BOOKS

A passionate friendship

DARLINGHISSIMA: LETTERS TO A FRIEND By Janet Flanner

MARK ABLEY December 2 1985
BOOKS

A passionate friendship

DARLINGHISSIMA: LETTERS TO A FRIEND By Janet Flanner

MARK ABLEY December 2 1985

A passionate friendship

BOOKS

DARLINGHISSIMA: LETTERS TO A FRIEND By Janet Flanner

(Random House, 510 pages, $35.50)

From 1925 to 1975 Janet Flanner gave readers of The New Yorker the most stylish and perceptive reports about Europe’s culture, manners and politics that any American has written. Under the pen name of “Genêt,” she interpreted the French with a cool, astute sympathy and a feline grace.

In retrospect, her “Letter from Paris” dispatches leave the domain of magazine writing and enter the realm of literature. But until her death in 1978 at the age of 86, she remained a private woman. Darlinghissima, a selection of her love letters to Natalia Danesi Murray, allows Flanner’s many admirers to see the vibrant yet reticent personality behind the cryptic pseudonym.

Introducing the book,

Murray describes their relationship as a “passionate friendship”; another word for it might be “marriage.”

The couple met in 1940 in New York, where Flanner had moved after the outbreak of the Second World War. Murray, an Italian journalist, was making regular broadcasts to her oppressed homeland. The women, both divorced, shared a home for nearly four years until “Genêt” returned to Paris. Darlinghissima is Murray’s choice of more than 400 elegant, provocative letters from their long separations.

Flanner’s fascination with politics gives the book a public resonance in addition to its personal force. Her letters began amid the nervous exhilaration of wartime and continued through the disillusionments of the Vietnam War. Although she remained a true daughter of Indianapolis in her distaste for snobbery and monarchy, she fought a constant love-hate war with her country. Flanner once described Americans as “the silly elderly battlefaced children of the world, playing with slogans of morality.”

Letters were the means by which the American in Europe and the Italian in America intensified their love. Flan-

ner’s writing has a charming freshness, a lack of self-consciousness. She often played with language and ideas as though the words themselves might compensate for the absence of her outgoing friend. “I have read your letter,” she wrote with the poetry of anguish, “until it is wearing like old silk. Send me another, fresh, so I may

tear it to dear shreds, too.” Darlinghissima may acquire a measure of fame for reasons Flanner would have loathed. First, it may pin her down forever as a “lesbian writer.” She was a lesbian, just as she was an art lover, a heavy smoker, a quiet moralist and a superb writer. Second, her observations of the rich and famous, including Truman Capote and Ingrid Bergman, lend the book an occasional resemblance to a high-toned People magazine. But its real value lies elsewhere: in the wisdom and wit of Flanner’s reflections and in the portrait of a love celebrated with eloquence and joy. Flanner’s brand of sexuality matters a lot less than her rare devotion. “Thank you for your heart,” she told Murray in 1949. “Please hold mine in your hands.”

MARK ABLEY