Barney, Natalie Clifford (1876–1972)

views updated

Barney, Natalie Clifford (1876–1972)

American-born expatriate author, translator, and foremother of feminist literature, who created an international literary salon in Paris and an Academy of Women to cultivate women writers. Born Natalie Clifford in Dayton, Ohio, on October 31, 1876; died at age 95 at Hotel Meurice in Paris, France, on February 3, 1972; daughter of Alice Pike Barney (an accomplished painter and arts patron) and Albert Clifford Barney (an industrialist, president of the Barney Railroad Car Foundry); sister of Laura Barney (b. 1879); learned French as a child from her great aunt Louisa and French governess; studied for 18 months at Les Ruches boarding school in Fontainebleau while her mother studied painting in Paris; before her teen years, became completely bilingual; completed formal education at Miss Ely's School in New York; had a German-speaking governess, and spent seven months in Germany during a European tour, where she took lessons in fencing, dancing, and violin; studied French verse and Greek under tutelage of Charles Brun; no formal schooling after that, but learned from numerous intellectuals and writers who frequented her salon, beginning in 1909; never married; had a 50-year relationship with Romaine Brooks.

Spent first ten years in the country outside Cincinnati, Ohio; family moved to Washington, D.C., and summered in Bar Harbor, Maine, with occasional trips to Europe, including Scandinavia and Russia; lived with parents in Europe (1883); returned to Paris with sister and mother, who studied painting with Whistler among other artists (1887); portrait painted as The Little Page by mother's teacher Carolus-Duran (1887); lived in Paris on and off for the next 14 years; conducted love affair with famous courtesan Liane de

Pougy, starting around 1899, the first of many; reputation for her liaisons with women may have become public when de Pougy published barely disguised autobiographical novel, Idyl saphique (Sapphic Idyll), featuring a young American girl modeled on Barney, the first of many appearances of her character in fiction (1901); engaged briefly to Lord Alfred-Douglas, Oscar Wilde's former lover (1900); also briefly engaged to William Morrow; met and began affair with Anglo-American writer and poet, Renée Vivien (1900); with Vivien, tried to establish a neo-Sapphic colony on the Greek island of Lesbos for womenpoets, but failed; after her father's death (1902), became independently wealthy with inheritance of $2.5 million and moved permanently to Paris; wrote six of her 14 books during liaison with Vivien; met painter Romaine Brooks sometime before WWI and started long-term liaison; moved to 20 rue Jacob in Faubourg St. Germain and launched her salon for leading writers and intellectuals of the day (1909); met influential but reclusive writer and critic Remy de Gourmont (1910), who published Brooks-Barney correspondence with Barney's approval in Mercure de France (1912–13), establishing Barney as a literary figure; remained in Paris and ran her salon during World War I; had affair withDolly Wilde (1920s); launched Académie des Femmes (Academy of Women) to celebrate and support women writers (1927); moved to Florence with Romaine Brooks during World War II (1939); revived salon in Paris after the war and ran it until 1968; in her 80s, began 14-year liaison withJanine Lahovary (1958); broke with Brooks and left 20 rue Jacob because of structural problems and legal battle with landlord (1968).

Selected publications:

Quelques portraits-sonnets de femmes (Ollendorf, 1900); Cinq petits dialogues grecs (LaPlume, 1901); (Anon.) The Woman Who Lives with Me (privately published, probably 1904); Actes et entr'actes (Sansot, 1910); Eparpillements (Sansot, 1910); (Anon.) Je me souviens (Sansot, 1910); Poems & poemes: autres alliances (Paris: Emile Paul, 1920); Pensées d'une Amazone (Emile Paul, 1920); Aventures de l'ésprit (Emile Paul, 1929; published in English as Adventures of the Mind, New York University Press, 1992); The One Who Is Legion, A.D.'s After-Life (London: Eric Partridge, 1930); Nouvelles pensées de l'Amazone (Mercure de France, 1939); (edited with an introduction by Barney) In Memory of Dorothy Irene Wilde (Dijon: Darantiere, 1951); (foreword) Gertrude Stein's As Fine as Melanctha (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954); Souvenirs indiscrets (Flammarion, 1960); Traits et portraits (Mercure de France, 1963).

