Janet, My Mother and Me: A Memoir of Growing up with Janet Flanner and Natalia Danesi Murray

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Janet, My Mother, and Me is a charming, captivating memoir about a boy growing up in household of two extraordinary women. William Murray was devoted to his mother, Natalia Danesi Murray, and to his mother's longtime lover, writer Janet Flanner. Even as a teenager, he accepted their unconventional relationship. His portrait of the two most important people in his life is unforgettable.

Janet Flanner was already celebrated as the author of a new style of personal journalism for ...

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Overview

Janet, My Mother, and Me is a charming, captivating memoir about a boy growing up in household of two extraordinary women. William Murray was devoted to his mother, Natalia Danesi Murray, and to his mother's longtime lover, writer Janet Flanner. Even as a teenager, he accepted their unconventional relationship. His portrait of the two most important people in his life is unforgettable.

Janet Flanner was already celebrated as the author of a new style of personal journalism for her "Letter from Paris: in The New Yorker when she met the Italian-born Natalia Murray on Fire Island, New York, in 1940. Their encounter, writes William Murray, was a "coup de foudre, a thunderbolt that instantly sent them rushing into each other's arms and forever altered their lives, as well as mine."

Murray was already growing up in two cultures on different continents, in New York and Rome, when his mother's life changed so dramatically. He quickly accepted Flanner and the unusual household in which he found himself. (Natalia's mother, Mammina Ester, also lived with them in New York.) His memories of the women and of his own boyhood and adolescence are touching and often hilarious.

Janet, My Mother, and Me offers a look at the world in which gay professional women moved in the decades before such relationships became more open and accepted. Murray's mother was a publishing executive and a broadcaster, and Murray, who originally hoped to become an opera singer and trained for that profession, eventually moved into the professions of both his mother and Flanner, becoming a novelist and then for many years an editor and writer at The New Yorker.

This is an exuberant, warm, and often poignant memoir with a memorable cast of characters. Beguiling and unusual, it will remain vivid in readers' minds for years to come.

About the Author:

William Murray was a staff writer at The New Yorker for more than thirty years. He is the author or translator of more than twenty books, both fiction and non-fiction, seven of which have been selected as New York Times notable books of the year. He lives in San Diego.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When Janet Flanner, the New Yorker's Paris correspondent from 1925 to 1975, met Natalia Danesi Murray, who was to become her lover of 38 years, Flanner's wit was so radiant that even Natalia's son, who was 14 in 1940, "lingered for nearly an hour just to be around her." Intertwined with Murray's memorable portrait of the two women is his own gently self-deprecating coming of age story. He emerges as a lusty, headstrong young fellow, forever resisting his deeply possessive Italian mother, yet profoundly shaped by her and the cultured life they shared. Pursuing what became a dead-end career as an opera singer, he found in Flanner both an ally who tempered his mother's persistent criticism and "a sort of surrogate father." His admiration for Flanner's writing was a beacon that lit his path: he became a New Yorker staff writer for 30 years and the author of numerous novels (A Fine Italian Hand, etc.) and plays. Murray's descriptions of Flanner's often piercing insecurities and her devotion to her work are fascinating and inspiring; his less loving portrait of New Yorker editor William Shawn adds chiaroscuro. Drawing on Flanner's hauntingly articulate letters to Natalia, who assumed a succession of broadcasting, film and publishing positions in Italy as well as New York, Murray deftly conveys the interplay of passion, need and resolute independence that brought out the best and worst in their long-distance relationship. Although Murray's portrait of Flanner is crisper than that of his mother-perhaps due to the loss of Natalia's letters as well as her son's lingering ambivalence-this is a stirring account of the mature and enduring love between a mother, her lover and her son. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Murray, a former staff writer at The New Yorker, here chronicles what it was like to be raised in a world presided over by two brilliant and forceful women, Natalia Danesi Murray and her longtime companion, New Yorker columnist Janet Flanner. Murray, who recognized the nature of his mother's relationship with Flanner in his adolescence, writes about accepting their lesbianism with equanimity and minimal interest--a rare accomplishment for a young man struggling with his own raging hormones. Moving back and forth among Paris, Rome, and New York, he writes about his family life against the background of World War II and its aftermath. And he includes material left out of Flanner and Natalia Murray's Darlinghissima (LJ 10/1/85), correcting the overly rosy portrait presented there. Scheduled for publication on The New Yorker's 75th anniversary, this book will be a useful addition to literature and gay studies collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/99.]--William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Daly
Sparing no one, not even himself, Murray reconstructs a triangular relationship so intense and so intimately rendered that it is absolutely riveting. He studies Janet and Natalia's emotional history, gives us a glimpse of Flanner's genius, and explores his own bonds with these two amazing women with tenderness, insight, and great literary skill.
Entertainment Weekly
Francis M. Shonkwiler
Without glossing over quarrels, jealousies, or the couple's frustration at often living apart—and in a world the didn't recognize its "marriage"—this memoir is a clear-eyed and loving elegy.
Out
Johnson
A graceful memoir . . . A memento mori, a lesson in the ephemeral nature of fame, especially artistic fame . . . Murray picks his way among the events of his life and the affairs of his parents with admirable circumspection .
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684809663
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 2/17/2000
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.91 (w) x 8.72 (h) x 1.00 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter One: Immortality The voices of grief haunt the early morning hours. My mother's voice sounded harsh and broken when she called to tell me that Janet had died. Alice and I had been awake for several hours, ever since her first call to inform us that Janet had been taken shortly after midnight to a hospital a few blocks from my mother's apartment in New York. "I am dying, Natalia, I am dying," Janet had whispered to her, while holding on to a chair in the hall where my mother, awakened by a cry of pain, had found her. And now, a few hours later, she was dead.

