Natalie Clifford Barney was born in 1876 in Ohio, USA and died in Paris in 1972 at the age of ninety-five. She packed a lot of lesbian activity into those years! She frowned on monogamy and her affairs with aristocrats, artists and poets were well-known in lesbian Paris. Natalie was an intellectual who wrote plays, poetry and novels. She also entertained in her Paris literary salon. She spoke French fluently without an accent.
Left Bank Salon
Natalie’s salon was held at her home on Paris’ Left Bank. For 60 years native and international artists, writers and intellects would gather. One of her goals was to promote writing by women. She formed L’Académie des Femmes and also supported male writers.
Barney later said she knew by age 12 she was lesbian and was determined to “live openly, without hiding anything.” In 1899 after seeing the courtesan Liane de Pougy at a dance hall in Paris, Barney presented herself at de Pougy’s residence in a page costume and announced she was a “page of love” sent by Sappho. Although de Pougy was one of the most famous women in France, constantly sought after by wealthy and titled men, Barney’s audacity charmed her. Their brief affair became the subject of de Pougy’s tell-all roman à clef, Idylle Saphique (Sapphic Idyll). Published in 1901, this book became the talk of Paris, reprinted at least 69 times in its first year. Barney was soon well known as the model for one of the characters. By this time, however, the two had already broken up after quarreling repeatedly over Barney’s desire to “rescue” de Pougy from her life as a courtesan.
Natalie 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)
Some More Affairs
Natalie had 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 Brook. Among the liaisons—the relationships that she considered most important—were Olive Custance, Renée Vivien, Elisabeth 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.
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. 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 Natalie as a muse and as Barney put it, “she had found new inspiration through me, almost without knowing me.” Natalie felt Vivien had cast her as a femme fatale and that she (Vivien) wanted “to lose herself… entirely in suffering” for the sake of her art.
A year after meeting Vivien, Natalie published her first book of poetry in 1900. By publishing them, Barney became the first woman poet to openly write about the love of women since Sappho.
Reviews were positive but lesbian themes were never mentioned.. The Washington Mirror said Barney “writes odes to men’s lips and eyes; not like a novice, either.” However, a headline in a society gossip paper cried out “Sappho Sings in Washington” and this alerted her father, who bought and destroyed the publisher’s remaining stock and printing plates. Natalie would have to wait until her father died to obtain a large inheritance and freedom.
Natalie did not take her poetry as seriously as Vivien did, saying, “if I had one ambition it was to make my life itself into a poem.
Vivien believed in fidelity and Natalie opposed it. In 1901, Natalie visited her family in the USA. Vivien stopped answering letters and this was a signal of the end of the relationship.
Natalie spent a year trying to win Vivien back. In 1904 they reconciled and set off for the island of Lesbos. Life on the island seemed to please them and they talked about starting a school of poetry for women. During the breakup between Vivien and Natalie, Vivien had found a lover in Hélène (the Baroness de Zuylen de Nyevelt). When the Baroness wrote to Vivien on Lesbos, Vivien went to Constantinople (Istanbul) determined to break up in person. Vivien stayed with the Baroness.
The Last Days of Vivien
Vivien’s health declined after she separated from Natalie. She ate little and drank heavily. Four years after the break up with Natalie, Vivien 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.”
The Pavilion on Rue Jacob – Latin Quarter
Natalie left the Left Bank salon and rented the Pavilion. The meetings were held there until the late 1960s. In this new location, the salon grew with poetry readings and conversation, perhaps because Barney had been told the pavillon’s floors would not hold up to large dancing parties.
Romaine Brooks – 1914
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.
Romaine tolerated Natalie’s casual affairs and left town if she considered one was getting too serious. Romaine did not want to live with Natalie for many reasons. She disliked Paris and Natalie’s friends and the socializing of the salon. Natalie accommodated Brooks’s need for solitude. A summer house with two separate wings was built. Romaine was independent and often travelled in Italy without Natalie. They remained devoted to one another for over fifty years.