Partner Thelma Wood
Pratt Institute, 200 Willoughby Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11205, Stati Uniti
173 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris, France
Place Saint-Sulpice, 75006 Paris, France
5 Patchin Place, Patchin Pl, New York, NY 10011, Stati Uniti
Djuna Barnes (June 12, 1892 – June 18, 1982) was an American writer and artist best known for her novel Nightwood (1936), a cult classic of lesbian fiction and an important work of modernist literature. She satirized Natalie Clifford Barney's lesbian circle in The Ladies Almanack. Barnes had many lovers including the poet Mary Pyne, the photographer Berenice Abbott, the writer and collector Peggy Guggenheim, Natalie Clifford Barney, the Dada artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and, most importantly, sculptress Thelma Wood.
The relationships among Djuna Barnes, Emily Coleman, Antonia White, and Peggy Guggenheim were intense, sexually charged, emotionally intricate affairs that were, in turn, hurtful and inspiring, cruel and nurturing. Ultimately, however, these relationships were the most central to their writing. While men came and went in all of their lives, their relationships, replete with emotional brutality, persevered. Barnes called Coleman "a prima vera with blood on her lips", and White sometimes dismissed Coleman as mad. White and Coleman were fond of telling Barnes that she was shallow and couldn't analyze. However, aside from the black eye Coleman once gave Peggy Guggenheim, the most scathing criticism within the group was reserved for White. Barnes lamented to White that although she tried to like her writing, she just couldn't, and went on to tell White that she was a "bad, bad woman".
Barnes, White, and Coleman speak at later points in their lives of having had sex with and being sexually attracted to other women. Djuna Barnes, of course, went on to have more love affairs with women. Emily Coleman would admit "the only genuine sexual feelings I have had were the Lesbian affair I had in 1929". Antonia White similarly later conceded that she desired a woman more than she had ever desired her husband. Among the four, Peggy Guggenheim was perhaps the most determinedly heterosexual. Even she, however, had female lovers throughout her life, including Djuna Barnes's great love, Thelma Wood, an attachment which would certainly seem to have exacerbated tensions between Bames and Guggenheim.
Barnes was born in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, to Elizabeth and Wald Barnes in the two-story cabin built by her father on his brother's estate at Storm King Mountain.
In 1913, Barnes began her career as a freelance journalist and illustrator for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. By early 1914, Barnes was a highly sought feature reporter, interviewer, and illustrator whose work appeared in the city’s leading newspapers and periodicals. Later, Barnes’ talent and connections with prominent Greenwich Village bohemians afforded her the opportunity to publish her prose, poems, illustrations, and one-act plays in both avant-garde literary journals and popular magazines, and publish an illustrated volume of poetry, The Book of Repulsive Women (1915). Subsequently she met the publishers of the Little Review, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and had an affair with the latter.
After World War I she moved to the Greenwich Village where she met and lived with the sculptress Berenice Abbott. Barnes had also a passionate romantic relationship with Mary Pyne, a reporter for the New York Press and fellow member of the Provincetown Players. Pyne died of tuberculosis in 1919, attended by Barnes until the end.
In 1921, a lucrative commission with McCall’s magazine took Barnes to Paris, where she lived for the next ten years. In this period she published A Book (1923), a collection of poetry, plays, and short stories, which was later reissued, with the addition of three stories, as A Night Among the Horses (1929), Ladies Almanack (1928), and Ryder (1928).
Lawrence Vail, Son of the American painter Eugene Laurence Vail, was the lover of Djuna Barnes; he would later married, in 1922, the billionaire and patron Peggy Guggenheim. After his divorce, he remarried in 1932 to the writer Kay Boyle.
In Paris in 1926 Robert Medley met a dancer, Rupert Doone, with whom he lived for the rest of Doone's life. Like many other English visitors, the artist Robert Medley found the atmosphere of Paris distinctly relaxed: “There were no parents to worry about, and under French law nobody had the right to interfere with our relationship.” Doone introduced Medley to Djuna Barnes and to another of Paris’s gay, expatriate denizens, Allan Ross “Dougie” MacDougall, who had once been the secretary of Isadora Duncan.
During the 1930s, Barnes spent time in England, Paris, New York, and North Africa. It was during this restless time that she wrote and published Nightwood.
The diaries kept by Emily Coleman, an American expatriate in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, and in England in the 1940s through the 1960s, are valuable for chronicling her relationships with literary friends such as Djuna Barnes, who wrote much of her novel Nightwood while staying with Coleman and others at Peggy Guggenheim's country manor, Hayford Hall.
The most important relationship of Barnes' Paris years was with the artist Thelma Wood. Wood was a Kansas native who had come to Paris to become a sculptor, but at Barnes' suggestion took up silverpoint instead, producing drawings of animals and plants that one critic compared to Henri Rousseau. By the winter of 1922 they had set up housekeeping together in a flat on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Another close friendship that developed during this time was with the Dada artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, with whom Barnes began an intensive correspondence in 1923. “Where Wood gave Barnes a doll as a gift to represent their symbolic love child, the Baroness proposed an erotic marriage whose love-child would be their book.” From Paris, Barnes supported the Baroness in Berlin with money, clothing, and magazines. She also collected the Baroness’s poems and letters.
She was a friend of Emma Goldman’s friend Fitzie Fitzgerald; Goldman dismissed her as petty and self-centered in her March 23, 1935 letter to Emily Holmes Coleman.
In October 1939, after nearly two decades living mostly in Europe, Barnes returned to New York. She published her last major work, the verse play The Antiphon, in 1958, and she died in her apartment at Patchin Place, Greenwich Village in June 1982.
Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes
Solita Solano and Djuna Barnes
5 Patchin Place
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