Queer Old Things

Image, myth, and memory in 20th-century Paris.

Alice T. Friedman is a recipient of the Arcus/Places Prize, which supports innovative public scholarship on gender, sexuality, and the built environment.

Left: Portrait of Alice B. Toklas, Carl Van Vechten, October 1949. Right: Portrait of Gertrude Stein, January 1935. [Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection]
Left: Alice B. Toklas, October 1949. Right: Gertrude Stein, January 1935, portraits by Carl Van Vechten. [Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection]

There is no queer space; there are only spaces used by queers or put to queer use. … Nothing illustrates this general principle more clearly than the tactics developed by gay men and lesbians to put the spaces of the dominant culture to queer uses.
— George Chauncey 1

Gertrude and Alice

A little old lady in a black hat smiles weakly at the camera, her eyes dark and piercing, yet strangely unfocused. Her hat is made of black felt and ornamented on both the high crown and brim with curls of lacy rickrack. The lady wears a tartan muffler draped around her neck. She has a long pointed noise, a full, wide mouth, a little moustache. She is Alice B. Toklas, the legendary partner of the writer Gertrude Stein. The two women lived as a couple in Paris for nearly four decades, inseparable companions from the day they met, in September 1907, until the afternoon of Gertrude’s death in July 1946. On the back of a different photo of Alice in old age, her friend, the writer Janet Flanner, noted in pencil that she was “the most widowed woman I know.” 2

Confronting the homophobia of their avant-garde circle and of society at large with a canny mix of bluster, charm, cultural activism, and visual propaganda, Gertrude and Alice not only invented themselves and the image of their lesbian relationship; they also assiduously promoted and protected their household and their right to a visible existence — both domestic and public — in the Paris of the 1920s. They created and guarded their own image and their own legacy with the shrewdness and timing of top-flight media handlers. In so doing they created a zone of “queer space” around themselves, something both novel and ostentatiously radical within the American and European cultures of their time. In this physical and psychic zone, they and others acknowledged, in word and deed, that they were not merely good friends or even loving partners in an ambiguous “Boston marriage,” but truly a couple — united, physically present, enmeshed in family, engaged with property and material things, socially empowered — in every sense of the word. 3

Adopting the social conventions of their time, Gertrude and Alice modeled their relationship on that of a husband and wife, butch and femme, “genius” and “wife of a genius.” They wrote about themselves and each other; had themselves photographed together frequently (and by such increasingly famous photographers such as Cecil Beaton and Horst); embraced their fame rather than remain in the closet; and staged and costumed their relationship for the public eye — thus creating an archive through which they were imagined and envisioned as a couple and remembered via stories or legends. All these cultural tactics enabled Gertrude and Alice to become the most famous lesbian couple of their time, and perhaps even of ours. 4

One hardly hears or reads about their life in Paris without encountering the adjective “legendary”: we read about their legendary collection of modern art by Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, et al.; their legendary literary salon of Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald, et al.; and their legendary lesbian relationship, one of the few that most people even know about. I even used “legendary” myself in the first paragraph of this essay. Legendary refers to something not just widely known but also much talked about, larger than life. Indeed, Gertrude and Alice — I would argue — are the stuff of legend because they deliberately made their private lesbian relationship a matter for public consumption (literally so when one recalls the 1954 publication of the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook), and also because they created and preserved their own archive of texts and photographs as a way of proving their existence. This last point is critical for our understanding of what is at stake in queer political and spatial struggles; despite the social, legal, and economic forces ranged against them, particularly after Gertrude’s death, and despite the poverty and isolation suffered by Toklas in old age, it was this body of autobiographical material that enabled them to take their place, even in the mainstream historical narrative, as lesbians.

Alice and Gertrude at 27 Rue de Fleurus, portrait by Man Ray, 1922. [Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]

Gertrude, for whom fame was of paramount importance, knew well that control of the historical narrative would require control of the archive and manipulation of the signposts of memory. 5 As she observed in The Making of Americans, “Dead is Dead but that is why memory is all and all the immortality there is.” 6 In a sense she manipulated not only the historical record but also historical events themselves. To cite one example: in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written by Gertrude Stein in Alice’s voice, she (Stein/Toklas) describes her first encounter with the Steins’ celebrated art-world circle during an evening salon in the studio at 27 Rue de Fleurus, the home near the Luxembourg Gardens that Gertrude and her brother Leo had rented since their move from San Francisco in 1903. With the arrival of Picasso and his then wife Fernande at the party, Alice explains that Gertrude assigned her the task of entertaining the wives — they talked about hats, she said — while the genius “husbands,” including Gertrude Stein herself, discussed serious, intellectual matters. Playing the spouse-role was to become Alice’s lifelong duty, and it is one that she and Gertrude gently parodied in the memoir:

From time to time one heard the high, spanish whinnying laugh of Picasso and the gay contralto outbreak of Gertrude Stein, people came and went, in and out. Miss Stein told me to sit with Fernande. Fernande was always beautiful but heavy in hand. I sat, it was my first sitting with a wife of a genius.