At the end of the 19th century, as an American expatriate, Natalie Clifford Barney chose Paris as her permanent home, a city that would grant her artistic and sexual freedom. In this unfettered atmosphere, she cultivated personal and literary relationships for over 60 years, until she died at age 95. Barney was a charismatic and candid public figure who lived, loved, and wrote as a lesbian and provided a showcase for writers through her international literary salon. She envisioned a Sapphic community on Lesbos to bring women writers together, and created a real Paris Lesbos to inspire and support women's creativity. "So long as I live, the love of Beauty will be my guide," she wrote in her unpublished autobiography:

[I] have to find or found a milieu that fits my aspirations: a society composed of all those who seek to focus and improve their lives through an art that can give them pure presence. They are the only people with whom I can get along, and communicate and finally express myself openly among free spirits.

Some commentators claim that her life was secondary to her literary work, but for Barney life and work were inherently connected: "Your life is your most beautiful poem; you are your own immortal masterpiece," she wrote in Actes et entr'actes (1910). She created her life as an aesthetic and sensual experience. Her own literary output—14 volumes, primarily written in French—ran the gamut: drama, poetry, epigrams, Gothic fiction, portraits of contemporaries, and autobiography. She enjoyed lifelong friendships and amassed correspondence of over 40,000 letters. Natalie Barney wrote about art, life, love, and literature. Her work reflected women's shared experiences.

The life Natalie Barney ultimately created for herself in France was quite unlike the world of her parents. She was born on October 31, 1876, in Dayton, Ohio; her sister Laura followed three years later. Their father Albert Clifford Barney was an industrialist who inherited a railroad fortune. Their mother Alice Pike Barney was an heiress who became a well-known portrait painter and arts patron. Natalie's maternal grandfather Samuel Pike was a successful entrepreneur of Dutch-Jewish heritage who built an opera house for Cincinnati and replaced the costly structure when it was destroyed by fire.

French language and culture were part of Natalie's life almost from the start: her grandmother's sister Louise Miller Este , who was born in Louisiana, always spoke French and served French cuisine at her dinner parties in Baltimore; she admired Natalie's French which was spoken without an accent. The sisters' French governess insisted on reading Jules Verne in French, which honed Barney's linguistic skills. Surrounded by animals, the girls grew up in a pastoral setting on the outskirts of Cincinnati; summers were spent in Bar Harbor, Maine, where Alice Barney built and fitted out several houses. When the family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1886 and Alice's portrait-painting commissions grew, Natalie became one of her frequently painted subjects. Her mother's other subjects, the beautiful, socially prominent women of the city, were a source of fascination to the young Natalie, who would rub their hands and ankles to soothe their nerves as they posed.

Being other than normal is a perilous advantage.

—Natalie Barney

From the outset, Albert Barney and his wife and daughters lived in different worlds. Though he essentially ignored them, he was intent on avoiding a public scandal that could shame the family. Thus, Albert dallied with a mistress which, for the times, was customary and acceptable in his essentially conservative bourgeois society. He also drank heavily. Committed to this unhappy marriage, Alice Pike Barney took the girls to Europe intermittently during their childhood, where she pursued art instruction with painters like James McNeill Whistler. Albert preferred London, a man's world in Natalie's estimation; she wrote that England was a place "where nothing is provided for women, not even men." She preferred Paris, "where men take second place."

In the climate of the 1890s, Alice Barney could live independently if she didn't cause a scandal. The Barney girls were educated in an upper-class manner: following instruction at home with their governess, they attended Les Ruches, an exclusive boarding school outside Fontainebleau, to learn French poetry, composition, cursive writing, drawing, singing, deportment, dancing, and horseback riding. Natalie's formal education ended at 18 with a stint at Miss Ely's School in New York.

From 1894 until his death in 1902, Albert Barney pressed Natalie to marry a man of her own social class. She returned to Washington for her debut and made the social rounds, but traveling abroad with her mother helped her avoid this traditional route, as well as her father's snobbery and authority. To placate her father, she became engaged to William Morrow (named Freddy Manners-Sutton in her memoir). Author Karla Jay suggests that Barney's later engagement to such an undesirable suitor as Lord Alfred-Douglas, former lover of Oscar Wilde, was to mock the institution of marriage. Sheri Benstock agrees, suggesting that Natalie came to view marriage as an institution that legalized the victimization of women and children, supported the whims of male sexual desire, and enforced social conformity. By 1899, Barney had had several lesbian affairs.