I felt stunned and cold, unable to indulge my own grief, as I got dressed and began to pack. I had already called the airline and told my mother I would be in New York by midafternoon. "Do you want me to come with you?" Alice asked, as we sipped coffee together in the kitchen.

I don't remember answering her right away. I wanted her to come, I knew she'd be a great comfort and help to me, but I'd already begun to armor myself against sorrow. "Let's wait a couple of days and see how things go," I said. "I'll call you, of course." My mother's apartment was small, not large enough to accommodate us both, and I knew I could not leave her alone in it, not during those first few days. Alice understood. We had been living together for nearly five years; she was a nurse, she knew about death and grieving. She also knew about mothers, especially this one. We drove in silence from our house near the beach in Santa Monica to the airport, half an hour away. Southern California's pale early November sunlight seemed incongruous to me, almost an insult.

I recall nothing about the trip except my arrival. I rang the bell of my mother's apartment, then opened the front door with my key. A small, distraught woman, whose swollen features I didn't immediately recognize, staggered into my arms. We stood there, rocking together as if nothing could have prepared us for this moment. Over my mother's head I found myself staring at the sympathetic, distressed face of Frank Taylor, an old friend of my mother's in publishing. I smiled at him and shook his hand, as he hastened to leave. "Call me, please, if you need anything," he said, those words we all speak to friends in distress, though not expecting to hear from them and helpless to be of use. He'd been kind to come, I told him, yes, of course, and now goodbye and thanks again.

Tuesday, November 7, 1978. It had been a glorious Indian summer day, my mother wrote about the event later. She had joined Janet in Central Park that afternoon. On their way home, Janet had reached out from her wheelchair to pluck a small branch from a bush full of red berries. She'd always loved flowers and countrysides. At home, later, they'd had drinks and dinner and a last good gossip before my mother had put Janet to bed. There had been much to talk about, because my mother was about to leave her job as the head of the New York office of the Italian publisher Rizzoli. She had been discarded by the new management that would quickly bring the firm to ruin. She'd made her peace with it, but Janet hadn't. So often they had championed one another's causes. That night, when my mother bent over to kiss her, Janet had held on to her and murmured, "I love you, Natalia, I love you so much."

At the hospital, where Janet had been rushed away to an operating room, my mother, accompanied by a friend, had been prevented from following her. "Who are you?" the nurse on duty asked her. What could my mother say? The great love of her life? The person who had meant more to her than anyone else she'd ever known? The woman who had shared her most intimate thoughts and physical tendernesses since they had first met thirty-eight years ago? Does bureaucracy in any form acknowledge love beyond all else? No, of course not. In her distress my mother could not make herself lie and pretend to a kinship of blood, could not be a sister, a niece, even a cousin. All she could think of to say was, "A friend, the only person she has in New York." They lived together, she added, in vain. "Wait in the entrance," the nurse, who had clearly mastered the rules, instructed her.