Before I decided to write this book My Twenty-Five Years with Gertrude Stein, I had often said that I would write, The Wives of Geniuses I Have Sat with. I have sat with so many. I have sat with wives who were not wives, of geniuses who were real geniuses. I have sat with real wives of geniuses who were not real geniuses. I have sat with wives of geniuses, of near geniuses, of would-be geniuses, in short I have sat very often and very long with many wives and wives of many geniuses.

This sort of smug self-narration may not make these women appealing, but it did create a sustained narrative for their life as a couple in a decidedly homophobic historical context, one that would become more hetero-normative, anti-Semitic, and dangerous for them as the years went on.

But exactly how homophobic was avant-garde Paris? This is a significant question when we consider that the carefully crafted Stein-Toklas archives — as well as representations of other lesbians in Paris including Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, Janet Flanner, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, among others — have created a durable impression of a protected zone of acceptance, unconventionality, and modernist energy surrounding the literary and artistic “women of the Left Bank.” 7 Yet when we cast our historians’ gaze beyond the small, intimate world of the supposedly progressive avant-garde, the answer is very homophobic. For example, after the Autobiography was published, in 1933, a group of writers and artists from the Stein-Toklas circle (including Henri Matisse, Tristan Tzara, Maria Jolas, Eugene Jolas, Georges Braque, and André Salmon) published a review in which they protested against “Miss Stein’s testimony about her contemporaries.” Tzara, a founding member of Dada and the most virulent of them all, described Stein’s work as a “childish subterfuge” of “two maiden ladies greedy for fame and publicity,” spewed from a realm “where lies and pretention meet the depraved morals of bourgeois society” — a milieu Tzara apparently loathed. 8 The always outspoken Tzara may have been articulating the resentment and homophobia that others felt; while we cannot assume this, we do know that many older members of the Paris avant-garde listed their names as co-authors of the article.

Left: Gertrude and Alice at Aix-les-Bains, ca. 1927. [Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library] Right: Alice and Gertrude, portrait by Cecil Beaton [Cecil Beaton Archive]

We might also recall Leo Stein’s own statements about his sister and her writing in the aftermath of the break-up of the Rue de Fleurus household, in 1914. Upon his departure for Florence, Leon publicly described Gertrude’s writing as an “abomination,” a choice of words that elided his dislike of her work with his disgust at other, unspecified transgressions; his comments illuminate his increasingly panicked views of both his own sexuality and Gertrude and Alice’s. Leo’s change of heart about his sister, with whom he had been unusually close since their teenage years, and his decision to abandon the home that the two had maintained since 1903, came about in response to Gertrude’s increasingly public efforts to establish both a domestic and sexual partnership with Alice and a household in which she was surrounded by devoted women friends. Leo felt replaced, and so he was; but it is telling that he expressed his loss and resentment through criticisms of her life and work. In 1913, he wrote to the American art collector Albert C. Barnes to inform him that he and his sister were splitting up their painting collections: “Gertrude and I are just the contrary” he wrote. “She’s basically stupid and I’m basically intelligent.” 9

Leo Stein blamed Toklas for his displacement from the center Gertrude’s life. Like so many others, Leo seemed compelled to judge the choices the two women made, commenting to Mabel Dodge that Gertrude was becoming “helpless and foolish” as a result of her relationship; thanks to Alice’s skillful management of the household and her daily typing of Gertrude’s scrawled drafts, Gertrude was “less and less inclined to do anything herself.” 10 In many ways Leo was correct: Gertrude may have been losing a brother, but she had found herself a wife. And together she and Alice transformed the Rue de Fleurus home and studio into an important zone of queer space in early 20th-century Paris: a space overlaid with avant-garde art and literature, to be sure, but queer at its very core and in its heart.

Among the men in the circle, Ernest Hemingway — always intent on asserting his own hyper-masculine and hetero-sexist perspective — was most outspoken in his criticisms of the couple and their world. But he channeled his anger and resentment skillfully. Hemingway was widely seen as jealous of Alice and competitive for Gertrude’s love and attention; according to the critic Donald Sutherland, Hemingway had even declared “in conversation and once at least in a letter that he had always wanted to lay her.” The writer Janet Malcolm goes farther, quoting directly from the Hemingway letter on which Sutherland’s statements were based: “She used to talk to me about homosexuality,” Hemingway wrote, “and how it was fine in and for women and no good in men and I used to listen and learn and I always wanted to fuck her and she knew it.” 11 Extraordinary though this statement might seem, such scenarios have been long familiar to gay people, who recognize them as well-worn clichés in the battle for personal and political dominance over queer bodies and subjectivities — and they are no less repellent and aggressive, even violent, for their familiarity. No wonder that Alice was always dismissive of Hemingway and relieved when his friendship with Gertrude cooled and eventually broke off entirely.