A friend and confidante in Washington, the diplomat Jules Cambon, suggested she learn French prosody (she could only write blank verse), and he introduced her to Professor Charles Brun. Barney's ostensible reasons for wanting to live in France included improving her French and her knowledge of French poetry, and to learn Greek so she could translate Greek poetry. By studying Greek, she would enter man's domain: generally, women of the time were excluded from studying classical Greek, which normally occurred in the confines of the university.

Barney, Alice Pike (1857–1931)

America portrait artist. Born Alice Pike in 1857; died in Hollywood, California, in 1931; daughter of Samuel Pike (an entrepreneur of Dutch-Jewish heritage who built an opera house for Cincinnati); married Albert Clifford Barney (an industrialist, president of the Barney Railroad Car Foundry); studied in Paris with James McNeill Whistler; married, at age 52, 22-year-old Christian Dominick Hemmick, around 1909; children: (first marriage)Natalie Clifford Barney (1876–1972) andLaura Barney (b. 1879).

An heiress in her own right, Alice Pike Barney arrived in Washington D.C., in 1889, in the company of her first husband Albert Barney, and pronounced the city devoid of culture. As an activist-bohemian, Alice set out to change the town and escape the conservatism of her husband; thus, she built a separate townhouse in Sheridan Circle. (Albert Barney died before it was completed.) Called Studio House, it hosted diverse endeavors, including theatrical productions written by Alice, the presentation of Bahaism and its leader Mirza Abul Fazl, and evenings devoted to exotic dance, which introduced Ruth St. Denis to the Washington scene. But Alice Barney was a serious artist and devoted her mornings to portraiture, the results of which are still being exhibited in Paris, New York, and Boston. Following her death in 1931, her daughters Laura and Natalie Clifford Barney donated the house to the Smithsonian Institution, and it is now sporadically opened to visitors. In 1985, the Smithsonian sponsored the exhibit Alice Pike Barney: Pastel Portraits from Studio House.

The relaxed moral atmosphere of Paris, in contrast to America's puritanism or England's rigidity, was another attraction for expatriate writers and artists at the turn of the century. "Paris has always seemed to me the only city in which one can express oneself as one pleases," wrote Barney. "In France, thought, food, and love have remained a matter of personal taste and one's own business." Lesbian eroticism was part of Parisian culture by the 1890s, so the resurrection of Sappho as a woman's poet whose writing celebrated female love and friendship was important in this era.

As a young woman, Barney lived independently in Paris. When Alice gave Natalie money to have her portrait painted by Whistler, Barney spent the money on presents for various ladies instead. Her first love was the most famous Belle Epoque demimondaine, Liane de Pougy . Barney's plan was to marry her suitor, Freddy Manners-Sutton, in order to raise the necessary funds to support Liane, saving her from a life as one of the dégrafées (the unbuttoned) or grande horizontals; Freddy agreed to this unusual strategy but later broke off the engagement.

This was the start of a pattern in Barney's life: she would rescue her lovers from their circumstances. Karla Jay observes that Barney saw herself as a page, or a knight in training, choosing unsuitable or incompatible lovers; the women had to appear more innocent or helpless than they were. In pursuit of de Pougy, Barney donned a page's costume to call on her and pay poetic tribute. But de Pougy liked the advantages of her life and, after their affair, married a prince. Barney saw herself as the one who loved, then moved on to other adventures.

Many of her lovers admired Barney's sharp blue eyes and wavy golden hair and her seductive personality. Her biographers Jean Chalon and George Wickes refer to her as a female Don Juan, but Jay notes that she attracted both men and women well into her 80s, when her appearance became more dowdy and her hair was no longer golden. Barney's charisma remained. Throughout her life, she preferred separate quarters; living in close proximity, she observed in Souvenirs indiscrets, was the quickest way to destroy affection.

