Our Unsung Hoosier Heroine: Janet Flanner: a.k.a. “Genet”

Janet Flanner & Ernest Hemingway

Every good Hoosier knows about our great war correspondent Ernie Pyle, a journalistic hero of WWII.

Few are aware that Janet Flanner, an Indianapolis woman born in 1892, who went to Mrs. Gates’ Dancing Class, swam at The Riviera Club, and attended Tudor Hall, was the war correspondent for The New Yorker magazine in WWII, and broadcast for The NBC Blue Network. From 1944-1947 she wrote from fighting fronts in Belgium, Germany and France, covered the Nuremberg trials, and reported the Nazi’s theft of art in her series “The Beautiful Spoils.” After the war she was awarded The Legion of Honor by France, and wore its bright red ribbon in her lapel the rest of her life.

It was fitting that Flanner was honored by France, for she lived there most of her adult life, writing the New Yorker’s “Letter from Paris” under the pseudonym “Genet.” One of three daughters of Frank Flanner, founder of Flanner and Buchanan mortuary, she attended the University of Chicago for a little more than a year, then began writing on movies for The Indianapolis Star before suddenly marrying Wlliam Lane Rhem, a friend from college and moving with him to New York, later confiding to a friend she had married as a way of getting out of Indianapolis. Their divorce was amicable and they remained on friendly terms.

Soon after, she met and lived with the actress and writer Solita Solano who she moved to Paris with in the legendary decade of the 1920s, and lived with until the outbreak of war in Europe. Flanner came to know and befriend the literary stars of the era – Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Sylvia Beach, the bookstore owner who used her own money to publish the first two copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses. (That bombshell novel of the literary world was then serialized in The Little Review, an avant garde literary magazine published by Margaret Anderson, another refugee from Indianapolis!)

Flanner had a sharp sense of humor as well as a sense of style, writing of the great dancer Isadora Duncan that she “came as close to founding an aesthetic renaissance as American morality would allow. . .her body, whose attic splendor once brought Greece to Kansas City and Kalamazoo. . .” was never fully appreciated in America.

Flanner lamented that Duncan’s  “ideals of human liberty” were similar to those of  Plato, yet “All they gained for Isadora were the loss of her passport and the presence of the constabulary on the stage of the Indianapolis Opera House, where the chief of police watched for sedition in the movement of Isadora’s knees.” (Paris Was Yesterday)

Flanner wrote with the same wit and grace in profiles of the great painters of the twentieth century –Picasso, Braque, Cezanne and Matisse. She wrote that Cezanne “prophesied that he could astonish Paris with an apple” and it was his paintings of apples that brought him his first fame.

Surrounded by literary luminaries, Flanner established her own niche in that pantheon of writers with her bi-weekly “Letter from Paris,” which appeared in The New Yorker over a span of fifty years. The “Letters” were collected in widely praised hard cover editions like Paris was Yesterday, and Paris Journal, which was published in 1966 and praised as “a unique narrative of a nation in transition” when it won that year’s National Book Award. Her other work published in book form includes Men and Monuments, Uncollected Writings 1932-1975, and her one novel The Cubicle City (now out of print.) Her own life story is told in Genet: a Biography of Janet Flanner by Brenda Wineapple.

“The Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam” will honor Janet Flanner in our first Bloomington show at The Blockhouse on Thursday, August 30, 7-9. Our guest will be Ball State Professor Rai Peterson, who is writing a book on Solita Solano, who Flanner lived with until the outbreak of World War II.  Sophie Faught will join me with her always incisive questioning of our guests, and we will hope to resurrect our unsung Indiana heroine of Paris in the Twenties to the consciousness of our fellow Hoosiers.

Sophie will play saxophone and lead her musicians with music of the jazz age to accompany the stories of Janet Flanner’s colorful and influential life and work.

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Emmett Till Is Back To Haunt Us

I was speaking to a class of bright students at a good university last March when I began talking about my experience covering the Emmett Till murder trial in Sumner, Mississippi in 1955. The professor, who was sitting next to me, leaned in and explained “I don’t think they know about that.”

I thought “everyone” knew about that. I thought the murder of the 14-year old Negro boy from Chicago who was tortured and killed for allegedly flirting with a white woman while visiting his grandfather in Mississippi was part of American history, like The Gettysburg address. I wrote in my article on the trial for The Nation magazine (“Justice in Sumner”) that as soon as the trial was over the town returned to its silent, solid life “that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.”

In those days we thought that racism was a problem of “The South.” We hadn’t yet awakened to the fact that it was and is an American problem, woven into the fabric of our history.

Now I imagine those students I spoke last March know about the murder, since The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson – or anyway its interview with the witness who admits she lied about the boy flirting with her – has prompted the Justice Department to re-open the case. (The book is out of stock now on Amazon.)

The two murderers who admitted their crime years later for a paid magazine article are now dead, as is almost everyone connected with the case. About five years ago I got a phone call from a man who said “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I have to speak to you because I’m writing a book about The Emmett Till murder trial, and you are the only one who was at the trial who is still alive.”

I was twenty-three at the time I covered the trial.

The caller was Devery S. Anderson, who wrote a comprehensive book on the trial called. Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movementpublished a year ago.