Left: Temple of Friendship, 20 Rue Jacob, photo by Eugène Atget. [via Wikimedia] Right: Galerie Jean Désert on the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré. [via Wikimedia]

With texts like these in view, we are compelled to readjust our focus and recognize that the Stein/Toklas archive does not offer conclusive evidence of Paris as a lesbian utopia in the early 20th century; rather the archive (and the city itself) are better understood as a cluster of contested and volatile physical and psychic spaces. Much has been written about the importance of the Left Bank in creating a “sapphist modernity.” 12 Indeed, there were identifiable, albeit tiny, lesbian enclaves throughout Paris, in private and protected spaces as well in public areas. Places like Stein’s studio at 27 Rue de Fleurus and the home of writer Natalie Barney at 20 Rue Jacob, with its classical Temple of Friendship in the garden; shops like Jean Désert, the design company run by Eileen Gray and Eyre de Lanaux; Sylvia Beach’s bookshop Shakespeare and Company — all were centers of queer culture. We can perhaps even argue, as does historian Joanne Winning, that the section of the Rue de l’Odéon between Beach’s bookshop and the shop across the street run by her partner Adrienne Monnier also functioned as a queer space. 13 Together these city fragments traced a sort of lesbian archipelago, an imaginary and spatial commonality realized through a process — or through multiple iterations and enactments of a process — of following unconventional routes through neighborhoods and establishing queer narratives, in the manner Michel de Certeau would later describe in The Practice of Everyday Life. 14

Women, queers, the unmarried, the old — all existed outside mainstream urban space and culture.

Yet we should keep in mind not only the social stigma then attached to the practice of women walking the city streets, especially alone or at night, but also the sheer physical and psychic energy that public walking required of all women, gay or straight. What then can we intuit about the growing difficulties when age or infirmity limits one’s physical ability and social range? What happens to women who lack the energy or power to counter the patriarchal gaze or resist the romanticized and ubiquitous hetero-normative narrative of urban life? 15 Women, queers, the unmarried, the old — all existed outside the mainstream urban space and culture. That most hid behind closed door further underscores the bravery of Stein and Toklas’s efforts to assert and protect their unconventional lives.

In The Making of Americans, Stein addresses her outsider status as one of the “queer people” — a term that even then had various connotations, including sexual orientation. As readers, we fill in the blanks — expatriate, woman, artist, lesbian, Jewish — even though Stein forbears to specify. “It takes time to make queer people,” she wrote.

We flee from the disapproval of our cousins, the courageous condescension of our friends who gallantly sometimes agree to walk the streets with us, from all of them who never any way can understand why such ways and not the others are so dear to us, we fly to the kindly comfort of an older world accustomed to take all manner of strange forms into its bosom.” 16

Stein returned to the themes of place and identity throughout her career; as she famously wrote, “America is my country and Paris my home town … so I am an American and have lived half my life in Paris, not the half that made me but the half that made what I made.” 17 In the years when Stein made what she made, she “walked the streets” and parks of Paris daily, alone or with Alice, or with Basket, her large white poodle. Everything about her — gender, shape, clothing, hairstyle, choice of companion, increasing notoriety as a modernist writer — highlighted her queerness, even as her wanderings on foot staked her claim to the city. Indeed, walking the Paris streets was for Gertrude and other lesbians an act of defiance, and as she and Alice became more recognizable, more deliberate about their appearance, these public displays became more akin to a queer performance — in a sense anticipating the Gay Liberation actions of the 1970s, and the chant “We’re here, we’re queer — get used to it!” 18

The defiant nature of that narrative appears particularly vivid when compared to the aggressively male and hetero-normative city depicted in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, written decades after he’d left the city and even today once of the most popular memoirs of Paris in the Twenties. With its powerful evocations of emotions and sensations, of streets and weather and cafés, the book cultivated the myth of the heroic writer and painted a glamorous image of the avant-garde of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, Picasso, et al. — a world in which women, with the arguable exception of Stein, played supporting roles. Consider the epigraph: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” 19

Thus was the Paris of this (straight) young man’s experience — his artistic struggles, love affairs, daily routines — transformed into the stuff of legend. That the experience of Hemingway, fully inhabiting the streets and cafés and bars of Paris, had differed fundamentally from that of Gertrude Stein is evident from the first passages of the first chapter, “A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel.”

Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside.

It was a sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together and I kept away from it because of the smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness. … I walked down past the Lycée Henri Quatre and the ancient church of St.-Etienne-du-Mont and the windswept Place du Panthéon and cut in for shelter to the right and finally came out on the lee side of the Boulevard St.-Michel and worked on down it past the Cluny and the Boulevard St-Germain until I came to a good café that I knew on the Place St.-Michel.

Once inside, the young author hangs up his coat and hat and orders a cafe au lait. He takes a notebook and pencil from his overcoat pocket and begins to write. Thinking about the story he is working on, imagining a scene of young boys and men on a frigid day in Michigan, he orders “rum St. James,” which “tasted wonderful on the cold day.” He keeps writing, “feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and spirit.” When a pretty young woman enters and sits down at a nearby table, the author is excited and distracted. The memory of that long-ago afternoon, as recollected in A Moveable Feast, is eloquent testimony to the gendering of space and the struggle for autonomy and power within it — in other words, classic Hemingway.

A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.

I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone. So I went on writing.

The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into a saucer under my drink.