By 1900, Barney had written her first volume of poetry, Quelque portraits-sonnets de femmes (Some Portrait-Sonnets of Women), which featured portraits painted by Alice Pike Barney, including some of her daughter's lovers. Biographers disagree as to whether Alice then realized the relationships of her subjects to her daughter, but an outraged Albert Barney bought all available copies of the book as well as the typesetting plates and destroyed them; in 1899, he had caught Natalie reading a long love letter from Liane. A newspaper headline in Washington denounced her book as libertine. In 1901, Barney told her mother that she was "naturally unnatural." Throughout Barney's long life, her lesbianism was never a cause for shame. She was proudly unconventional and supremely self-confident. Her father's death at 52 in 1902, alone in Monte Carlo, enabled her to be financially independent; eventually, her family inheritance would amount to $3.5 million.

Pougy, Liane de (1866–c. 1940)

Famed French courtesan. Name variations: Princess Ghika. Born Anne de Chassaigne around 1866; died after 1936; daughter of an army officer; educated at the Sacred Heart in Rennes; married a naval officer at age 19 (divorced soon after); married Prince Georges Ghika of Moldavia (a penniless Rumanian aristocrat and nephew of the queen of Greece).

Liane de Pougy was one of the most important grande horizontals of the Belle Epoque, sharing her fame with Emilienne d'Alençon and La Belle Otero . Of "Les Grandes Trois," de Pougy was undoubtedly the star. She had beauty, style, poise, and class, not to mention her skill at the guitar and piano.

Born into a bourgeois family, Liane was educated at the Sacred Heart in Rennes, married a naval officer when she was 19, and soon asked for a divorce. Her new husband responded by firing two bullets into her thigh where they lodged permanently. Writes Cornelia Otis Skinner in Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals: "In later years Liane was fond of telling the story and would wind up, 'If anyone doubts me, he can feel the bullets.'"

De Pougy began to support herself by offering piano and English instruction. It is not known when she gave up the teaching profession for other offers, but she was first seen riding with the Marquis MacMahon in an open landau. On her invitation, the Prince of Wales (future Edward VII) caught her debut at the Folies Bergère where she was a showgirl. "Overnight," writes Skinner, "Liane de Pougy became a celebrity if never a very good actress." Her admirers included Pierre de Nolhac, curator of the Versailles museum, Henri Meilhac, a book writer for operettas, Jean Lorrain, a columnist, and poets Catulle Mendès, and Robert de Montesquiou.

Once after being abandoned by a lover, Liane attempted suicide with poison but only induced vomiting "which cleared her system" writes Skinner, "and she emerged frail and lovelier than ever." In her mid–30s, she entered a Dominican convent in Lausanne, Switzerland, as a postulant, taking the name Mary Magdalene of the Penitence. After one year, she left the convent, married, moved to a country cottage, and lived 27 years with her impoverished husband Prince Ghika of Moldavia. Following his death, Liane, at age 70, reentered the convent and once again became Mary Magdalene of the Penitence, tending to the needs of "abnormal" children. Eighty small volumes written by de Pougy, which contain her memoirs, reside at the Bibliothèque Nationale.

The next year, Liane de Pougy's popular novel, Idyl saphique (Sapphic Idyll), based on her liaison with Natalie, featured the pseudonymous Florence Temple-Bradford (Flossie) to protect Barney's true identity. However, her biographer George Wickes maintains that this bestseller made her private life public. Barney inspired numerous fictional representations. A seductive American, "Miss Flossie," appears briefly in Colette 's novel Claudine s'en va in 1903, when she must have known Natalie only by reputation. Djuna Barnes would feature her as Evangeline Musset in The Ladies Almanack, which Natalie's Academy of Women would help finance; and Radclyffe Hall 's lesbian novel banned in England, The Well of Loneliness, would feature Valerie Seymour, a character also based on Barney.

When she was 20, Natalie met poet Renée Vivien . Fleeing an unpleasant family life, Vivien had also settled in Paris and dedicated herself to writing poetry in French. Her themes, influenced by the Symbolists, were solitude and death. Barney was deeply attracted to Vivien's poetic spirit and became her lover and muse. Under Natalie's influence and despite her melancholy, Renée expanded her themes to include joy. They studied French verse and classical Greek together in order to translate the poetry of Sappho into French. Both women wrote prolifically when they were together, and Jay observes that they "daringly created a new approach to gender, sex and sexual preference" during an era when this was discussed "apologetically." According to Benstock, what made them scandalous was that they were women writing about their own sexuality.

