Solano, Solita (1888–1975)
Solano, Solita (1888–1975)
American novelist, journalist, editor, and translator. Born Sarah Wilkinson in Troy, New York, in 1888; died in Orgeval, France, on November 22, 1975; daughter of Almadus Wilkinson (a lawyer); attended Emma Willard 's School in Troy, New York, and Sacred Heart Convent; married Oliver Filley, in 1904 (marriage annulled, 1913); no children.
Lived in the Philippines (1904–08); tried stage career, New York (1908); had career as journalist in Boston and New York (1914–20); met Janet Flanner (winter 1918–19); was on assignment for National Geographic magazine in Europe (1921–22); settled in Paris (fall 1922); met Nancy Cunard (fall 1924); was secretary to George I. Gurdjieff, Russian mystic (1932); was a reporter for Detroit Athletic Club News (1932); returned to U.S. (October 1939); returned to France (1952, 1954–75).
"Paris between the Wars: An Unpublished Memoir," in The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress (vol. 34, 1977, pp. 308–314); The Uncertain Feast (NY: Putnam, 1924); The Happy Failure (NY: Putnam, 1925); This Way Up (NY: Putnam, 1927); Statue in a Field (Paris?, 1934); "Nancy Cunard: Brave Poet, Indomitable Rebel," in Nancy Cunard: Brave Poet, Indomitable Rebel, 1896–1965 (edited by Hugh Ford, Philadelphia: Chilton, 1968).
Solita Solano was strong-willed, independent, and exotic-looking. She rebelled against her puritanical, patriarchical middle-class family, loved women and travel, and lived much of her adult life in Paris, France. Her ambition was to become a writer, but her novels "had the honor of not pleasing most critics."
Solano was born in Troy, New York, in 1888 and christened Sarah Wilkinson, but "she hated her Anglo-Saxon birth name with its upstate associations," and adopted the name of a fictitious Spanish grandmother. Her childhood was not happy; her father disapproved of her literary ambitions and locked up his library to prevent her from reading his books. Solano felt she was ugly and less favored than her younger brothers. In 1934, she expressed this in a poem: "Is this a daughter?/ … Can't you act like your brother?/ … No one asks you to be beautiful/ No one wants you with a brain/ A damnable thing for a woman." Moreover, formal education did not appeal to her; sent to a convent school "for more discipline," Solano lied, stole, and read forbidden books.
When her father died in 1903, Solano's portion of the estate was entrusted to her two younger brothers to administer. And she was forbidden to marry without the consent of her mother or brothers (or their heirs) or she would forfeit her inheritance. In 1904, she eloped with Oliver Filley, an engineer with the Bureau of Public Works in the Philippines. During the next four years, Solano "surveyed land, plotted maps" and helped construct roads in the Philippines; she also learned three Malay languages, was prominent in the social life of Manila, and traveled to China and Japan. The marriage failed, and Solano escaped by climbing out of a bedroom window during the night. In 1913, the marriage was annulled, but she still had lost any claim to her inheritance.
Back in the States, Solita tried to become an actor in New York, but soon realized she had no real talent. She then moved to Boston where she worked for several years as a reporter, feature editor, drama critic, and editor for the Boston Traveler, and later for the Boston Journal. Success in journalism did not, however, satisfy her desire to "write truly great fiction." In late 1918, she went to New York to work for the Tribune and began writing short stories based on her experiences in the Philippines. And she met and fell in love with Janet Flanner . Solano became, claims one historian, "the first great—and in many ways undiminished—love of Janet's life."
Flanner adored Solano who was "worldly and elegant and lovely," spoke Spanish and Italian fluently, had published short stories, and was an admired journalist. According to Brenda Wineapple , Solano wanted "beauty and passion and rapture" in her life, and to "defy time's laws for love and loveliness." With Flanner, Solano fulfilled her desire.
Solita went to Greece and Constantinople on assignment for National Geographic in 1921, accompanied by Flanner who had left her husband (they later divorced). After finishing Solano's travel assignments in Europe, the women decided to settle in Paris (in 1922) where they hoped to become part of French life, not just live on the margins as so many expatriates did. They settled into the Hôtel Bonaparte on the Left Bank (in 1977, Solita wrote a short memoir of the 16 years they lived there) and spent each afternoon and early evening working on their novels. Both women disliked domesticity and never set up regular housekeeping. Among their many famous acquaintances in Paris were James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway (whose "male histrionics," they thought, were "childish"), Natalie Clifford Barney , and Gertrude Stein ; women played a major role in their lives, especially the wealthy English owner of the Hours Press, Nancy Cunard . The three women became "a fixed triangle," and as Solita noted, they "survived all the spring quarrels and the sea changes of forty-two years of modern female fidelity." Solano had achieved the sexual and economic freedom she had sought by defying social convention and living by her own rules.
However, Solita was less successful in her literary career; she published three novels between 1924 and 1927, none of which sold well, and returned to journalism. The novels all dealt with "a fundamental ugliness and decay in the hearts and minds of modern human beings," and with "the failures of human relationships." Solano now turned to writing articles about Paris for the Detroit Athletic Club News as Flanner (under the pen name Genêt) did for The New Yorker. During the 1930s, fascism was threatening to destabilize Europe, and Solano regretted that even Paris was changing. A friend introduced her to the charismatic Russian mystic George Gurdjieff, who had founded a spiritual community at Fontainebleau-Avon. At first, Solano was not impressed, but she was seeking "something otherworldly and romantic" and finally became one of his disciples, serving as Gurdjieff's secretary for five years.
In September 1939, France and England went to war with Germany, and on October 15, Solano and Flanner sailed from Bordeaux to America. They took up residence in a hotel in New York, but Solano was depressed. Leaving France had been difficult, and Flanner had a new lover. Solita knew that she was "about to lose Janet." To aid the war effort, Solano joined the American Women's Volunteer Services which trained women to serve in war-related jobs. However, she felt she had lost direction. She no longer had the urge to write, and she felt "homeless" and wanted "an entirely new life." Solano had a new companion, Elizabeth Jenks Clark , known as Lib, but she still remained in touch with Flanner and helped manage her finances. Solano loved Paris where she and Flanner had been happy together, but how could she return "to those scenes where all is so changed, so lonely, where all my heart, in pieces now, will ever be."
In the early 1950s, Solano and two friends bought a house in Orgeval, outside of Paris. Flanner had also returned to France after the war, and Solano again was involved in editing Flanner's "Letters from Paris" for The New Yorker. Solano now led a quiet, more sedentary life, pursuing her interest in etymology and occasionally doing editing work. In 1966, John C. Broderick, chief of the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress, contacted Janet Flanner and, later, Solano about donating their papers to the Library. Flanner did not want to undertake the task, but agreed to make their papers available. Solano spent the last decade of her life collecting and organizing the private and professional documents that comprise the Flanner-Solano Papers in the Library of Congress. Broderick describes this as Solano's "memorial."
By the early 1970s, Solita acknowledged that she was "being erased" from Janet's life. But the "fixed triangle" that had bound Solano, Flanner, and Cunard together in "modern female fidelity" is preserved in the collections of their papers.
Chisholm, Anne. Nancy Cunard: A Biography. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 4: American Writers in Paris, 1920–1939. Edited by Karen Lane Rood. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1980.
Wineapple, Brenda. Genêt: A Biography of Janet Flanner. NY: Ticknor & Fields, 1989.
The Flanner-Solano Papers are located in the Library of Congress.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Visiting Scholar, Department of History, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah