Paris Was Yesterday
by Janet Flanner (1972)
Janet Flanner:
Paris Was Yesterday:

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Janet Flanner

Janet Flanner
Paris Was Yesterday: 1925-1939
Viking Press, New York, 1972

Introduction: (pp. vii-xxiv)

    We had settled in the small hotels on the Paris Left Bank near the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, itself perfectly equipped with a large corner café called Les Deux Magots and an impressive twelfth-century Romanesque church, with its small garden of old trees, from whose branches the metropolitan blackbirds sang at dawn, audible to me in my bed close by in the rue Bonaparte. Though unacquainted with each other, as compatriots we soon discovered our chance similarity. We were a literary lot.

    Each of us aspired to become a famous writer as soon as possible. After the New York publication of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, he became that first and foremost famous expatriate American writer. When I look back on the stir created by his individual style of writing, what stands out in my memory is the fact that his heroes, like Ernest himself, were of outsized masculinity even in small matters. In his writing, his descriptions of the color of deep sea water beside his boat or of the trout's fins in the pool where he angled were like reports from the pupil of his eyes transferred by his pen onto his paper. As a special gift Ernest had a physical style of writing with his senses that was uniquely his own literary creation yet which soon influenced American male fiction-writing. (p. vii)

    The hearth and home of the Left Bank American literary colony after 1920 turned out to be Shakespeare and Company, the extraordinary rue de l'Odéon bookstore founded by the American Sylvia Beach. She had gone to Paris in 1917 during the worst war in French history because, as she said, she "had a particular interest in contemporary French writing."... Shortly after Sylvia had opened her shop... two American women visited, Gertrude Stein and Miss Alice B. Toklas. Miss Stein was the first subscriber to Sylvia's lending library, for which she wrote a jocular little advertisement, sent to the rest of us Americans in the quarter, to incite us also to subscribe, which most of us did. (pp. viii-x)

    The publication in toto of Ulysses in 1922 was indubitably the most exciting, important, historic single literary event of the early Paris expatriate literary colony. Through portions of it that we had seen in New York printed in their Little Review by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, many of us in Paris knew the scope of the opus— that chaotic fictional masterpiece-mixture of single Celtic genius, of Anglican erudition, of Irish character analyses and Dublin night-and-day thoughts and events, culminating in the final revelatory concupiscent monologue by Molly Bloom, linear ancestress for the merely monotonous permissive lubricity that has been printed in our time in the recent 1960s... In its unique qualities, in 1922 it burst over us, young in Paris, like an explosion in print whose words and phrases fell upon us like a gift of tongues, like a less than holy Pentecostal experience. (p. x)

    to accomplish her publishing feat she became Joyce's secretary, editor, impresario, and banker, and had to hire outsiders to run her shop. She organized international and local subscription lists for the book to help finance its printing. After typesetting had begun at Dijon, in a kind of postscript ecstasy of creation, Joyce scribbled some 90,000 words more on the costly, repeatedly reset proofs, making a 400,000 word volume, of which Sylvia managed to have two copies printed for his 40th birthday on February 2, 1922— one for him, one for her. (p. xi)

    The French painters in Paris frequented Montparnasse and sat on the terrace of the Döme and the Select. André Derain was the only artist I knew who frequented the Deux Magots. He was a big, well-dressed, countrified fellow who always wore a citified felt hat which he would ceremoniously lift to me, with a bow, as he passed my table. The beautiful Max Ernst and his beautiful wife also occasionally graced the Deux Magots terrace. The really great artist visitor to the Saint-Germain quarter was Picasso, but much later. After 1945, he began coming to Café de Flore at night. He always sat at the second table in front of the main door, with Spanish friends, sipping his one small bottle of mineral water. (p. xv)

    Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had made a special social category of themselves and their pleasures, always more in the south of France than in Paris, though their famous dinner party on the houseboat anchored in the Seine was the only American event that achieved a kind of historical importance, almost as if it had been French. When Scott was in Paris he had an eccentric, friendly habit of coming to my hotel to discuss literature at two o'clock in the morning, either with me or with Margaret Anderson, if she happened to be stopping there at the time... he seemed always to be suffering under the strain of his own genius, which did not burgeon fully until he wrote The Great Gatsby. Only Scott had realized that the bootlegger Gatsby represented the perfect picaresque American figure in that extraordinary alcoholic era. In his writing, Scott had the true tragic sense. To my mind, he alone created the pure and perfect anti-hero, the criminal lover defrauded of his love. (pp. xx-xix)

    A completely new type of American theatrical entertainment, with a new imported coloring, had just opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It was calledLa Revue Nègre. It was so incomparably novel an element in French public pleasures that its star, hitherto unknown, named Josephine Baker, remains to me now like a still-fresh vision, sensual, exciting and isolated in my memory today, almost fifty years later. so here follows what I should have written then about her appearance, as a belated tribute. (p. xx)

    She made her entry entirely nude except for a pink flamingo feather between her limbs; she was being carried upside down and doing the split on the shoulder of a black giant. Midstage he paused, and with his long fingers holding her basket-wise around the waist, swung her in a slow cartwheel to the stage floor, where she stood, like his magnificent discarded burden, in an instant of complete silence. She was an unforgettable female ebony statue. A scream of salutation spread through the theater. Whatever happened next was unimportant. The two specific elements had been established and were unforgettable— her magnificent dark body, a new model that to the French proved for the first time that black was beautiful, and the acute response of the white masculine public in the capital of hedonism of all Europe— Paris. Within a half hour of the final curtain on opening night, the news and meaning of her arrival had spread by the grapevine up to the cafés on the Champs-Élysées, where the witnesses of her triumph sat over their drinks excitedly repeating their report of what they had just seen— themselves unsatiated in he retelling, the listeners hungry for further fantastic truths. So tremendous was the public acclaim that for the first week's run the cast and routine of the performance were completely disorganized... Most of us in Paris who had seen the opening night went back for the next two or three nights as well; they were never twice alike. Somewhere along the development, either then or it might have been a year or so later, as Josephine's career ripened, she appeared with her famous festoon of bananas worn like a savage skirt around her hips. She was the established new American star for Europe. (pp. xx-xxi)

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