They sat there, my mother and her friend, in a downstairs waiting room, "for interminable hours, without any information: two women alone in the silence of the night. We didn't speak. We just waited."

Janet had suffered an abdominal aneurysm. The doctors had had to operate, but the young doctor on duty had not held out much hope, "only a ten percent chance of survival." The patient, after all, was eighty-six years old and had not been in good health for several years. In the end it's always a matter of cold statistics.

Shortly after six o'clock, the anesthetist appeared. The heart had failed, he informed them. He handed my mother a small bundle containing Janet's pajamas and red bathrobe, "all that was left of my Janet." The friend took my mother by the arm and ushered her out into the street, then walked her back to her now silent and empty apartment.

I first held Janet Flanner in my arms sometime during the summer of 1941, when I realized that I loved her and that, through her deepening friendship with my mother, she had become family to me. She didn't at all mind being hugged from time to time during the next thirty-seven years, though I think it surprised her when I did so. She would beam with pleasure, cackle, and usually tap me lightly on the arm or shoulder and exclaim, "Why, Bill, dear -- how nice!" She was not a woman easily given to public emotion, as her sister Hildegarde observed during the memorial service held for her a week after her death. Janet was in everything "passionate but restrained."

She did love to laugh, though, and she had an unfailingly keen eye for the absurd. The last time I held her in my arms was the morning after that service, when I went to pick up her ashes at the gloomily elegant Madison Avenue funeral home where she had been cremated. All that was left of her then was contained in a small but heavy pewter box, wrapped in brown paper and carelessly tied with ordinary twine. Cradling it, while simultaneously clutching a bouquet of flowers I had bought to ease the dreariness of the occasion, I started off down the avenue back toward my mother's apartment, in what soon became for me the longest ten blocks I had ever walked. Most of the way I was sickened by grief; but, as I turned the corner toward my mother's apartment, I suddenly imagined how Janet would have reacted to the scene -- first with a great squawk of indignation at the inappropriateness of death and the lugubriousness of the way we deal with it, then with laughter at the sight of the two of us enmeshed in such a surrealistically comical embrace.

Had she written about it, she would have found some unusual, original way of describing the scene and its effect on her. She'd always prided herself on never saying anything in an obvious or boring way, and she was always outraged by the misuse of language, even in casual conversation. She had made herself over the years into a masterful stylist, the witty and keenly observant writer who had created a literary form with her biweekly Letter from Paris in The New Yorker.

At the service, held in the large funeral home chapel, to which so many hundreds of old friends and admirers came that the crowd overflowed, with standees packed along the walls, Hildegarde recalled that Janet had begun her career as a novelist. "I wanted to be Miss Henry James," Janet once said about herself. After some training in journalism in her home state of Indiana, she'd moved to New York, then on to Paris, "her chosen civilization." And there, under the strange nom de plume of "Genêt," which The New Yorker's creator, Harold Ross, apparently thought was the French word for "Janet," she found her true vocation.

"I believe that the greatest event in creativity in the middle of this century," her old friend, the novelist Glenway Westcott, told us, "has been the change and development and refinement in journalism." No one, we all knew, was more responsible for that event than Janet Flanner. Westcott also recalled how she had looked in her later years, "a little like George Washington," with a wonderful beak of a nose, a great shock of white hair, very small hands and feet, and lively eyes.

My mother perched in a front row on the edge of her chair, not scheduled to speak and probably unable to, but ready to pounce on anyone who might falter or stray from the point in a discourse recalling Janet's past and virtues. She owned the memory of Janet now, just as she had finally been able to own her physically in these last three years, when Janet had at last left France to come and live with her in New York. She made Westcott nervous. He dropped his papers, he fumbled with his lines, he wandered in his speech and smiled sheepishly at us; age had caught up to him, too, and his memory was going. "Talk about Janet," my mother whispered fiercely from her seat, so loudly that I felt compelled to put my arm around her. I was afraid she would try to tell Westcott what to say. Alarmed, the novelist rallied, managed to find the relevant part of his discourse, and spoke his lines.

