On this date the American writer NATALIE CLIFFORD BARNEY died (b. 1876). Born in Dayton, Ohio and raised in Washington. Talk about “a full life lived well,” Barney seized life by the throat and never let go.
In the beginning of the 20th century Barney moved to Paris, where she had a relationship with artist Romaine Brooks and maintained a celebrated circle of artists.
Her father Albert was rich, having inherited a fortune from his railway pioneer father. He was also an alcoholic, and tried (but failed) to dominate the women in his life. She went on to take classes in painting from Whistler and Carolus-Duran, becoming possibly the most famous female American artist of the 19th century.
Barbey came to Paris with her mother and sister, but set up her own residence almost immediately. From this point on Paris became, except for a few interludes, her permanent home. In 1899 she became well known in Paris when she had a brief affair with the famous courtesan, Liane de Pougy. Liane (who had been born Anne Marie Chassaigne) was an occasional chorus girl who had become the premier demimondaine of Paris. Natalie saw her at a dancehall, and decided to try to seduce her. To that end she dressed in a pageboy’s uniform and turned up on Liane’s doorstep, proclaiming herself a messenger of love sent by Sappho. Liane was charmed by her directness, and the two had a brief but passionate affair.
They eventually split up because Natalie strongly disapproved of Liane’s sex work and sought to “rescue” her. Liane was as comfortable with her prostitution as Natalie was with her lesbianism, and had no intention of being rescued. They separated, but did remain friends. Liane went on to write a fictionalized account of their relationship, Idylle Saphique, which became a best seller. All of Parisien society, of course, knew Natalie was the model for “Flossie”, the main character’s female lover. Natalie wrote her own account of the affair, but failed to find a publisher. Though her book was by her own account not the best, it’s notable for her uncompromising acceptance of her own sexuality – a rarity at the time, and something that made her an icon for other lesbians.
Around the turn of the century Natalie met Renée Vivien, a symbolist poet. She was, despite her name, actually British (though she had an American mother). She had been born Pauline Tarn, but on her father’s death in 1898 she had inherited his fortune and used it to move to Paris. At the time it was one of the few places on Earth where you could live as an “out” Lesbian without suffering persecution. The two women began a relationship, though one doomed from the start by Renée’s self-destructive tendencies and Natalie’s inability to commit to a monogamous relationship.
Natalie was throughout her life both incapable of remaining faithful to a single partner, and incapable of understanding why she should, or why they would want her to. In 1901 Renée left Natalie. Natalie was heartbroken, and unable to accept the relationship was over. She spent years trying to win back Renée unsuccessfully.
In 1900 Natalie had her first book published, a collection of poems titled Quelques Portraits-Sonnets de Femmes. Her mother illustrated the book, reportedly unaware of the lesbian subtext. A newspaper in Washington caught wind of this, and led a gossip column with the headline Sappho Sings in Washington.
Natalie established her own “Women’s Academy”. This was not really a body, but rather Natalie’s way of honoring the women that she felt the French literary establishment ignored. Honorees included feminist writers like Collette and Gertrude Stein, and writers who wrote on lesbian themes (like Lucie Delarue-Mardrus or Renée Vivien, who had died a few years earlier without ever reconciling with Natalie). Others included Djuna Barnes (a bisexual American journalist turned writer), Mina Loy (a British-born writer and artist), Rachilde (a decadent poet in the vein of Baudelaire, who was responsible for helping to preserve Wilde’s legacy after his death), and more.
Many of these women wrote and believed entirely different things – Rachilde, especially, was despised by many of the early feminists for her portrayal of decadent womanhood. Yet all were welcome at Natalie’s salon. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Natalie came from the British writer Radclyffe Hall, whose novel The Well of Loneliness had been banned in Britain for its depiction of lesbian lifestyles. In the novel, the main character (loosely based on Hall herself) is a Lesbian torn by doubt and self-loathing caused by society’s rejection. In contrast to this stands the character of Valerie Seymour, based on Natalie. Her acceptance of, and pride in, her sexuality acts as a source of strength in the book. In Hall’s prose she comes to represent her own acceptance of her nature.
Natalie Barney’s legacy was diminished, in an odd way, by her longevity. By living into the 1970s she became a relic, and was sorely neglected by the “second wave” feminists who owed so much to her and her pioneering sisters. She appears, in literary disguise, in many literary works of the 1920s and 1930s, not just The Well of Loneliness but also the fiction of Djuna Barnes (who portrayed her as “Dame Evangeline Musset”) and Lucie Delarue-Mardrus (as “Laurette Wells”). It was Lucie who perhaps summed up Natalie’s occasionally contradictory nature best: Perverse…dissolute, self-centered, unfair, stubborn, sometimes miserly…a genuine rebel, ever ready to incite others to rebellion…capable of loving someone just as they are…even a thief.