Their differing concepts of fidelity strained their relationship, however; Natalie's interpretation with reference to Sappho was that infidelity should strengthen relationships. At first, Vivien responded with intense jealousy to Barney's numerous affairs, until she herself became involved with the Baroness de Nuylen de Nyevelt , who seemed to exert great power over her. Natalie suggested to Renée that they go to Lesbos to establish a school of poetry, following in Sappho's footsteps of centuries before. They went but the experiment failed. Years later, Barney would recreate it as the Académie des Femmes (Academy of Women) in Paris. Renée Vivien broke with Natalie and, after a short life of alcohol and little food, died in 1909, probably of anorexia.

According to Jay, three of Barney's books come under the direct influence of Renée Vivien: Actes et entr'actes (1910), a series of Romantic formal verse dramas; Cinq petits dialogues greques; and Je me souviens, a prose poem reflecting on their relationship after its first rupture. In Memoirs indiscrets, written in 1960 after the death of another of her friends, Barney wrote that silence was the worst indiscretion; Renée Vivien's papers had been sealed in the National Library in Paris, and her poetry had become obscure. Barney suggests that it's better to be indiscreet and keep works in the public eye to celebrate their existence.

Not only was Natalie Barney completely bilingual, she chose French as her literary expression; her principal audience was French. Her classical French was a traditional style from an earlier era. Used by her literary influences, including Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Mallarmé, it gave her work powerful associations, suggests Benstock. She loved French authors and the French language; Jay suggests that Barney hoped one day to be considered one of their own. To reach an international audience, French, as the language of diplomacy, had far-reaching influence.

From a house in Neuilly, in 1909, Natalie moved to 20 rue Jacob, in the Faubourg St. Germain on the Left Bank, where she would remain for more than 60 years. One entered her 300-year-old home through an interior courtyard hidden from the street by a wall. A pavilion was illuminated by blue-green light that was filtered through the windows. Outside, there was a garden and a small doric temple from the First Empire or the Restoration, which Barney named the Temple de l'Amitié (Temple of Friendship). Her home had an aura of general disarray and neglect, but the traditional feast for 20 to 100 salon attendees was first-rate—sandwiches, cakes, tarts, tea, and whiskey later on, though Barney did not drink.

Natalie was a rebel from the start; a salon run by an American ran counter to French etiquette. Salons had been the domain of French nobility. The trial, conviction, and subsequent vindication of the accused Jewish officer Dreyfus, at the turn of the century, had divided the country and even families. Barney's arrival as a wealthy outsider was timely; society needed a neutral outsider. She flaunted her pro-Jewish position, however. "The wild girl from Cincinnati" broke through any barriers and launched her own salon.

Over the years, almost every important intellectual in Europe visited the salon; once established, its ambiance did not change, but the visitors and the program varied. Fridays became the day when Natalie, dressed in a haute couture tea gown, would receive her guests and serve them a sumptuous feast, conversation, and introductions to the newest writers and their works. Her theatricals, produced for friends, featured such performers as Colette and Mata Hari. The guest list of literati and intellectuals who were regulars at her salon reads like a who's who: Paul Valéry (whose work she translated for an American audience), Auguste Rodin, André Gide, Gertrude Stein , Virgil Thomson, Sinclair Lewis, Pierre Louys (a writer of erotica who served as her mentor), Ford Maddox Ford, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriele D'Annunzio, T.S. Eliot, Dolly Wilde, Elizabeth de Gramont , Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Janet Flanner , Rainer Maria Rilke, Romaine Brooks, Jean Cocteau, plus publishers, critics, diplomats and scholars (and much later, newer faces such as Truman Capote, Ned Rorem, and Givenchy).

Vivien, Renée (1877–1909)

Anglo-French poet and supporter of the cult of Sappho. Name variations: Renee; (real name) Pauline Tarn. Born Pauline Mary Tarn in Paddington, England, in 1877; died at age 32 of self-induced starvation in 1909; buried at Passy; daughter of a Michigan heiress and John Tarn, an English gentleman from Kent.

After wandering in the East, English-born Renée Vivien settled permanently in Paris where she translated the ancient poetry of Sappho and other women of Lesbos, published as Les Kitharèdes (1904). Vivien produced collections of her own French verse entitled Cendres et poussières (Cinders and Dust, 1902), Evocations (1903), and Les Flambeaux éteints (Extinguished Torches, 1907). She also novelized her turbulent relationship with Natalie Clifford Barney in Une Femme m'apparut (A Woman Appeared to Me, 1904). Twelve volumes of her poetry, Poésies complètes, was published from 1901–10 and reprinted in two volumes in 1934.

In 1900, an early love, Violet Shilleto , fell ill, and Vivien broke a promise to visit. When Shilleto died soon after, Vivien was inconsolable, spending hours at her graveside. Other romantic losses followed, including Barney. By 1909, Vivien was living alone in Paris, obsessively dieting and exercising, drinking to excess, while suffering from Basedow's disease (a thyroid imbalance). Choking while attempting to eat, she came down with pneumonia, converted to Catholicism, and died soon after.

Vivien's letters and unpublished manuscripts were given to the Bibliothèque Nationale to be opened in the year 2000. "Her genius—for genius she had—is the more extraordinary as she wrote in a language not her own," wrote Salomon Reinach. Notes Jeannette H. Foster in Sex Variant Women in Literature (Naiad, 1985): "All the critics who grant her this superlative poetic quality agree that she has received nothing approaching her due recognition because of the lesbian element in her work. In view of the small number of persons in any generation who are tolerant of such love, it may be that she will never receive it."

suggested reading:

Jay, Karla. The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien. Indiana University Press, 1988.

Le Dantec, Y. Renée Vivien: femme damnée, femme sauvée, 1930.

Gramont, Elizabeth de (fl. 1875–1935)

French memoirist. Name variations: Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre, Duchesse de Gramont. Born around 1875; died after 1935; daughter of duc de Gramont; married the Duc de Clermont-Tonnerre; children: Béatrix Clermont-Tonnerre.

Elizabeth de Gramont's Mémoires in four volumes were published in Paris by Grasset between the years 1928 and 1935. The first volume, Au temps des équipages (translated as Pomp and Circumstance when it was published in London by J. Cape in 1931), was a cause celebre on its release in 1928. While most French memoirs penned by 18th- and 19th-century aristocrats pined the loss of the good old days, Elizabeth de Gramont's reflections did quite the opposite. "She looks backward with a shrug rather than a sigh," writes Janet Flanner in Paris was Yesterday (Viking, 1972). "Avoiding ideas and offering in their place facts, her pen describes late nineteenth- and early twentieth century faubourg French society—voyaging duchesses who sent no postal cards but whose secretaries cabled, to a limited list of friends, 'The duchess is now [a]cross the Rocky Mountains'." In 1927, Elizabeth and her husband, the duke of Clermont-Tonnerre, were successfully sued by their daughter Béatrix for support. Disapproving of her lifestyle, they were withholding funds.

The salon was by invitation; guests invited other guests who could make a contribution. There were poetry readings, recitations, or music. Projects were hatched, such as "Bel Esprit," a funding scheme to sell stock in writers, subsidizing those in need so they could devote themselves to writing. Sinclair Lewis and Barney discussed launching a bilingual magazine, "How to Live by Those Who Have," but the title was as far as it got. Madame Gaston Bergery , another American expatriate, remarked: "Natalie gave you a feast of reason, a seasoning of wit, and a flow of words." Virgil Thomson recalled that Barney and Gertrude Stein would exchange literary guests to make things more interesting for everyone. Natalie served as a catalyst: "She was one of those people who was always trying to bring people together," remarked Truman Capote. Intelligent, charming, and witty, Barney was unshockable, and her salon was a truly international mix of unlikely callers.

Soon after she established her literary salon, Barney wrote Eparpillement (Scatterings) in 1910. She spoke in epigrams, and these pithy pensées are her best writing, according to Wickes, along with her memoirs. He noted that she was remarkable for her "swift repartee and accuracy of her aim." Some reflect Oscar Wilde-like wit: "Forever is too long," or, "I have perhaps gotten more out of life than it actually possesses." There is social commentary: "He had the three badges of nonentity: a receding chin, the Legion of Honor, and a wedding ring." And feminism: "Marriage? Maternity? The child also limits the woman and then abandons her."

