Natalie Barney: An American Amazon
Natalie Barney painted by her mother Alice Pike Barney
Natalie Barney (1876-1972) was probably one of the most fascinating and maddening woman of the 19th and early 20th century. She was a great seductress whose list of conquests sounds like a who’s who of the Belle Époque, Collette, the poet Renee Vivien, the painter Romaine Brooks, Dolly Wilde, the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre, just to name a few. Although her epic love life alone would be enough for a place in the history books, Natalie was much more than just a female Casanova. She was also a writer, playwright, and poet who held a salon for more than 60 years on Paris’s Left Bank, which brought together artists from around the world. Barney was a bridge between the Parisian community and the ex-pats who flocked to Paris particularly after WWI. She was what you might call a facilitator. She also worked to promote women writers by founding a “Women’s Academy” in response to the all-male French Academy.
Like Gertrude Stein, Natalie’s family was wealthy which afforded her the the freedom to live openly as a lesbian in Paris. Her father Albert Clifford Barney was the son of a wealthy manufacturer of railway cars. Her mother Alice Pike Barney, who later became an artist of some renown, also came from a moderately wealthy family. Natalie was born in the heartland, in Dayton, Ohio, on October 31, 1876. Her parents had an unhappy marriage. Natalie’s father was a heavy drinker who could be abusive when drunk; he was unfaithful, and obsessed with appearances. Her mother had a more even temperament, a live and let live attitude. The first cracks in the marriage occurred when Albert discovered letters from Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer, in a trunk. Alice and Stanley had been sweethearts until Stanley went off on another expedition to Africa. Alice had promised to wait for him, but being only 17 at that time and newly launched into society, her promises soon turned to dust. Albert was furious and jealous at that relationship, even when Alice proved to him that she hadn’t even bothered to read most of the letters that Stanley had sent back. While her mother found a way to go around Albert’s more overbearing ways, Natalie was openly rebellious.
As a young girl, Natalie had fallen in love with Paris when her parents sent her and her younger sister Laura to boarding school at Les Ruches; founded by feminist Marie Souvestre (Souvestre would later have a huge influence on Eleanor Roosevelt who attended her school in England). The school encouraged the girls to think for themselves which was unheard of in the 19th century where women were expected, if they had opinions, to echo their fathers or their husbands. As an adult she spoke French fluently without an accent, and nearly all her written work was in French. From the age of 22 until her death at 95 in 1972, Natalie spent most of her adult life in Paris. Her father’s death in 1902 gave her the freedom to live how and wherever she chose.
While Barney published several books of poetry, a few novels, and several books of epigrams, she never seems to have taken her work as seriously as others wanted her to. She rarely revised her work, insisting that the first flush of inspiration was the best, that editing turned writing stale. Her lasting achievement is the salon that she held on Friday afternoons at her home. Although her own tastes were decidedly traditional, Natalie wasn’t afraid of new talent or new ways of thinking. During the 1920’s, she even bobbed her hair although she clung to her long skirts! Joan Shenkar described Barney’s salon as “a place where lesbian assignations and appointments with academics could coexist in a kind of cheerful, cross-pollinating, cognitive dissonance.” Natalie was a gifted hostess, able to combine a stage manager’s precision with that of a showman. She was equally at home conducting a celebration for hundreds or an intimate dinner party for four.
Even Mata Hari made an appearance at Barney’s salon, hired to dress up as Lady Godiva on a white horse harnessed with turquoise cloisonné before performing one of her Javanese numbers. Natalie would sometimes feature poetry or theatricals written by her or in co-written with her mother. During WWI, the salon became a haven for those opposed to the war, Natalie being chief amongst them. Other visitors to the salon during the ‘20’s included Andre Gide, Anatole France, Jean Cocteau, Thornton Wilder, Sinclair Lewis, Peggy Guggenheim, Nancy Cunard, Rainer Maria Rilke, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Isadora Duncan. Another American, poet Ezra Pound became a good friend of Barney’s, he met his mistress Olga Rudge at the salon. Several contemporaries including Colette, Djuna Barnes, and Radclyffe Hall created characters based on Barney
Of course, one can talk about Barney without discussing her love life. Natalie later said that she knew by the age of 12 that she was a lesbian, but even if she hadn’t been, her parents’ marriage made her determined to never get married. As a teenager, she had been courted by the painter Mary Cassatt’s nephew Bob, who wanted to marry. Natalie loved and respected him enough to let him know that she preferred women. In response, Bob offered what was known as a mariage Blanc or marriage of convenience, both parties would be able to pursue their own interests, and Natalie would have the protection of his name. However Natalie realized that Bob was too jealous of her affairs with other women.