I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil. 20

Is it any wonder that Stein and Toklas approached the creation of their lesbian image and the defense of their archive in the spirit of a military campaign? Legend and myth; image and power; survival and memory — these are key to the story of Gertrude and Alice, and of Paris in the 1920s. The pictures and the stories endure as touchstones and even now can arouse emotions — envy, desire, aspiration, fear, dismay, disgust, maybe shame. We conjure up people and places from the past not as simple facts but as images and feelings clustered around stories. 21

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, with Basket, 1938, portrait by Cecil Beaton. [Cecil Beaton Archive]

Plaque at 27 Rue de Fleurus, Stein’s house and studio in Paris. [via Wikimedia]

What then do we learn from the archive, and what has been lost? In fact, were it not for a slightly later American expatriate, also an inhabitant of the lesbian archipelago of the Left Bank, we might be entirely unaware of the later years of Alice B. Toklas’s life, after Gertrude’s death in 1946. It was Janet Flanner who brought to light Toklas’s struggles, the sadly reduced and isolated circumstances of the postwar years, when she was poor, sick, and dependent on Stein’s homophobic executors. 22 In a 1975 New Yorker profile, Flanner recounted a dismaying sequence of events. She described how the carefully constructed terms of Stein’s will — which made provisions for the support of her “friend Alice B. Toklas,” and specified that her paintings could be sold if needed to uphold her wishes — were ignored by Stein’s greedy family; and how little power Alice ultimately had, as a “friend,” with none of rights of family, in the battle for control over the valuable assets of Gertrude’s art collection. In 1963, when the 87-year-old Toklas was evicted from her bare-walled apartment, it was thanks to a small group of stalwart friends that she was relocated and her rent paid. 23

Alice Toklas, left, and Janet Flanner, with portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso, ca. 1955. [Library of Congress, Janet Flanner-Solita Solano Papers]

Part of Alice’s difficulty — her failure to deal with real-world complexities — arose from her conviction that she and Gertrude had special status: Gertrude was a genius and she was her wife. Their brilliant joint performance, fueled by old-fashioned chutzpah and self-invented noblesse oblige, had worked its magic for decades; for the first time in modern history, a lesbian couple had not only performed their relationship in public, but also amassed the archival evidence to prove to later generations that it had existed. But by the 1960s, as isolation, ill health, and poverty stripped away her power to do battle, her lesbian world became ever more constrained, until it survived only in the space around her own frail body and in her memories.

Janet Flanner, and Friends and Lovers and Ex-Lovers

With her old-world manners and ultra-feminine costumes, Toklas was as arch, ironic, and dignified as an old queen — a lesbian warrior before the category existed. The life of Janet Flanner offers a different narrative, yet no less marked by struggle. Independent, self-sufficient, feminist, and closeted, Flanner resisted lesbian “marriage”; throughout her life she circulated among overlapping circles of friends, lovers, and ex-lovers — women whose lives were similarly marked by the divide between public appearance and private experience. Born in Indianapolis, Flanner was the daughter of an undertaker: she married young, fled to New York, quickly divorced, and traveled to Europe with a young woman, Solita Solano, who had become her lover. 24 A generation younger than Stein, Flanner arrived in Paris in 1922 and found a different city from the one Gertrude and Alice had come to know earlier in the century; also unlike Gertrude and Alice, Flanner did not actively attempt to construct her own archive, to tightly control her own image. In fact Flanner led a kind of double life; she was the Paris correspondent for The New Yorker — then as now a magazine for the educated and aspirational middle class — but she was also a denizen of the young lesbian circles in the Left Bank.

Left: Janet Flanner, ca. 1920s. [via Strange Flowers] Right: Natalie Barney, Janet Flanner, and Djuna Barnes, Paris, ca. 1925. Photographer unknown.

Flanner’s New Yorker writings, including profiles of the women in her circle, allow us to collage together an image of queer Paris in the interwar years and also — perhaps more important — a narrative of the postwar city as it was changing for Flanner and her friends over the course of their long lives. Flanner’s bi-monthly “Letter from Paris,” published under the gender-neutral nom de plume Genêt, shaped an impression of the avant-garde for a generation for whom gay and lesbian life was largely unknown and alien. Adopting the breezy and cosmopolitan tone of the magazine, Genêt offered glimpses of street-corner cafés, bustling flower markets, and glittering celebrities — Stein, Hemingway, Picasso, Josephine Baker — whose rarefied conversation, good taste, and pleasurable existence aroused — as intended — curiosity and envy. The queer and lesbian Paris of her private life — the Hotel St. Germain des Prés, where she lived for years with Solano and others; the bookshops on the Rue de l’Odéon run by her friends Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier; the literary salons held on Fridays by Natalie Barney and on Saturdays by Gertrude and Alice; and the many bars, dance halls, bals musettes, and small boîtes where she and her friends danced until dawn — formed only a shadowy background, giving to the cityscape a soupçon of danger and glamour. To be sure, the tension between these realms invigorated Flanner’s New Yorker “Letters” — which often ended abruptly, like a closet door being slammed shut — and underscored the knowing, ironic, and sometimes even campy tone that was her trademark. 25 A consummate stylist, in her later years she even cracked open the door of the literary closet, creating profiles not only of Alice B. Toklas but also of others in her lesbian circle, including Sylvia Beach and Colette.

