Partner Élisabeth de Gramont, Romaine Brooks
Bar Harbor, Maine, Stati Uniti
1626 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036, Stati Uniti
97 Cadogan Gardens, Chelsea, London SW3 2RE, Regno Unito
4 Rue Chalgrin, 75116 Paris, Francia
20 Rue Jacob, 75006 Paris, Francia
Les Ruches, 10 Avenue des Carrosses, 77210 Avon, France
Passy Cemetery, 2 Rue du Commandant Schloesing, 75016 Paris, Francia
Natalie Clifford Barney (October 31, 1876 – February 2, 1972) was an American playwright, poet and novelist who lived as an expatriate in Paris.
Barney's salon was held at her home at 20 rue Jacob in Paris's Left Bank for more than 60 years and brought together writers and artists from around the world, including many leading figures in French literature along with American and British Modernists of the Lost Generation. She worked to promote writing by women and formed a "Women's Academy" (L'Académie des Femmes) in response to the all-male French Academy while also giving support and inspiration to male writers from Remy de Gourmont to Truman Capote.
She was openly lesbian and began publishing love poems to women under her own name as early as 1900, considering scandal as "the best way of getting rid of nuisances" (meaning heterosexual attention from young males). She wrote in both French and English. In her writings she supported feminism and pacifism. She opposed monogamy and had many overlapping long and short-term relationships, including on-and-off romances with poet Renée Vivien and dancer Armen Ohanian and a 50-year relationship with painter Romaine Brooks. Her life and love affairs served as inspiration for many novels, ranging from the salacious French bestseller Idylle Saphique to The Well of Loneliness, the most famous lesbian novel of the twentieth century.
Barney's earliest intimate relationship was with Eva Palmer-Sikelianos. In 1893 they became acquainted during summer vacations in Bar Harbor, Maine. Barney likened Palmer to a medieval virgin, an ode to her ankle length red hair, sea-green eyes and pale complexion. The two remained close for a number of years. As young adults in Paris they shared an apartment at 4, rue Chalgrin. Later they each had their own place in Neuilly. Barney frequently solicited Palmer's help in her romantic pursuits of other women, such as Pauline Tarn. Palmer ultimately left Barney's side for Greece and eventually married Angelos Sikelianos. Their relationship did not survive this turn of events, Barney took a dim view of Angelos and heated letters were exchanged. Later in their lives the friendship was repaired and both took a mature view on the roles they had played in each other's lives.
In November 1899 Barney met the poet Pauline Tarn, better known by her pen name Renée Vivien. For Vivien it was love at first sight, while Barney became fascinated with Vivien after hearing her recite one of her poems, which she described as "haunted by the desire for death." Their romantic relationship was also a creative exchange that inspired both of them to write. Barney provided a feminist theoretical framework which Vivien explored in her poetry. They adapted the imagery of the Symbolist poets along with the conventions of courtly love to describe love between women, also finding examples of heroic women in history and myth. Sappho was an especially important influence and they studied Greek so as to read the surviving fragments of her poetry in the original. Both wrote plays about her life.
Vivien saw Barney as a muse and as Barney put it, "she had found new inspiration through me, almost without knowing me." Barney felt Vivien had cast her as a femme fatale and that she wanted "to lose herself... entirely in suffering" for the sake of her art. Vivien also believed in fidelity, which Barney was unwilling to agree to. While Barney was visiting her family in Washington, D.C. in 1901, Vivien stopped answering her letters. Barney tried to get her back for years, at one point persuading a friend, operatic mezzo-soprano Emma Calvé, to sing under Vivien's window so she could throw a poem (wrapped around a bouquet of flowers) up to Vivien on her balcony. Both flowers and poem were intercepted and returned by a governess.
In 1904 she wrote Je Me Souviens (I Remember), an intensely personal prose poem about their relationship which was presented as a single handwritten copy to Vivien in an attempt to win her back. They reconciled and traveled together to Lesbos, where they lived happily together for a short time and talked about starting a school of poetry for women like the one which Sappho, according to tradition, had founded on Lesbos some 2,500 years before. However, Vivien soon got a letter from her lover Baroness Hélène van Zuylen and went to Constantinople thinking she would break up with her in person. Vivien planned to meet Barney in Paris afterward but instead stayed with the Baroness and this time, the breakup was permanent.
