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Letter from Del Mar

Pictures, maps, photographs, and paintings crowd William Murray’s Del Mar walls. Three images catch my attention. They interest me as much for divergence of style as for dissimilar content: a pencil sketch of famed New Yorker writer Janet Flanner, her features retreating into the creamy yellow paper; a moody depiction of a stern bishop waving a thurible; and a lighthearted drawing of a topless woman sunbathing on the Riviera, her lissome figure stretched across the paper.

Murray notices me noticing and comments with a chuckle, “We liked the juxtaposition of the bishop with the sunbather” — the reserved, spiritual man with the free and fleshy woman. Murray might as easily have chuckled over the juxtaposition of the cleric with Janet, a woman with little affinity for organized religion in general and the Catholic clergy in particular — a quality illustrated in the excerpt printed here from Murray’s book, Janet, My Mother, and Me: A Memoir of Growing Up with Janet Flanner and Natalia Danesi Murray.

To me, the three images form three elements in a proportion, a proportion that would have been completed by a portrait of Natalia, Murray’s mother and Janet’s longtime lover. Unlike Janet’s ghostly sketch, this portrait would have been full of color and detail, solid and complete. For Janet is to the spirit as Natalia is to the flesh — somehow opposed, straining in opposite directions, yet somehow bound together, so that, whatever separation is effected, an intimate reunion always follows.

Over and over in Janet, My Mother, and Me, the theme arises, encompassing aspect after aspect of their lives. Food: “On the rare evenings when we were all home, we ate together the splendid Italian meals both my mother and Mammina Ester [Murray’s maternal grandmother] seemingly were able to whip up out of leftovers even at the last minute. Janet and I, both helpless in the kitchen, ate with gusto, then sometimes helped clean up afterward. I was used to this chore, but Janet clearly wasn’t and was vocal about her distaste for the whole necessary procedure. ‘It’s exactly like uneating the meal one has just consumed,’ she once protested. ‘Not unlike ancient Roman behavior at orgiastic banquets.’ ” (Later, Janet’s only complaint during a visit to Rome is about the dysfunctional toilets.)

Sex: “She felt a tremendous sense of obligation to Natalia, while at the same time she was clearly exasperated not only by the compromises love imposed, but also by the basic needs of the flesh. ‘There are moments, Natalia’ [she writes] ‘when the very thought of a sexual organ, with its opening and rosiness and strange ill-organized shape, its peculiar cleft trident, fills me with real shock and horror.… That is the idea which so often constricts me with my love for you — you know that; the idea that at my age my machinery of activity is that, seems both improper and inactivating; it almost makes me impotent. At this time I should be motivated by another organ, the brain.…’ ”

However constricted Janet may have felt, she was not completely choked off. About the source of their attraction, Murray tells me, “I think there was enormous intellectual admiration to start with, and then I think there was real physical passion. Those two people were physically in love with one another, but I think the initial impulse came from Natalia’s general admiration of who Janet was and what she’d done. Both those women were amazing, because they dominated whatever room they were in. You wanted to be around them, because they were brilliant, funny talkers, and because they just exuded an aura of glamour and intellectual curiosity that made them fascinating to be around.”

Bill and Janet

Photo courtesy of William Murray

Returning to the theme: Children: Janet “had never wanted children, was uninterested in them, and claimed not to understand them…her outlook on self-fulfillment was essentially masculine,” that is, it derived from work, not offspring.

As we sit in a sun-drenched corner of Murray’s home, he tells me that his mother shared in this attitude to some extent, that she “was not the kind of person who could go through life not doing anything except being a wife and mother.” Natalia’s own mother may have had some influence in this regard; after she was widowed she forged a career in journalism while raising her three daughters. But in 1953, Janet writes to Natalia, “You must have a domestic life. It is your classic need, too long denied you by me, by my character, habits and work.… I, too, am utterly worn out with the sense of guilt, of struggle, the self-contempt for not making you happy, for not destroying my life as it is, for not cracking it asunder and putting you in what is left of its epicenter, in the domesticity you long for.…” Whatever fulfillment Natalia desired outside of running a household, that primal, material desire remained aflame; in Janet it never sparked.

Bill Murray

“My character, habits, and work.” Work is where the theme sounds loudest and longest, the point that nearly drives them asunder, and that in some respect provides them salvation. Though they met in New York in 1940 and lived together from 1941 until late 1944, Janet was eventually drawn back to Paris, away from Natalia and back to the lonely, solitary work of writing. In his book, Murray goes so far as to call her efforts for The New Yorker — efforts which won her the National Book Award in 1966 for a collection of her Letters from Paris — her “raison d’être.” When we talk, Murray refers to the magazine as the object of “her primary commitment.” And in 1947, Janet writes Natalia, “You complain that I have three wives and the truth is, as you know, that I also have a husband, The New Yorker.”

Janet Flanner and Natalia Danesi Murray in Rome, c. 1950

Janet Flanner and Natalia Danesi Murray in Rome, c. 1950

That “husband,” together with the life she builds around him, is in large part what keeps Janet from moving back to New York to live with Natalia, and this geographical separation is presented as the chief stumbling block in their nearly 40-year love affair. When I ask why Natalia did not simply set up house with Janet in Paris, Murray answers, “I don’t think it ever occurred to either of them that they should do that. I don’t think Janet made enough out of her work for The New Yorker to support a household of two, even.” Besides, there was Natalia’s desire for work of her own, work she found in either Rome or New York.

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