The New York Times reported that the case was re-opened by The Justice Department and the FBI in 2004 with exhumation of Till’s beaten body. Joyce Chiles, The Mississippi prosecutor who presented that case to the Grand Jury got no return of indictments and said recently that any truthful new testimony would not have changed the outcome.

The new attention to the case has resulted in one good thing –making the case known again to a new generation, bringing the brutality before our eyes again to match with the current shootings of blacks by police officers who are never indicted. Everyone in the courtroom that sweltering Friday sixty-three years ago knew what the verdict would be, based on knowing the hearts and minds of the jurors. The essence of the ritual drama we were watching was summed up by John Whitten, the last speaker for the defense, when he announced his faith that “every last Anglo-Saxon one of you men on this jury has the courage to set these men free.”

Evidence was not the point.

It took the Anglo-Saxon Twelve just an hour and seven minutes to set the murderers free. It took that long, one of them said, because they couldn’t figure out how to properly fill out the acquittal form to give the judge.


“It’s De-Lovely” – Cole Porter in Words and Music!


Tuesday, June 12th 6-8pm

With words and music, by writer Dan Wakefield and saxophonist Sophie Faught. Take a creative journey with Dan and Sophie as they tell through stories and music how they each, in different eras, became a musician, a writer. Their Jams give off the rhythm and excitement as well as the dedication/ inspiration of making artistic dreams come true.

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If you find this link doesn’t work, call 317-253-4900. You can also pay at the door, subject to availability.)

When author Cathy Day discovered her home town of Peru, Indiana, gave birth to more than the circus [her first novel was the highly-praised The Circus in Winter], she asked her grandmother why there was no statue or plaque or memorial of any kind to its world-famous native son, composer Cole Porter – why didn’t the town celebrate its most famous son?

At first her grandmother said “because he left” – to go to Yale, New York, Paris, and the world at large – and when further questioned, she said it was because he was “different,” meaning not a bi-sexually standardized American man of his time (circa turn of the century, coming of age in the 1920s.)

Small and thin, described as “frisky as a monkey” and “aloof,” Porter wore pink and yellow shirts with salmon ties at Yale and became a Big Man on Campus by writing the school’s  popular football songs (he was elected president of the Glee Club and a member of the legendary Whiffenpoofs.) The stolid biographer William McBrien wrote that “Porter was homosexual but not bisexual – which no doubt diminished the tensions which otherwise might have ruptured the relationship” with his wife, the wealthy socialite Linda Lee Thomas. Sometimes after their marriage she was known as “Linda Cole Porter.” A friend thought “she was not at all lesbian – she was sexless – but absolutely in love with Cole who adored her.”

Whatever the biological algebra (or calculus) of Porter’s marriage and his many male lovers, he produced some of the greatest love songs – in both words and music – of all time. Just as a sample, try these titles: “Night and Day,” “Let’s Do It,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Anything Goes,” “Begin the Beguine,”  “You’re the Top,” “All Through The Night,” “Love for Sale.” “I Get A Kick Out of You,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “Just One of Those Things,” “Easy to Love,” “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” “I  Love Paris,” “C’est Magnifique,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “In The Still of The Night,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “From Now On,” “It’s All Right With Me. . .”

Little wonder that columnist Walter Winchell called him “King Cole Porter” and TIME magazine crowned him “Man of the Year” in 1935, reporting that it was “now considered the smartest thing to know the lyric s [of his songs] by heart and rattle them off when the song is played.”

Asked what he liked, Porter said “Cats, parties, swimming, scandal, films and Peru, Indiana.”

He was often counted out but he always came back. Both his legs were crushed by a horse in a riding accident in 1937, but he endured multiple surgeries to his legs, learned to walk with canes, and wrote more Broadway musicals, Hollywood movie scores and hit songs. In WWII his music made the movie “Hollywood Canteen” a huge hit. He made Ethel Merman a star and discovered Mary Martin for the Broadway stage.

He hadn’t had a hit on Broadway for a few years and again was declared dead in the water; then in 1948 he turned Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” into his biggest hit of all, “Kiss Me Kate.”

There were more hit musicals – “Can-Can,” “Panama Hattie,” and movies “Silk Stockings,” “DuBarry Was a Lady”- studded with hit songs. He lived life to the fullest, sunning on the Riviera with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, traveling to meet the Sultan of Zanzibar, climbing Maccu Piccu, finally being honored by the state of Indiana when “Cole Porter Day” was declared in Indianapolis. This last laurel led Booth Tarkington to observe:  “Of course it’s something to be a Hoosier who became a Hollywood and Broadway celebrity; but when a New York and Broadway celebrity becomes so celebrated that he’s known in Indiana too, he has touched the mantle of fame itself.”

Porter said “if I was born twenty years earlier, I would have been an Indiana banker” – that was his father’s wish, which thankfully for the public did not come true.

What a banquet of music and story to feast on, with our star saxophonist Sophie Faught and her trio playing Porter’s songs, and novelist Cathy Day joining me to tell the story of  Linda and Cole Porter (the French called them “lecoleporteurs”) on Tuesday, June 12, at 6 pm at The Jazz Kitchen.

Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield