Natalie Barney by Martha Perotto-Wills
Illustration by Fernando Monroy
Martha Perotto-Wills is studying for her MA in Queer History at Goldsmiths, focusing on lesbian cultural history in the first half of the 20th century. She works in a second-hand and antiquarian bookshop, writes intermittently, and lives in south-east London.
In a New England beachfront hotel, in 1882, a little blonde girl called Natalie Clifford Barney was being tormented by boys. She escaped them when Oscar Wilde, staying at the hotel on his American tour, shooed away her pursuers and calmed her with a story he would later publish as The Happy Prince.
Wilde, of course, didn’t know the seven-year-old on his knee would be referred to after her death in 1972 as “a lesbian Pope,” and her home as “the Sapphic centre of the Western world,” but the encounter was formative for Natalie. It was the first of her odd Wildean connections (she would later have affairs with Oscar’s chaotic niece, Dolly, and with his ex-lover Bosie’s wife), and to Natalie, growing into a sexuality she called “naturally unnatural,” it must have felt like being blessed by the queer messiah.
Natalie disrupts conventional assumptions about desire between women in the fin-de-siècle. I like to imagine her laughing incredulously in the faces of historians trying to espouse a narrative of blushing, innocent ‘romantic friendship’, eventually replaced by tormented, pathological ‘sexual inversion’. Natalie called herself a lesbian or a Sapphist, never an ‘invert’, and her corseted romances were far from chaste. She wrote, “My queerness is not a vice, is not deliberate, and harms no one,” though some of her jilted ex-lovers might have disagreed.
Natalie met her first girlfriend at 17, her last on a park bench when she was 80. In her teens she moved to France – having realised that good girls stay in Ohio, but gay girls go to Paris – where she lived for the rest of her life. She categorised her innumerable partners into “liaisons, demi-liaisons, and adventures,” and mastered the lesbian art of staying friends with exes, even after breaking their hearts. In 1918 she wrote up a marriage contract with Elisabeth de Gramont, the elegant, socialist ‘Red Duchess’, which bound their love to “no religion other than feelings, no laws other than desire,” and emphatically contained no clause against adultery.
Some pictures of Natalie in her youth are quintessentially of her era. She had the perfect posture of a Singer Sargent, the massed pile of wavy hair of a Gibson girl. Others are strikingly anachronistic, startled out of the fin-de-siècle into a sort of timeless femme bedroom photoshoot. She lounges in a billowing shirt on a fur rug, or flings bare legs over the arm of a chair, head resting on her fist, hair huge and wild, like Stevie Nicks doing Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’.
She had a magnetic personality. Berthe Cleyrergue, Natalie’s housekeeper, said “as soon as you spoke to her, you loved her.” She was interested in everyone; she loved social puppeteering, pushing people she liked together and seeing what happened. She was determined to create spaces where women’s art could thrive, in the face of the exclusionary misogyny of the French cultural establishment. “I didn’t create a salon,” Natalie said magnanimously: “a salon was created around me.”
Over five decades her life became a dizzying Who’s Who of the early twentieth century. She entertained, among others, Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim, Joyce, the Sitwells, T.S. Eliot, the Fitzgeralds, Tagore, and Proust. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were lifelong friends (even after Toklas accused Natalie of cruising girls in department store bathrooms). And those are just the guests she didn’t seduce.
After the neighbours at Natalie’s first address complained about women in translucent dresses performing Sapphic rituals in the garden – we’ve all been there – she moved. In her new house the drapes were embroidered with the legend “May Our Drawn Curtains Shield Us From The World,” and the grounds contained a small Doric temple inscribed with the words TEMPLE A L’AMITIE. Guests dressed as wood nymphs or eighteenth-century courtiers, and discussed literature over sweet wine and harlequin-coloured cakes. Mata Hari once arrived naked on a white horse (Bianca Jagger who?).
Natalie herself was a poet, playwright, and novelist, but apart from some lively anecdotes (her mother, blissfully unaware, illustrated Natalie’s first volume of poetry with portraits of her ‘friends’; her father tried to destroy every copy) no one talks about her work much. In a sense this is a shame – some of it is fascinating – but it probably wouldn’t bother her to know she isn’t widely read today. Writing was fun, but it wasn’t the point. Natalie proclaimed grandly, “Life is my art!” Coincidentally, this is exactly what I said last time I was in Paris, when I woke up hungover at 2pm and drank from a glass containing only neat vodka and a single cornichon. It’s good to feel part of a storied lesbian tradition.