The years had claimed so many of Janet's old friends, crippled others. I had to help the playwright Lillian Hellman up the three short steps to the stage. Nearly blind, she could not rely on notes, but her mind was focused and clear. She remembered how kind Janet was even while she was being "recognizably witty," two qualities that rarely flourish in company. "I have long thought that most people's deaths diminish the rest of us," Hellman said, "but that certain deaths do more than that. They don't seem to me to have much to do with the talent of the person or how good or bad they were. It's that some strange complex of remarkable qualities that have come together never can be duplicated again. And it's those deaths we feel most saddened by, most grieved by."

Hildegarde -- a poet, small, stooped, a more feminine replica of her older sister, with the same fair complexion and crop of white hair -- spoke last, in a soft, clear voice that accentuated every syllable and recalled Janet's own insistence on not mangling the English language. She began by informing us that Janet's literary bent had wavered at least once: "My sister, at age seven, desired to be a streetcar conductor." She also reminded us that, though Janet would be remembered primarily as a "superb urban writer," she had always loved the landscape, not only of France and Italy, but of California as well. Whenever she came out to visit Hildegarde and her family, either in the Pasadena area or the Napa Valley, "her chief delight was to be taken for a drive. 'No mountains, please. They're important, but excessive.'"

"How she adored the multitudinous minute bloomings of the California spring," Hildegarde told us, and then read aloud her beautiful "Prayer for This Day," the closing lines of which read: "Kneel down. We ask no vision, no heavenly light / But simple faith, like faith of grass, in earth / And seed's old dream against the night, the night."


During the ten days I spent with my mother in New York, the mornings were the worst time. She slept either heavily or badly or not at all. She wore her grief like a huge stone that had to be raised from her, inch by inch, from the bottom of a well. The telephone saved us. By ten o'clock it would begin to ring, thrusting the outside world into the gloom of my mother's kitchen, where we sat struggling with her despair. There were voices of comfort from near and far; most welcome were the ones bearing news of practical matters, the small but insistent needs of the day. I seized on them with relief, serving as my mother's secretary and factotum, forcing her to deal through me with the mundane realities. Friends came and went, bearing gifts, bringing comfort. Hildegarde, sweet but strong as tempered steel, lingered for several days, long enough to lend support and also, by her calm acceptance of the event, to force my mother to maintain a facade of Roman stoicism, at least in her presence.

It was during this period of her life, with Janet obviously failing, that my mother had begun going to church again. Not on a regular basis, but from time to time, as if to check in with God and make sure He was still there, just in case He might be needed. Like most Romans, she had been raised a Catholic but came from a long line of mangiapreti, priest-eaters, good citizens willing to acknowledge the spiritual power of the church but impatient with its meddlesome intrusions into temporal affairs.

Several times during the week after Janet's death I accompanied her to her unpretentious local church on Lexington Avenue, a couple of blocks from her apartment. We sat in a back pew, meditated, lit candles on our way out, not only to Janet but also to my grandmother, Mammina Ester, then walked home in silence. It would have been unthinkable to linger long enough to hear a service, participate in Holy Communion, or subject ourselves to the indignity of a confession. I had long ago, at the age of twelve, rejected even the possibility of submitting to the formal doctrine of the church. My mother, as a native-born Italian, had proceeded through childhood within the ceremonial pattern of a formal religious upbringing, but, like the rest of our family, had throughout most of her life simply ignored it. You went, perhaps, to some church or other on Christmas Eve and at Easter, but only to acknowledge such events as traditional public celebrations of a shared humanity. Even now, when old age and death had made her more vulnerable to dogma, my mother could not yield to forces she had resisted all her life. Her brief visits throughout the rest of her time to places of worship signified no retreat in her convictions, nor any sort of conversion. She was not a hypocrite; she was hedging her bets.

Janet had been raised a Quaker in her home state of Indiana, and so had never had to free herself from the formalities of an entrenched ecclesiastical system. She had always had an absolutely open mind about religion -- any and all religions. In Rome, on her visits there with my mother over the years, she had willingly accompanied her on those occasional excursions to the great cathedrals or into the recesses of various favorite family temples, but always to gaze at the art on display in them or to experience the shared enthusiasm of some public event. She, too, had little patience with the clergy and had once in Rome shut the door in the face of a priest who had come, as was the custom at Easter time, to bless my mother's apartment. "We are Protestants," she had said, having been tipped off in advance by my mother that the custom dated back to a time when the clerical rulers of the medieval city used this subterfuge as a way of sniffing out criminals, unbelievers, and possible heretics. "I meant with a small p," she explained later, as if anxious not to have committed herself to any established order.