Vivien's health declined rapidly after this. According to Vivien's friend and neighbor Colette, she ate almost nothing and drank heavily, even rinsing her mouth with perfumed water to hide the smell. Colette's account has led some to call Vivien an anorexic but this diagnosis did not yet exist at the time. Vivien was also addicted to the sedative chloral hydrate. In 1908 she attempted suicide by overdosing on laudanum and died the following year. In a memoir written fifty years later Barney said "She could not be saved. Her life was a long suicide. Everything turned to dust and ashes in her hands."
In 1949, two years after the death of Hélène van Zuylen, Barney restored the Renée Vivien Prize with a financial grant under the authority of the Société des gens de lettres and took on the chairmanship of the jury in 1950.
Barney practiced, and advocated, non-monogamy. As early as 1901, in Cinq Petits Dialogues Grecs, she argued in favor of multiple relationships and against jealousy; in Éparpillements she wrote "One is unfaithful to those one loves in order that their charm does not become mere habit." While she could be jealous herself, she actively encouraged at least some of her lovers to be non-monogamous as well.
Due in part to Jean Chalon's early biography of her, published in English as Portrait of a Seductress, she had become more widely known for her many relationships than for her writing or her salon. She once wrote out a list, divided into three categories: liaisons, demi-liaisons, and adventures. Colette was a demi-liaison, while the artist and furniture designer Eyre de Lanux, with whom she had an off-and-on affair for several years, was listed as an adventure. Among the liaisons—the relationships that she considered most important—were Olive Custance, Renée Vivien, Élisabeth de Gramont, Romaine Brooks, and Dolly Wilde. Of these, the three longest relationships were with de Gramont, Brooks, and Wilde; from 1927, she was involved with all three of them simultaneously, a situation that ended only with Wilde's death. Her shorter affairs, such as those with Colette and Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, often evolved into lifelong friendships.
Élisabeth de Gramont, the Duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre, was a writer best known for her popular memoirs. A descendant of Henry IV of France, she had grown up among the aristocracy; when she was a child, according to Janet Flanner, "peasants on her farm... begged her not to clean her shoes before entering their houses". She looked back on this lost world of wealth and privilege with little regret, and became known as the "red duchess" for her support of socialism. She was married and had two daughters in 1910, when she met Barney; her husband is said to have been violent and tyrannical. They eventually separated, and in 1918 she and Barney wrote up a marriage contract stating: "No one union shall be so strong as this union, nor another joining so tender—nor relationship so lasting."
De Gramont accepted Barney's nonmonogamy—perhaps reluctantly at first—and went out of her way to be gracious to her other lovers, always including Romaine Brooks when she invited Barney to vacation in the country. The relationship continued until de Gramont's death in 1954.
Barney's longest relationship was with the American painter Romaine Brooks, whom she met around 1914. Brooks specialized in portraiture and was noted for her somber palette of gray, black, and white. During the 1920s she painted portraits of several members of Barney's social circle, including de Gramont and Barney herself.
Brooks tolerated Barney's casual affairs well enough to tease her about them, and had a few of her own over the years, but could become jealous when a new love became serious. Usually she simply left town, but at one point she gave Barney an ultimatum to choose between her and Dolly Wilde—relenting once Barney had given in. At the same time, while Brooks was devoted to Barney, she did not want to live with her as a full-time couple; she disliked Paris, disdained Barney's friends, hated the constant socializing on which Barney thrived, and felt that she was fully herself only when alone. To accommodate Brooks's need for solitude they built a summer home consisting of two separate wings joined by a dining room, which they called Villa Trait d'Union, the hyphenated villa. Brooks also spent much of the year in Italy or travelling elsewhere in Europe, away from Barney. They remained devoted to one another for over fifty years.
Dolly Wilde was the niece of Oscar Wilde (whom Natalie Barney had met as a little girl) and the last of her family to bear the Wilde name. She was renowned for her epigrammatic wit but, unlike her famous uncle, never managed to apply her gifts to any publishable writing; her letters are her only legacy. She did some work as a translator and was often supported by others, including Barney, whom she met in 1927.
Like Vivien, Wilde seemed bent on self-destruction. She drank heavily, was addicted to heroin, and attempted suicide several times. Barney financed Drug detoxifications, which were never effective; she emerged from one nursing-home stay with a new dependency on the sleeping draught paraldehyde, then available over-the-counter.
In 1939 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and refused surgery, seeking alternative treatments. The following year, World War II separated her from Barney; she fled Paris for England while Barney went to Italy with Brooks. She died in 1941 from causes that have never been fully explained, possibly a paraldehyde overdose.
BACK TO HOME PAGE