In 1979, after he met Jackie O, Bruce Chatwin wrote to his wife, Elizabeth,
Escorting Mrs Onassis to the opera next Thursday. Met her again with the John Russells, and my God she’s fly.1
Best description of Mrs. Onassis ever? I think so. I was surprised to learn that this connotation of “fly” was of so early a vintage, but a writer in a discussion at Metafilter found an even earlier occurence in an O. Henry story of the first decade of the 20th century.
Surrounded by masked men during a phosgene attack at Verdun, Pierre de Mazenod was reminded of a ‘carnival of death.’ For many, gas took the war into the realm of the unreal, the make-believe. When men donned their masks they lost all sign of humanity, and with their long snouts, large glass eyes, and slow movements, they became figures of fantasy, closer in their angular features to the creations of Picasso and Braque than to soldiers of tradition. [Roland] Dorgelès called the gas mask ‘this pig snout which represented the war’s true face.’
»Modris Eksteins. Rites of Spring : The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1989.