Behind her drawn curtains, Natalie had ‘adventures’ with leading lights of the contemporary queer world: Colette, Djuna Barnes, Isadora Duncan; Nancy Cunard, the anarchist socialite; Nadine Hwang, the spy. If Natalie’s life was art, her medium was love poetry. Despite their prestigious male attendees, Natalie’s salons were primarily lesbian events, with all the sexual tension, romantic ambiguity, showing-off, and bitchiness that steams up the windows of dyke bars to this day.
Aged 23 Natalie seduced famed courtesan Liane de Pougy by appearing at her apartment in pearl-studded costume, declaring she was “a page of love, sent by Sappho.” Liane commended her “vicious white teeth.” Natalie told her, “I already love your hair and the way your mind works.” (Be still, my beating heart!) They fucked on a polar bear rug, like a Toulouse-Lautrec wet dream. When Liane left her to marry a Romanian prince, Natalie spent a glamorous, tortured decade with Decadent poet Renée Vivien, who called her “the suffering that makes happiness contemptible.” Renée dressed as French revolutionary Camille Desmoulins, smelled “like a rich man’s funeral,” and let her pet snakes loose on the table at parties.
Natalie’s longest relationship was with American artist Romaine Brooks: they met in 1915, broke up a year before Romaine’s death in 1970. Truman Capote called Romaine’s grey, austere portraits “the all-time ultimate gallery of famous dykes.” She was tall, dark, handsome, and icily remote. Natalie was smitten. (They shared an ex-girlfriend, Renée Vivien, whose relationship with Romaine I imagine as basically a two-person Whitby Goth Weekend.) Natalie seems to have been the only person Romaine ever liked: “I prefer Nat Nat to being alone,” she said, “but alone to being with anyone else.” By the coast, they built a ‘hyphenated villa,’ with separate entrances and bedrooms connected by a shared living space.
The outbreak of war forced her into isolation in Nazi-occupied Italy with Romaine, who had turned paranoid, bitter, and fascist. Natalie had a Jewish grandfather, spent the 1930s “talking a lot of nonsense about the tyranny of fascism” (so said Una Troubridge, confirmed lesbian fascist), and in wartime paid for a Jewish couple's passage out of Italy. How, then, do we account for pro-fascist, anti-Semitic passages in her war memoirs, and her cohabitation with Romaine? Were these genuine beliefs, or survival strategies by an old woman in a bombed-out town, in a war with no end in sight, whose house was frequently visited by gun-slinging officials checking the loyalties of the Americans living there?
Our ancestors were not saints, although many were martyrs. Natalie, with her halo of blonde hair and her suppers attended by a dozen dyke disciples, was also bad-tempered, hideously wealthy, a snob, a mediocre poet, a serially unfaithful girlfriend, and (depending on who you believe) briefly a fascist. This act of hagiography – of writing a Queer Bible – forces us, or at least it should, to reckon with imperfection, betrayal, and moral complexity.
I’m interested in moving away from condonation or condemnation as ways to articulate our relationship with the queer past. As a queer woman a century later, what can I learn from Natalie Barney’s life? Long before Radclyffe Hall dourly declared lesbianism a Well of Loneliness, Natalie sanctified her Sapphic Temple to Friendship. She appears in Hall’s book as Valerie Seymour, at whose salon “everyone felt very normal and brave.” Before the first insufferable poly throuple ever synchronised Google calendars, Natalie Barney tried to create a model of queer intimacy without rules and without a roadmap. Elisabeth de Gramont called their relationship “a new planet.”
Natalie’s version of gay existence was sociable, feminist, collaborative, eccentric, glamorous, intellectual, sexy, and fun. At a time when lesbian representation was limited to French porn and hard-to-find medical texts, Natalie and her peers uncovered and rewrote a history of queer female desire, stretching languorously back to antiquity. They tried to live in ways that honoured this heritage, as those of us learning queer history do with our ancestors today. Natalie dropped a rope ladder into the Well of Loneliness and threw a party for the waterlogged women who climbed out. “What have you loved best?” she asked, at the end of her life, and answered herself: “Loving. I would choose love many times.”
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.