Even as she narrated the lives of other with panache, Flanner herself remained, characteristically, at a remove — her own persona was neutral, distanced, detached. She portrayed Paris as a world beyond the reach of most readers — beautiful, foreign, rich in sensations and style. In the introduction to Paris Was Yesterday, a collection of her New Yorker writings published in 1972, she looked back across the decades. “Memories are the specific invisible remains in our lives of what belongs in the past tense,” she wrote, and continued:

It is now more than half a century ago, back in the opening of the 1920s, that for the first time Paris began to be included in the memories of a small contingent of youngish American expatriates, richer than most in creative ambition and rather modest in purse. For the most part we had recently shipped third class to France across the Atlantic, at that date still not yet flown over except by migratory sea birds. 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. 26

This evocative language — “past,” “memories,” “modest in purse” — and Flanner’s Paris “Letter,” which appeared in The New Yorker from 1925 to 1975, contributed to a powerful image of mid 20th-century Paris — and to its appeal to generations of passionate young Americans, hungry for an authentic Paris filled with fine food, great art, a spirit of “creative ambition.” “Paris then seemed immutably French,” Flanner recalled. “The quasi-American atmosphere which we had tentatively established around Saint-Germain had not yet infringed onto the rest of the city. In the early twenties, when I was there, Paris was still yesterday. 27

Solita Solano and Djuna Barnes, Paris, ca. 1922, photograph by Maurice Branger. [via Wikimedia]

Yesterday, not today; ephemeral and ambiguous. The Paris Flanner was memorializing was the stuff of literature, a dream world. But of course it was the real city of brick and stone, flesh and blood, that new generations of young men and women, gay and straight, would be encountering, where adventures could not be had vicariously, plucked like ripe fruit from a tree. Yet Flanner’s writings were evocative and affecting, animating the image of Paris as a site of desire, the setting for a glamorous new modernity. And decades after her own arrival in the city, young readers, in the thick of new movements for gay liberation and feminism, would be inspired by her words, by the challenge of reclaiming and reshaping that world, beyond the surveillance of traditional families and institutions. 28

Not only do Flanner’s “Letters from Paris” evoke her earlier world; the record is amplified by surviving scrapbooks, letters, and diaries — saved by her friends, no thanks to Flanner herself — and especially by photographs. 29 One of the best-known portraits of Flanner was taken in the mid ‘20s by the celebrated photographer Berenice Abbott, herself a part of the lesbian society of the Left Bank. Dressed as Uncle Sam, in striped trousers, a dark jacket, and a top hat adorned with two masks, Flanner here suggests aspects of her multiple identities. Seated next to a steamer trunk, she is an American traveler who can switch countries and change roles, a lesbian in elegant drag who can reveal or conceal her various faces behind masks. For Abbott as much as Flanner, the portrait was intended as a form of performance; according to art historian Terri Weissman, Abbott would allow her subjects to be “framed by [their] own terms of definition,” using the sitter’s clothes, pose, gaze, and relationship to the camera to shape her image. 30

Janet Flanner, portrait by Berenice Abbott, 1927. [Elizabeth Jenks Clark Collection of Margaret Anderson, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library]

Abbott’s photographs are vital to our understanding of the look of lesbian Paris in the 1920s; they are significant not only as portraits of individual women of style but also as an archive of the early years of a durable and close network of lovers, ex-lovers, and friends, of women committed to a life of sexual freedom who toughed out periodic bouts of jealousy and disappointment to preserve their community. There is, for instance, her portrait of Solita Solano, which captures a palpable sense of freedom and glamour. Solano — born Sarah Wilkinson in Albany, New York — had been an actress and journalist before she met Janet Flanner in New York in the early 1920s; the couple toured Europe before arriving at the Hotel St. Germain des Prés — where they would live together for almost two decades — and settling into a comfortable routine of reading, writing, editing each other’s work, and socializing with friends. 31

There is also Abbott’s portrait of the publisher Margaret Anderson, who had founded the Little Review in Chicago in 1914 and who in 1918 started serializing James Joyce’s Ulysses in the magazine. Anderson had arrived in Paris in 1923 with her longtime lover and co-editor, Jane Heap; she was also close to Solano (and for a brief time her lover ). Together Flanner, Solano, and Anderson, plus others including Eileen Gray, Djuna Barnes, and Sylvia Beach, created an affective queer space through the act of sitting for Berenice Abbott and thus contributing to what would become a documentary group portrait. That Abbott’s photographs were placed on view at Shakespeare and Co. further underscored the ties that connected queer people and ideas. 32

Solita Solano, left, and Margaret Anderson, right, portraits by Berenice Abbott. [ Elizabeth Jenks Clark Collection of Margaret Anderson, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library]

By the early 1930s, the lesbian archipelago extended to the western suburbs of Paris, to a substantial farmhouse and sprawling compound in the village of Orgeval owned by Noel Haskins Murphy, another member of the expatriate queer community and in those years Flanner’s lover. 33 For Flanner and her circle, which by that point included the sculptor Elizabeth (“Lib”) Jenks Clark, who became Solano’s lover — Orgeval gradually emerged as a refuge and retreat. Early on Gertrude and Alice were frequent guests at Noel’s Sunday lunch table, and many American writers and artists visited the place. Flanner was often in residence, particularly during the summer, from the 1950s until the mid 1970s, when age and infirmity slowed her movements. But no matter the changes of time and circumstance, these women continued to work, to write and make art, and to talk endlessly; for decades they gossiped and struggled, celebrated each other’s successes, comforted one another through sickness or distress. 34

