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1896 painted by her mother Alice Pike Barney

Ms. Barney  (October 31, 1876 to February 2, 1972, Aphrodite/Scorpio) only lived in Ohio, where she was born for 10 years. However, I assume because her parents were both born and raised in Ohio, she is accepted on the roster of notable women from Ohio (on Wikipedia). There is also a historical marker where she was born in Dayton. Her heart and where she spent the majority of her life as a famous salonist was in Paris.

One must become idle to become oneself. Natalie Clifford Barney

I developed a love/hate relationship with Ms. Barney and trying to read 368 pages of Suzanne Rodriguez’s book “Wild Heart,” (2002) took me a couple of months. Ms. Barney is famous for saying “I am a lesbian. One needn’t hide it nor boast of it.” I have a great deal of respect for this sentence because I think the way our world is today is quite hedonistic and part of why we are in such turmoil as a whole. Ms. Barney would probably agree with me. She was a society lady, raised in wealth, appreciating high fashion and having exceptional taste. What I did not like about her is that she was a snob and if she were a man we would say she was a player. Friends, who spoke to the writer of this book described her as a very giving and generous woman. These were not her liaisons that made these observations. They documented much more painful and passionate thoughts as to her character. A player is a person who will use the word “love” sparingly and in her case as sonnets to continue playing with her web of intrigue and manipulation. A player loves the chase, like a cat to a mouse and once caught, will carry it around in their mouth until they are ready to spit it out. Natalie was known to have said “When you want to make someone crazy, you must not give in.” If she had been a poor woman, it is doubtful she would have had half of her success with friends, though she would not have been a snob.

Natalie Clifford Barney

Ms. Barney was a writer, though what I have seen thus far (very little is translated) is not quite to the level as many of her counterparts, many who were her lovers. Her salon in Paris on 20 Rue Jacob, was her child, a place where she helped create futures for young writers from the 1920’s to 1972 when she died. Some of the people who were known to be in her circle, such as Pauline Tarn (aka  Renée Vivien ) the courtesan Liane de Pougy, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, and Lily Gramont (the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre). There were also very famous people (that we know today still, the others were famous then) who made their way to her “Fridays” and these were James Joyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Max Jacob, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Mata Hari (entertainment), Isabelle Duncan (entertainment), Antole France, Romaine Brooks and Jean Chalon.

Natalie and Romaine

Her longest relationship was with the painter Romaine Brooks, who is now being brought back to life by many art historians. I did find myself captivated by her work when I looked at copies online. I wonder if Coco Chanel would have been intrigued as well, since they might have known each other then. Her work is black and white paintings with what is said to be incredible insight, on her part, in capturing someone’s psyche. What is odd is that they met in 1914 and it wasn’t until their mid 90’s, right before both of them died that Romaine ended the relationship for good. Of course this had to do with her mental condition that she was in at this time. My guess, from reading, is that she probably had some form of dementia. However, due to her early abusive upbringing, she had always been a bit of an eccentric and had very low self-esteem. I felt sad for Ms. Brooks because Ms. Barney was never faithful to her. I can imagine what this must have been like for her. Ms. Brooks was a survivor in some respects though. She would live elsewhere or travel abroad whenever Natalie was chasing after another skirt. Sometimes she had other liaisons herself.

Self-portrait by Romaine Brooks

In her younger days, Ms. Barney was a horsewoman, known for her athletic abilities. What is fascinating when you read this book is reading descriptions of her pursuits of other women or networking with locals, on horseback through the streets of Paris. I found myself caught up in visualizing what this might have been like, though I have seen many period pieces that have shown this.  What is funny about this book is that one might think every famous woman in Paris was a lesbian, considering her exploits. What I began to gather though, is that at this time women she chased, who were well-bred ladies like herself (for the most part) and many of them married, only knew what they were allowed to behave like with a man. Natalie introduced them to newer, more promiscuous and perhaps sometimes even safer ways to be able to express oneself. Most women at that time were more comfortable with other women. I have read in other historical books that lesbian type behaviors were actually acceptable in women’s schools and colleges. It kept them from focusing on boys but was considered natural behaviors too. Once they married it was meant to end of course and they were meant to behave in a manner fitting a betrothed spouse. With Natalie’s lovers, sometimes this happened; sometimes they continued the affair and on occasion a ménage-a-tois.

Ms. Barney’s salons were famous because of her extroverted behavior, the wonderful delicacies that she served her choice of entertainment but also her rules. The rules had to do with not cursing, behaving appropriately (not being a jerk) and if she didn’t like you, then you weren’t allowed to come back. Agents and publishers would approach her about bringing around what they hoped would be a protégé. On one occasion Natalie invited Emmeline Pankhurst; to discuss women’s suffrage in her parlor. She listened intently but in the end was disturbed by the way their discussions and ideals turned into petty arguments. She decided at that point on not to use her salon as a political venue. This is something I could applaud her for as well. While these ladies did so much for their countries, in getting the right to vote, their behaviors kept this from happening sooner (see my article on Victoria Woodhull).

In 1927, Natalie created Académie des Femmes as a reaction to the discrimination against women in Académie Française (a group recognizing writers, but only allowing men to join). While her group did not last very long, it did bring attention to women writers. It wasn’t until 1980 when Académie Française would admit the first woman.

The last salon would occur at the cemetery on February 4, 1972 when 23 friends came to honor the passing of Ms. Barney. They realized it happened to be a Friday which was fitting this great lady and her famous salons. Ms. Barney and her sister Laura were buried together. Laura was famous for her translations in the Baha’i faith. Natalie had known that the Van Gogh brothers were buried together and thought it was ridiculous that all the marker said was “Here Lies.” As a result, Natalie prepared her own tribute which says “I am this legendary being [Amazon] in which I will live again.” Her nickname, given to her by the writer Rémy de Gourmont, after they met was “The Amazon.” 

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