On November 16, the day before I was scheduled to come home to California, a memorial service for Janet was held at the American church in Paris. It, too, was attended by a large crowd of old friends and admirers. The novelist and critic Mary McCarthy delivered what she called an elegy, "a poem of lament and praise for the dead," to celebrate Janet's "informal spirit, vigorous, forthright, often speaking out of school, and yet grand in her nature, magnificent like Lorenzo, first citizen and patron of the arts, with some mythic quality in her like a splendid sacred bird." The image struck me as apt, because Janet, "with her sudden grackle cries and ejaculations of wonder, astonishment, alarm," had indeed been not unlike a wonderfully genial eagle. McCarthy's words, read aloud to her over the phone by a friend, pleased my mother and seemed at last to bring her a healing measure of relief, as if they confirmed her own estimate of irreparable loss.

I sat with her that night in the living room of her apartment, and for the first time since Janet's death we talked about the future. I had work I had to get back to in Los Angeles, including the openings of several plays I had to review for New West, the magazine to which I contributed a drama column. I would have stayed in New York a few more days, but my mother told me she would be all right and so allowed me to leave. I reminded her Christmas would soon be upon us and urged her to come out to California early enough to spend as much time as possible with us and with her three grandchildren -- my two daughters and son, who lived in Malibu with my ex-wife.

I also hoped that she would be present at my marriage to Alice. We had been living together for nearly five years and had been planning to get married two days after Christmas, in a modest civil ceremony to be attended only by Alice's father, a few friends, and, I hoped, my mother and the children. I didn't remind my mother of this event that night; in fact, Alice and I had already talked on the phone about possibly postponing it. In the end, we decided not to, feeling that somehow a positive thrust at life might help assuage grief. My mother and my children liked Alice and would be supportive. Alice and I wrote to my mother independently from California to confirm our plans.

I miscalculated. Something in my mother had been damaged beyond repair. She wrote to me from New York in Italian, the language we used to express our deepest feelings to each other, to tell me that she would come, primarily to see the children, but would be unable to participate either in our happiness or in "the rituals of Christmas."

"With Janet's disappearance I feel the foundations of my existence missing," she wrote.

I know you love me so much and that you would like to help me overcome my pain. I'm grateful to you. I will not be a presence up to the events and celebrations, alas. What I would most like would be to lock myself away in isolation and pray over this mystery that is life, tied by a thread that at any moment can snap and leave you suspended, without direction or strength or balance. We are never prepared for death, unfortunately. Therefore, we have to try to live as best we can -- I don't mean materially -- but lovingly and spiritually. And that's what I wish for you and Alice.

I consoled myself with the fact that at least she would come to California and not sit brooding endlessly in her apartment. I had never seen her in such despair before, even at my grandmother's death. It wasn't like her, and it frightened me. She was seventy-six, but still an explosive force of nature, the independent, vital woman who had been my greatest friend and supporter, as well as my most dangerous antagonist, for a lifetime. I wasn't afraid she would do anything stupid to herself, but I couldn't accept the picture I now had of her in my mind, defeated at last by love and loss. She had always seemed invincible, even long after I had freed myself from her and no longer saw her through a child's myopic eye.

The consolations of a structured faith had never been available either to Janet or to her. Janet's ashes, in their pewter box, sat now on a shelf in my mother's living room where, I began to realize, they would bring comfort, representing a last tangible connection. We had told Hildegarde that eventually one of us would carry them to California, where Hildegarde wanted to inter them close to those of her late husband, the architect Frederick Monhoff, and a stillborn infant son. They would eventually repose in a circular grove of native redwoods and firs that stretches down a gentle slope to a small creek.

This form of immortality was the only kind that Janet could ever make herself believe in. "I regret not having any religious faith," she once told an interviewer. "I'm an agnostic. Of course, if I find out where I'm going that I was wrong, I'll apologize."

Copyright © 2000 by William Murray

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