Friendship was precious to Barney. "I am very lazy," she wrote, "once I confer friendship, I never take it back." Friendship is a theme in two of her works, Pensées d'une amazone (Thoughts of an Amazon, 1920) and Nouvelles pensées de l'amazone (More Thoughts of the Amazon, 1939). Her affairs, writes Jay, "led to, expressed, or consummated a friendship: They were not goals, but the means." Barney, however, never found a woman partner who shared her ideal of multiple relationships without jealousy, aside from Dolly Wilde, witty niece of Oscar, who was in Barney's life during the 1920s and the 1930s.

Perhaps Barney's greatest conquest was Remy de Gourmont, an influential man of letters. By the time she met Gourmont in 1910, he was a recluse because of his battle with lupus. Barney courted him, visited him, sent him flowers, and coaxed him out of his house for drives, boat trips, and even appearances in public at her masked ball and her salon. Gourmont knew her sexual orientation but fell in love with her emotionally and sensually, writing a series of letters based on their conversations which were published with her approval in Mercure de France. Lettres a l'Amazone appeared biweekly in 1912–13 and was published in book form in 1914.

The public became interested and curious to learn more about this Amazon, so named because of the riding habit (en amazone in French) she wore for her rides in the Bois before visiting Gourmont. In the next two years, the intensity of her friendship waned, and she saw him more infrequently. When Gourmont died in 1915, some criticized her for causing his decline and death, as some had blamed her for causing Vivien's. After his death, the public read her own views on love, friendship, morality, chastity, religion, and war in Pensées d'une amazone, in the form of observations and epigrams. As the Amazon, she became a literary figure, and her salon had its glory days between the world wars. Later, it would continue as a shadow of its former self until 1968.

Along with her mother and sister, Natalie was a staunch pacifist. War was associated with male aggression. She was urged to return to America as World War I approached, but France was her home. She stayed, held antiwar rallys at her Temple of Friendship, ignored the war, and did not volunteer to work in the Red Cross like so many of her friends.

In 1927, between the wars, Natalie Barney launched the Académie des femmes (Academy of Women) as a modern Sapphic circle, an environment where women writers could share their work and find support; she might have been responding to the Académie Française, whose members were exclusively men of letters. French women writers were introduced to their American and English counterparts. French members included Colette, Rachilde (Marguerite Vallette ), Aurel, Nadine Wong , Elizabeth de Gramont, and Lucie Delarue-Mardrus , while America, England, and Australia were represented by Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy , Gertrude Stein, and Anna Wickham . Romaine Brooks was also included as an aspiring writer of memoirs. During a special program, Gertrude Stein's writings were set to music by Virgil Thomson, and there were readings from her work, including Barney's translation of excerpts from The Making of Americans. Funds were raised for the publication of Djuna Barnes' The Ladies Almanack.

Natalie Barney and the painter Romaine Brooks spent more than 50 years together; exactly when they met is unclear, but it appears to be before World War I at a gathering of bohemian women. Both American and both from privileged backgrounds, they traveled together, danced, and swam. Barney wrote poems for Brooks that addressed her intellect, Brooks designed jewelry for Barney and painted her portrait. According to Brooks' biographer, Meryle Secrest , their relationship represented the love and acceptance that Romaine had never received from her mother.

Brooks had great expectations from friends and suffered disappointments; Barney demanded little and maintained her friendships. According to Secrest, Romaine wanted to "possess and be possessed." As in her other relationships, Romaine as Natalie's partner was essentially monogamous, which led to problems as Natalie formed other liaisons concurrently. Brooks painted many in their circle, though she excluded her serious rivals for Barney's affection. The couple collaborated on a book whose theme is androgyny, The One Who is Legion, or A.D.'s After-Life, privately printed in English in London in 1930.

Barney's 14-year relationship (for seven, a secret) with a younger woman, Janine Lahovary , was the beginning of the end for Brooks and Barney. Natalie was in her 80s, and she had a liberating effect on this wife of the former Rumanian ambassador who only lived for her family. Lahovary met Barney by chance in Nice during the late 1950s. Intelligent and interested in psychoanalysis, Lahovary could provide practical help and compassionate companionship to Natalie. But Barney was the only love of Romaine Brooks' life, according to Secrest, and her jealousy precipitated a final separation. Barney's final appeal to Brooks—"My Angel is, as ever, first in my thoughts and deepest in my heart"—was returned to the sender unopened.