An assortment of Kodak color negatives, taken in the early 1960s and preserved at Yale, allows us to glimpse not only the buildings and interiors of Orgeval but also the social life enjoyed by these women in old age, adding a new dimension to the archive and to our understanding of queer history. In one image we see the older Solano, sitting on a bench with her lover Lib Clark, nattily dressed in a tailored shirt and pressed trousers; in another we see Solano at her desk in the stone cottage she and Clark shared at Orgeval. In a group photo, we easily recognize Flanner, bright-eyed and angular, with her ever-present cigarette, as she chats with a time-worn Noel Murphy and other friends in Murphy’s garden. And in yet another image we see Margaret Anderson, still beautiful in her ’70s, vamping for the camera in Solita’s and Lib’s garden. 35

Solita Solano and Elizabeth Clark, ca. late 1960s, Orgeval. [Elizabeth Jenks Clark Collection of Margaret Anderson, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library]

Janet Flanner, Noel Murphy and friends, Orgeval, ca. late 1960s. [Elizabeth Jenks Clark Collection of Margaret Anderson, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library]

Flanner never stayed at Orgeval for long; throughout her life she was restless and peripatetic, writing and traveling for The New Yorker, her voice always mediated, even in private correspondence, by her amiably curious tone and ever-distant vantage point. Safely absent from one life or another, she donned whatever mask was required and kept moving. Although she remained close to both Solano and Murphy, by 1940 Flanner had fallen in love with another woman: the Italian journalist Natalia Danesi Murray was an NBC broadcaster during the war, and later head of the New York office of Mondadori and a director at Rizzoli. 36 Divorced, with a young son, Natalia enchanted Janet not only with her glamour and beauty — still evident in photos taken decades after they met — but also by the warmth of her extended family and the comforts of her Upper East Side social sphere. Despite their struggles — usually about Janet’s frequent trips to Paris and Orgeval, her unwillingness to settle down in a stable marriage — Natalia Murray would remain the anchor of Flanner’s life and work until Flanner died in November 1978.

Flanner and Murray fell in love on Fire Island and forged strong relationships among its substantial gay community; nonetheless, their life in New York City was shaped largely by the social conventions of their circle of heterosexual (and closeted gay) writers and artists, as well as by the prevailing homophobia of the time. 37 In letters to Murray, Flanner was candid about her bouts of depression, and the questions these provoked about her work, her sexuality, and her choices. In a letter of June 1946, she even wondered whether her sexual orientation — and its expression — had been worth the pain it had caused herself and others:

Do you think that being a woman loving women has also helped tear me and my life and my brain to bits? Tell me. … I wish I did not remember what mother said, almost the last thing, to me: “Oh my darling, protect yourself, even late in life, from all that which can destroy you, your precious talent. …” She always knew, of course, what my life was, though only once did she mention it, years ago. … I swear I would rather see a young girl dead than go through the struggles against society, for self-control, for peace and for the mad kindly tender joy only such love brings; it is a love which truly understands the beloved because there is no different ratio of reaction or character as between men and women. I feel it is the most equal and therefore the most powerful in its imaginative bliss and pain; each truly shares. I share, you share. I pay, you pay, my body is yours in our struggle for survival, at a distance of a few more months, as it is in love when we are alone. 38

Flanner’s dark moods never lasted long, however: she could always pack up and move from one loving woman to another, or shuttle between her comfortable hotel in Paris, her friend’s farmhouse in Orgeval, and Murray’s elegant Manhattan apartment. 39 Nevertheless, as the years advanced, the signs of strain were clear. Although she continued to write her Paris “Letter” through the ’60s and early ’70s, observing the changing streets, politics, and fashions with her habitual cool detachment, there is something increasingly dated and off-key about her tendency to turn her subjects into distanced vignettes. She described her admiration for the student revolutionaries who “fought like young heroes” in May 1968; yet she had little patience for the “sadistic destructive excesses” of the street protests or the “adolescent public nightly violence” that had caused so many sleepless nights in the increasingly upscale neighborhoods of the Left Bank. 40 Half a century earlier, on these same streets, Flanner had danced and caroused until dawn; now she wanted a good night’s sleep

Left, Natalia Murray and Janet Flanner, and right, Janet Flanner, photos by Jill Krementz. [via New York Social Diary]

Flanner clung to her adopted city — to her lesbian archipelago — for as long as possible. Only after Solita Solano’s death, and in the face of Noel Murphy’s increasing infirmity, did Flanner consent to give up Paris and make a permanent home with Natalia Murray in New York. She arrived in the fall of 1975, finally settling down, at age 83. By all accounts she enjoyed her new domesticity. In New York, in those early days of the post-Stonewall era, attitudes toward gays and lesbians had begun to change, as they were changing in Paris — although the impact of the changes on the circles in which Flanner and Murray moved was barely perceptible. In any case, Flanner was now old enough to enjoy the daily rhythms of life with a lesbian lover on her own terms. She could finally remove her masks and be at once a famous writer and a queer old thing — although, in a troubling echo of Alice and Gertrude’s experience, the vigilant enforcers of homophobia would also descend upon Murray and Flanner when they were powerless to fight back, denying them the comfort of being together at the hospital where Flanner died, because they were legally not “family.”

