flanner to contribute a weekly letter from Paris of about a thousand words. She complied, and over the next 50 years, mostly under the pen-name 'Genet', her letters from Paris, and sometimes from other European cities, became a formidable success. She met everyone, from Nancy Cunard to Hemingway, and wrote memorable portraits of celebrities: Malraux, De Gaulle, Picasso. Towards the end of her life both France and the United States acknowledged her half- century of chronicles, the former with a legion d'honneur, the latter with the National Book Award for her collected Paris Journal.

Read today, Flanner's accounts - of events ranging from Josephine Baker's debut in 1925 to the bonfires of May '68 - show flashes of journalistic genius, and always that peculiar sense of immediacy which readers of the New Yorker came to expect. Left at that, Flanner might have been remembered as a competent journalist, dutiful heir to such classic gossips as Mme de Stael and Fanny Burney. After Brenda Wineapple's exhaustive biography, however, it is difficult to revisit Flanner's pieces objectively: Wineapple's Genet is a pretentious, self-centred, malicious, whining character, rapacious and insecure. Anything else? Ah, yes: she was also a slipshod writer. Her terse style, it seems, was largely the creation of her New Yorker editors, Robert Ross, Kathrine White and Wallace Shawn. 'We edit her obscurities out,' White once explained.

Flanner had little patience with 'common people', who are usually more concerned 'with the price of beans than with art'. She believed that throughout history most women, for all their leisure time, had not created 'anything of either utilitarian or of artistic value'. She romanticised the French peasants, but poked fun at their idea of 'progress', such as lighting their churches with electricity 'instead of the prettier candles they used at home'. She regarded the Wall Street crash of 1929 'as comeuppance for the fat American parvenu', not for her.

Politically, Flanner seems also to have been nave. Her excuse was that she followed Hemingway's advice: to write the way you see it, because 'there is never any other story'. And for Flanner seeing, however defectively, was certainly believing. In 1934, she assured her readers that in France there were no fascists, and that Fascism was 'only a term, usually a reproach, against the veterans and youthful patriotic societies'. In 1935, touring Nazi Germany, she promised her family that she'd be out of danger since she'd 'be sure to stay away from Jews'. Wineapple argues that 'in all likelihood she wouldn't have considered this remark anti-Semitic'; after all, 'she had protested Viennese anti-Semitism in the pages of the New York Times'.

When she was working on her profile of Hitler for the New Yorker in 1936 she was aware, says Wineapple, of the Nazi persecution of Jews but this, like other 'political' aspects of Nazi Germany, was 'precisely the kind of issue she wanted to omit from her profile', insisting that she was 'above politics'. Flanner declared that Hermann Goering was 'the most liberal patron of the arts in Germany today', and, adds Wineapple wrily - 'she wasn't being ironic'. But three years later even Flanner was finding Nazism 'reprehensible'; in October 1939, she and Solita set off to New York, abandoning another lover, Noel Murphy, who felt that her place was in Paris, helping to evacuate handicapped people. Flanner never acknowledged Noel's sense of duty, and later expressed anger at her decision to stay on.

In fact, Flanner seldom seems to have grasped people's true feelings and motives. When she met an old friend after the Occupation, she laughed at his cynical stories of life in France under the Germans. As the friend got up to leave, bowing and kissing her hand, he looked at her and explained: 'It was not funny. None of it. It was horrible.' One doubts Flanner understood, even then. At the Nuremberg trials, which she was covering for the New Yorker, she shocked several women reporters by 'asking them to name which Nazi defendant they would have slept with had it been necessary'.

Only during the McCarthy witchhunts did Flanner show a more sensitive side. The writer Kay Boyle and her husband were under scrutiny by the United States government for 'un-American activities'. The New Yorker editors, much to their discredit, did little to support Boyle, who was one of their own reporters. Flanner offered to testify in her favour and, as a result, Wallace Shawn told Flanner that 'her action had jeopardised the reputation of the magazine'. Flanner, we are told, wept but did not give up her post. 'You know what I want to do,' she said to Boyle afterwards. 'I want to resign. But you have a husband, six children, a home. I just have the New Yorker. Let's never speak of this again.' Boyle said they never did.

When the end comes, it is heralded by the sad deaths of contemporaries. Hemingway shot himself in July 1961; Noel spent the last years of her life paralysed and bed-ridden; Nancy Cunard became insane, burned her manuscripts on the carpet of a small Paris hotel, crawled to the street and died in a hospital ward in 1965; 10 years later Flanner returned to America and left Solita to die alone, aged 87, in Paris; Flanner herself died in New York on 7 November 1978.

Wineapple ends the biography with the epitaph Flanner had wished for herself: 'When I die,' she had said, recalling her good deed towards Kay Boyle, 'let it not be said I wrote for the New Yorker for 50 years. Let it be said that once I stood by a friend.' The accent, as Wineapple's book makes clear, is on 'once'.