To her biographers, Natalie Clifford Barney's anti-Semitism expressed during World War II is especially troubling and contradictory, given her Jewish ancestry. In her early works, she is open about her background and proud of her family's achievements. In her afterward for A Perilous Advantage, Anna Livia observes that in Barney's unpublished Memoirs of a European-American, a book of wartime reminiscences and commentary, there is a changing perspective on the war. During World War II, Barney and Brooks sought refuge in Italy, outside Florence. Interviewed after the Allied victory in Italy, Barney claimed that they were "artists who knew too little about politics to take any part in them." She had saved Jewish musicians in Italy by giving them her cabin on board a New York-bound ship, yet her friends were interned in concentration camps, and she wrote lightly of "wars of extermination."

Livia believes that Barney's loyalty to Mussolini and the Axis during the war years was confused with the notion that "tradition, artistic expression and personal freedom must prevail over the communist threat." From their villa outside Florence, Brooks and Barney observed Germans in retreat blowing up the famous Florentine bridges. Livia speculates that Barney's change in attitude in her memoirs—by their end, she is proudly pro-American and a pacifist—occurred when the Germans, "champions of Art, History, and Tradition, are systematically destroying irreplaceable objects of beauty."

After losing her 20 rue Jacob address in the courts to her landlord, ostensibly because of structural problems, Barney moved to the Hotel Meurice. After a heart attack and pneumonia, Natalie Clifford Barney died on February 2, 1972. Her longtime maid, Berthe Cleyrergue , noted that her Friday funeral was "Mademoiselle's last Friday." Barney was buried in the Cimitiere de Passy at Trocadero, an old cemetery, circa 1900, that is filled with her old friends.


Barney, Natalie Clifford. Adventures of the Mind. Translated by John Spalding Gatton. NY: New York University Press, 1992.

Benstock, Sheri. Women of the Left Bank. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Chalon, Jean. Portrait of a Seductress. NY: Crown Books, 1979.

Grindea, Miron, ed. "Amazon of Letters: a World Tribute to Natalie Clifford Barney," in Adam International Review. Vol. 29, no. 299, 1962.

Jay, Karla. The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Livia, Anna, ed. and trans. A Perilous Adventure; The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney. Norwich, CT: New Victoria Publishers, 1992.

Secrest, Meryle. Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.

Wickes, George. The Amazon of Letters: The Life and Loves of Natalie Barney. NY: Putnam, 1976.

——, ed. "A Natalie Barney Garland," in The Paris Review. Spring 1975, pp. 86–134.

suggested reading:

Barnes, Djuna. Ladies Almanack. NY: Harper & Row, 1972.

Colette. Claudine s'en va. Paris: Ollendorf, 1903.

——. Le Pur et l'impur. Paris: Ferenczi, 1941.

Gramont, Elizabeth de [Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre]. Mémoires. 4 vols. Paris: Grasset, 1928–35. Vol. 1 (1928): Au temps des équipages. Trans. as Pomp and Circumstance. London: J. Cape & H. Smith, 1931.

——. Years of Plenty. London: J. Cape & H. Smith, 1931.

Gourmont, Remy de. Lettres a l'Amazone. Paris: Cres, 1914 (also published as Letters to the Amazon. London: Chatto & Windus, 1931).

——. Lettres intime a l'Amazone. Paris: La Centaine, 1926.

Grindea, Miron, ed. Selected Writings. London: Adam Books, 1963.

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness. NY: Covici-Friede, 1928.

Harris, Bertha. "The More Profound Nationality of Their Lesbianism: Lesbian Society in Paris in the 1920s" in Amazon Expedition: A Lesbian-Feminist Anthology. Ed. by Phyllis Birlby, et al. NY: Time Changes Press, 1973, pp. 77–88.

Pougy, Liane de. Mes Cahiers bleus. Paris: Plon, 1977.

Vivien, Renée. A Woman Appeared to Me. Trans. by Jeannette H. Foster. Reno, NV: Naiad Press, 1976.


Some letters and other manuscript materials are in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Chapon, Francois, Nicole Prevot, and Richard Sieburth, comps. Autour de Natalie Barney (1976). Catalogue of Barney's papers, mostly letters written to her, in the Fonds Litteraire Jacques Doucet in Paris.

Laurie Norris , freelance writer, New York, New York

About this article

Barney, Natalie Clifford (1876–1972)

Updated About content Print Article