10-31-1876

Natalie Clifford Barney

NATALIE CLIFFORD BARNEY, Lesbian American poet and bon vivant, born; Honestly, where to start!? For over 60 years Barney was the doyenne of Parisian Lesbians. A fairly good poet in her own right, and, more importantly,  enormously wealthy, she was in many ways a female adventurer, a seducer (“seductress,” as in the title of one of her biographies, would probably have amused her…this woman knew how to par-tay!) who knew whom she wanted and usually got her. Diane Souhami’s “Wild Girls” (St. Martin’s Griffin Press, 2004 $18.95 ISBN-10:0-312-36660-4), a fabulous read, is perhaps one of the best contemporary retelling of this wild woman’s carryings-on in the Sapphic streets of Paris.

Costumed tableaux vivant in the gardens of her Paris mansion were a regular feature of Lesbian life at the time. Her lifelong relationship with Romaine Brooks began in Paris in 1915. They were both American, rich and grand Lesbians and despite (or perhaps because) of the fact that they never lived together, their commitment to one another lasted for more than 50 years.

It’s probably easier to name the women who weren’t their lovers, than it would be to catalog their conquests. This didn’t stop Natalie from categorizing, however. She liked lots of sex, lavish display and theatricality and wanted not to bind love to rules, particularly the rules of exclusivity. She inspired and befriended her lovers and broke their hearts. She divided her amours into liaisons, demi-liaisons, and adventures. She labeled herself fidéle/infidéle. Others called her Amazone.

There is an apocryphal tale of Barney’s love affair with Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s niece. At sixty, and resembling at that point no one so much as Ben Franklin, Natalie dispatched Dolly to buy her a one-way ticket to London and showing her out the door. Feeling guilty, she is said to have devoured an entire chocolate cake in one sitting to console herself. The milk of human kindness flowed through her veins.