Flanner and her circle of writers and artists never gave up on queer Paris or the “lesbian archipelago” they had created. But as they aged they slowly disengaged from its present realities, observing the urban scene — in particular the tumultuous cultural and political revolutions of the late 1960s — from the distance of suburban retreats and genteel hotels. Theirs was a generation that quietly persevered with their work and their complex private lives through the interwar years and during the Second World War, a generation over-shadowed by famous elders like Stein and Toklas. In the postwar era they resisted the noisy militancy of the gay and women’s liberation movements. Poised between older and younger generations of gay activists, they discreetly yet insistently staked their claim — as independent women — to a distinctive and durable lesbian space.

Janet Flanner survived well into our own modern era. She may have grown wrinkled and forgetful, but she lived long enough to see herself admired as a “pioneer” by younger lesbians whose unapologetic visibility challenged her customary reticence. She always retained her distinctive style, never relinquishing her command of language, her lesbian desire or her unwavering claim to her own queer place, and that of her friends and lovers, 41 to the world of love, and beauty, and long intimacy they had invented.

Author's Note

I am grateful to Dr. Brent Pilkey, of the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, for reading and commenting on this essay, and to Professor Mathilda Hills, of the University of Rhode Island, for generously sharing her knowledge of Janet Flanner and her friends with me.

