LA Expanded

Well-Mannered with a Salty Tongue

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Janet Flanner photographed by Bernice Abbott in 1927.

Inimitable novelist Norman Mailer and essayist Gore Vidal feuded on The Dick Cavett show in 1971. Vidal had written these two sentences for the New York Review of Books, in a review of Eva Fige’s book Patriarchal Attitudes: “There has been from Henry Miller and Normal Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression. The Miller-Mailer-Manson man (or M3 for short) has been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons; at worst, object to be poked, humiliated, killed.”

The story goes, Mailer head-butted Vidal in the Green Room before either of them even made it out to the set. Once seated, Mailer, who was drunk, and who had indeed stabbed his wife a few years earlier, said with a strange amount of righteous indignation, “We all know that I stabbed my wife. . . you were playing on that.”

“Ohhh, I’m beginning to see what bothers you,” said Vidal, patronizingly.

“Are you ready to apologize?”

“I would apologize if it hurt your feeling, of course I would,” said Vidal.

“No, it hurts my sense of intellectual pollution,” said Mailer.

They got pettier then, and, in the footage I’ve seen, the camera zooms out, and you notice for the first time that sitting between Vidal and Mailer is not only Dick Cavett, the host, but a stoic, well-dressed, white-haired lady.

This, it turns out, is Janet Flanner, an ex-pat who lived much of her life in Paris but wrote for the New Yorker from the time of its inception until her death in 1978. She had also written a three part profile of Adolf Hitler in 1936, before anyone knew how bad Hitler would get. “He has a fine library of six thousand volumes,” she had said, “yet he never reads; books would do him no good—his mind is made up.”

That night on the Dick Cavett show, Ms. Flanner intervened. “You act as if you were in private,” she said.

“It’s the art of television, isn’t it?” said Vidal, but she ignore him.

“IT’s very odd,” she continued. “You act as if you were the only people here.”

“Aren’t we?” asked Mailer.

Installation view of Gio Ponti's table for Parco dei Principi hotel in Rome. Courtesy M+B.

“They’re here, he’s here,” Flanner said, emphatically gesturing toward the in-studio audience, then toward Cavett, “I’m here, and I’m becoming very, very bored.” She threw a kiss to Mailer.

Last year, when Cavett guested on the podcast Dinner Party Download, he noted that people have planned dinner parties around watch the Vidal-Mailer spat but that the best moment for him was when “the great dignified, wonderful, aged, witty Janet Flanner suddenly got irritated.” Said Cavett, “She was the epitome of the well-mannered lady.”

If you watch clips from the old TV show, you’ll notice how Flanner, once she’s had her say, tactfully reduces the sparring men to background noise.

There is a show up at M+B gallery in West Hollywood right now that reminds me of Flanner. Parisian gallerist Daniele Balice and her co-curator Jay Ezra Nayssan organized the exhibition, and it includes an impressive array of paintings, prints and designer furniture, all set up as if on a set or in a particularly tasteful showroom, like it’s part of a room someone might actually live in or at least dream of living in. Art is hung above the sofa or perched on the book shelf. There’s a porcelain figure that Picasso painted on one shelf, and a great abstraction by Karl Benjamin on one wall.

Installation view of the wall behind Ponti's vanity in the Synesthesia show. Courtesy M+B.

But it’s the vanity by architect-designer Gio Ponti, made for the Parco dei Principi hotel in Rome, that has that well-manner, no-nonsense exquisiteness of Flanner. It has tapered wood legs, two teal drawers and a teal table top where a large, round brass mirror site permanently. The mirror looks like its role is to look out at the world, not to be looked into. In Balice and Ezra Nayssan’s installation, a carved head by an unknown Japanese artist sits on the table top, its mouth open and eyes creased as if its crying tears of agony. Then behind the vanity hangs more art: Hadrien Jacquelet’s Portrait 18 and Portrait 7, both loosely based on Michael Jackson’s unusual features, paintings recall both Francis Bacon’s garishness and Lucian Freud’s heavy-handedness; Antonio Lopez’s acrylic portrait of graffiti artist Bill “Blast” Cordero, almost winking and half-grinning wearing a shiny pilot’s hat; Paul P.’s portrait of a young man staring moodily; and Jacopo da Valenza’s Christ at the Column from 1509, in which Christ wears the crown of thorns and looks emaciated.

Ponti’s table, with just enough style and no unnecessary flourishes, keeps all this male angst and theatricality in check. The surrounding paintings and sculpture, however visceral and well-crafted they might be, become minor players in the wake of its stoic, subtle figure.

When Flanner passed on in 1978, New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn wrote the following, which probably says all that needs to be said: “Her eye never became jaded, her ardor for what was new and alive never diminished, and her language remained restless. She was a stylist who devoted her style, bedazzling and heady in itself, to the subtle task of conveying the spirit of a subtle people.”