Although she was discreet, Natalie never hid who she was, although both her parents were shocked when they found out after her first book of poetry Quelques Portraits-Sonnets de Femmes were published. With this volume, Natalie became the first woman to openly write about the love of women since Sappho. While most reviewers either didn’t get it or glossed over the subject matter, a newspaper article entitled “Sappho Sings in Washington,” alerted her father who bought and destroyed the remaining stock and the printing plates. Natalie’s mother Alice was also shocked, but she loved her daughter enough to eventually accept her sexuality. Natalie was shunned by the community of upper-class American ex-pats in Paris, as well as by the social register in Bar Harbor and Washington, DC. Not that Natalie cared, unlike her father, she didn’t give a damn what people thought.
As well as being openly lesbian, Barney also advocated against monogamy. Anyone who fell in love with Barney would have to get used to sharing her. At any given moment, she would be juggling at least two or sometimes three lovers at a time. She once wrote out a list dividing her loves into separate categories: liaisons, demi-liaisons, and adventures. Many of her former lovers evolved into lifelong friendships. Natalie was fearless in pursuit of her amours; she was not shy about making her attentions known. Quite a few heterosexual women succumbed to the allure of Barney’s charisma. While not conventionally beautiful, she had long, lustrous blonde hair, and deep blue eyes. Her close friend, the writer Remy de Gourmont dubbed her “The Amazon.”
Her first major relationship was with the courtesan Liane de Pougy. She had seen de Pougy riding her horse in Bois de Boulogne and was instantly attracted to her. Determined to win her, she showed up at de Pougy’s door dressed in a page costume, declaring that she was a “page of love,” sent by Sappho. Their brief affair ended because Barney couldn’t deal with de Pougy’s profession. The love affair was immortalized in de Pougy’s novel entitled Idylle Saphique. Published in 1901, the book was reprinted almost 70 times in its first year. Far from being hurt or offended, Barney even contributed several chapters to the novel.
After de Pougy, Barney fell in love with a fellow American Pauline Tarn who wrote poetry under the nom de plume Renee Vivien. Vivien fell deeply in love with Barney, considered her a muse, but she was unable to deal with Natalie’s infidelities. She had other demons of her own; she was anorexic, addicted to alcohol and the drug chloral hydrate. After 2 years, Vivien stopped answering Natalie’s letters. She moved on to other lovers but Natalie wouldn’t accept her decision. All throughout her life, Natalie would want what she couldn’t have. After a brief reconciliation which included a trip to the island of Lesbos, Vivien ended the relationship for good. She died in 1909. Barney later wrote, “She could not be saved. Her life was a long suicide. Everything turned to dust and ashes in her hands.” Another lover, Dolly Wilde, was almost a repeat of her relationship with Renee Vivien. Like Vivien, she seemed hell-bent on self-destruction. She drank heavily, was addicted to heroin, and attempted suicide several times. Despite her wit and charm, she never managed to write anything, preferring to be supported by others. Barney financed stays in the early 20th century equivalent of rehab but nothing worked. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Wilde refused surgery, committing suicide in 1941.
Not all of Barney’s love affairs ended in tragedy or publication. Her longest relationship was with the painter Romaine Brooks. Another wealthy American, Romaine and Natalie met during WWI. Less social than Natalie, she disliked Paris and most importantly she disliked most of Natalie’s friends. Brooks was a nomad who spent most of her life traveling between Europe and America. She was aloof which kept Barney interested since she never knew when Romaine was going to take off and leave. Romaine also seemed better able to tolerate Natalie’s infidelities. For most of their 50 plus relationship, they kept separate residences. To accommodate Romaine’s need for solitude, their summer home consisted of two wings joined by a dining room.
After Barney’s death in 1972, her life and work was largely forgotten. In 1979, Judy Chicago honored Barney with a place setting in The Dinner Party (now ensconced at the Brooklyn Museum of Art). In the 1980’s, her work began to be rediscovered and translated into English. Two major biographies were written, her influence on early 20th century authors and literature was noted. Her work also began to be translated into English, allowing contemporary audiences to discover her, but her most of her plays and her poetry are still not translated. In October 2009, Natalie was honored with a historical marker in her home town of Dayton, OH, the first one in Ohio to note the sexual orientation of its honoree.
Suzanne Rodriguez Wild Heart: A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris New York: Harper Collins (2002)
Diana Souhami: Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, New York, St. Martin's Press, 2005