Writer Janet Flanner is remembered primarily for her insightful dispatches during her long tenure as The New Yorker Paris correspondent. Yet equally noteworthy are the eclectic and compelling profiles she has written, of figures ranging from Picasso and Bette Davis to Hitler. In 1929, she painted the portrait of the novelist Edith Wharton, who was then living as an expatriate in the French countryside. Flanner’s profile, by turns irreverent and poignant, captures Wharton’s evolution as a chronicler of social mores and complex taxonomies within the beau monde from which she hails. “She always suffered from the disadvantage of being an outsider, even in her hometown, after becoming a popular novelist,” writes Flanner. “New York never forgave her for being born in New York and writing about it.” Flanner’s essay delights, in part, because it features a master profiler offering a sly and deft portrait of a writer who was herself one of the most eminent literary portraitists of the last century.
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This week, as the new yorker celebrates its ninety-seventh anniversary, we offer you a selection of Profiles from our archives. In “Eclectic, Reminiscent, Amused, Fickle, Perverse”, George WS Trow writes about Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records, who over the course of his long career has worked with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and many others. (Ertegun’s “pursuit of novelty, vogue and distraction leads him into situations that most people would find boring or senseless; but, just as Proust would have seen in the presence of a boring duchess the representative of seven centuries of duchesses, Ahmet can perhaps see in the most thankless nightclub, in the most nutritious dinner, in the most boring rock singer, a descendant of one of the American archetypes that fascinated him in his youth.”) In “The Shadow Act,” Hilton Als explores the radically innovative work of artist Kara Walker. “Walker’s vision…is sham history. Things are not what they seem, because America is, literally, amazing, fantastic – a freak sight that ‘It’s almost impossible to watch, let alone understand.’) In “Standing Out of Chaos in Style”, Kenneth Tynan examines the life of British playwright Tom Stoppard. In “Show Dog,” Susan Orlean focuses on perhaps the most unlikely subject of this group, a Westminster named Biff Truesdale. (“If I was a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly, handsome, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He hardly ever drools.”) From “Secrets of the mage” , Mark Singer considers the creative ingenuity of magician and sleight of hand artist Ricky Jay.In “White Like Me”, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writes about the life of Anatole Broyard, a literary critic who is reimagined by denying his true identity.Finally, in 1986’s “Covering the Cops,” Calvin Trillin portrays the fearless Edna Buchanan, Miami’s greatest detective reporter at that time. regularly discussed by first name among people they have never met,” writes Trillin. “One of them is Fidel. Another is Edna.
—Erin Overbey, Archive Editor