  1. George Chauncey, “Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public: Gay Uses of the Streets” in Joel Sanders, ed., Stud: Architectures of Masculinity (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 224-261. See also Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 224. See also Brian McGrath, Mark Watkins, and Mao-jung Lee (1994), Queer Space, exhibition pamphlet, unpaginated (New York: Storefront for Art and Architecture, cited in Christopher Reed, “Imminent Domain: Queer Space in the Built Environment,” Art Journal, 55, Vol. 4: We’re Here: Gay and Lesbian Presence in Art and Art History, Winter 1996, 64-70.
  2. Andrea Weiss, Paris was a Woman: Portraits from the Left Bank (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013; orig. 1995), 196. See also Linda Simon, The Biography of Alice B. Toklas (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977); Terry Castle, Preface to Flanner’s “Memory is All: Alice B. Toklas,” The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). For Flanner, see Brenda Wineapple, Genêt: A Biography of Janet Flanner (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
  3. See notes 1 and 2. See also Adrian Rifkin, “Gay Paris: Trace and Ruin, in Neil Leach, ed., The Hieroglyphics of Space: Reading and Experiencing the Modern Metropolis (London: Routledge, 2002), 125-136; and Gordon Brent Ingraham, et al., eds., Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance (Seattle: Bay Press, 1997). See also James Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company (New York: Praeger, 1974); Wanda Corn and Tirza True Latimer, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories (University of California Press, 2011).
  4. For the symbolic reading of such images, see Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image,” and Victor Burgin, “Looking at Photographs,” in Liz Wells, ed., The Photography Reader (London: Routledge, 2002), chapters 13 and 15.
  5. See Allan Sekula, “The Body in the Archive,” in Richard Bolton, ed., The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (Cambridge: MIT Press), 343-89; Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” Diacritics, 2: Summer 1995, 9-63; and Okwui Enwezor, “Archive Fever: Photography Between History and the Monument,” in Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (New York: ICP, 2008), 11-51.
  6. Quoted in Janet Flanner, “Memory is All: Alice B. Toklas,” in Irving Drutman, ed., Janet Flanner’s World: Uncollected Writings, 1932-1975 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 334-342.
  7. The phrase comes from Shari Benstock’s foundational study, Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900-1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986).
  8. Quoted by Anna Linzie, “Between Two Covers with Somebody Else: Authority, Authorship and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” in Stephen Donovan, Danuta Fjellestad, and Rolf Lundén, eds., Authority Matters: Rethinking the Theory and Practice of Authorship (Boston: Rodopi, 2008), 141-162. These responses were first published in transition [sic], February 1935. See also Linzie, The True Story of Alice B. Toklas: A Study of Three Autobiographies (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006), Introduction; and Mellow, Charmed Circle, 179.
  9. Brenda Wineapple, Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 1-2, 263-5, 300-315, 363.
  10. Ibid, 386.
  11. Janet Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 215. Both quotes are from Malcolm’s book.
  12. See Simon, The Biography of Alice B. Toklas, and Drutman, Janet Flanner’s World: Uncollected Writings 1932-1975. See also Katerina Bonnevier, Behind Straight Curtains: Towards a Queer Feminist Theory of Architecture (Ph.D. Dissertation, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, 2007) and “A Queer Analysis of Eileen Gray’s E1027,” in Hilde Heynen and Gulsam Boydar, eds., Negotiating Domesticity: Spatial Productions of Gender in Modern Architecture (London: Routledge, 2005), 162-180.
  13. Joanne Winning, “The Sapphist in the City: Lesbian Modernist Paris and Sapphic Modernity,” in Laura Doan and Jane Garrity, eds., Sapphic Modernities: Sexuality, Women and National Culture (London: Macmillan, 2006), 17-34.
  14. Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City, ” in The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 91-110. On the reading of social spaces, see Nigel Thrift, “Space, ” in Theory, Culture and Society, May 2006, 23, 139-146, and Sarah Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 2006).
  15. For information about the legal status of women in France and the challenges to the ideal of lesbian community, see Tirza True Latimer,Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005), Introduction.
  16. Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans (Paris: Contact Editions, 1925), 21.
  17. Stein, “An American in France,” 1936, quoted by M. Lynn Weiss, Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright: The Poetics and Politics of Modernism (University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 47-48.
  18. This sort of individualized and spatialized declaration of independence can be contrasted with fashionable cross-dressing (favored by Romaine Brooks, Eileen Gray, Janet Flanner, and other “modern” women of the younger generation); like the encoded revival of fin-de-siècle literary and visual conventions, adopted by Natalie Barney and Gray, these gestures — while perhaps legible to insiders — remained hidden from public view. See Bridget Elliott and Jo-Ann Wallace, Women Artists and Writers: Modernist (im)positions (London: Routledge, 1994), Chaps. 2 and 4; and Tirza True Latimer, Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris, Chap. 1. Adoption of “male disguises” for visits to nightclubs for all-night dancing represented a different strategy for lesbian urban survival. See Jasmine Rault, Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity: Staying In (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 14 and passim.
  19. Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (New York: Scribner, 1992; orig. 1964).
  20. A Moveable Feast, 3-5.
  21. The heady and resonant image of Paris as an avant-garde and heterosexual paradise is explored in Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris.
  22. For Toklas’s reflections on her old age, see Alice B. Toklas, Staying on Alone: Letters of Alice T. Toklas, ed. Edward Burns (New York: Liveright, 1973).
  23. Janet Flanner, “Memory is All,” The New Yorker, December 15, 1975. See also Drutman, Janet Flanner’s World, 339. For another version of this story, see also Janet Malcolm, Two Lives, 197-204.
  24. See Wineapple, Genêt: A Biography of Janet Flanner, Chapters 1 to 5. See also George Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman, eds., Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures (New York: Garland, 2000).
  25. See Drutman, Janet Flanner’s World, 309-342.
  26. Ibid., vii
  27. Ibid., xxiv.
  28. Alice T. Friedman, American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). For glamour as affect, see Nigel Thrift, “Understanding the Material Practices of Glamour,” The Affect Theory Reader, 289-308. For more on affect theory, see Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” in Siegworth and Gregg, eds., The Affect Theory Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 3-25.
  29. See John C. Broderick, “Paris Between the Wars: An Unpublished Memoir by Solita Solano,” Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, 34, October 1977, 306-314. Thanks to Solita Solano, her caretaker and literary guardian in old age, Flanner’s  private letters and notebooks were donated to the Library of Congress in the 1960s and ’70s.
  30. Terri Weissman, The Realisms of Berenice Abbott: Documentary Photography and Political Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 39. See also Chap. 2. Abbott believed that her portraits revealed “each person’s uniqueness” through a process of “exchange” that occurred between the photographer and the sitter, an approach that highlights the different approaches of between Abbott and her mentor Man Ray, for whom she had worked as an assistant and printer when she first arrived in Paris in 1923.
  31. John C. Broderick, “Paris Between the Wars: An Unpublished Memoir by Solita Solano.”
  32. Weissman, Abbott, 64. For women’s fashion and gender-bending codes, see Laura Doan, Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of Modern English Lesbian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 95-125; Mary Louise Roberts, “Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Fashion in 1920s France,” in Whitney Chadwick and Tirza True Latimer, eds., The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 65-94; and Latimer, “Looking Like a Lesbian: Portraiture and Sexual Identity in 1920s Paris,” Ibid., 127-144.
  33. Noel Murphy had relocated to the bucolic area with her husband, Frederic; she remained in the home after his early death, and then stayed put for the next half century. Noel’s husband was the brother of Gerald Murphy: see Calvin Tomkins, “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” The New Yorker, July 28, 1962.
  34. The group also included Kathryn Hulme, a follower of Gurdjieff who would publish The Nun’s Story in the 1950s. See Wineapple, Genêt, 120ff, and Solano’s Diary in the Elizabeth Jenks Clark Collection of Margaret Anderson, Beinecke Library, Yale University.In the late ‘50s, Solano and Clark rented a small cottage on Murphy’s property, but soon bought a nearby home of their own, closer to town.
  35. I am grateful to Professor Mathilda Hills for sharing her knowledge of Orgeval and its inhabitants with me; see also Hills, Forbidden Fires (Tallahassee: Naiad Press, 1996).
  36. Janet Flanner, Darlinghissima: Letters to a Friend (New York: Random House, 1985).
  37. For Fire Island, see Forward and Out, Episode 14, Cherry Grove: America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town; and Esther Newton, Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), esp. 214, where Newton notes that Murray told her at the beginning of an interview that she wasn’t comfortable with “labels.”
  38. Janet Flanner, Darlinghissima: Letters to a Friend, 171-172.
  39. Flanner spent the postwar decades at the Hotel Continental, which overlooked the Tuileries, and moved to the Ritz in the late ’60s. Asked why she preferred to live in hotels, Flanner described herself as a “hermit crab,” in an interview in People, January 24, 1975.
  40.  “Letter from Paris,” The New Yorker, May 25, 79-82; June 22, 1968, 62.; July 20, 1968, 52.
  41. See Bruce Kellner, “Extravagant Crowd: Carl Van Vechten’s Portraits of Women.”
Alice T. Friedman, “Queer Old Things,” Places Journal, February 2015. Accessed 01 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/150202

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