Natalie Clifford Barney was born in 1876 into a Henry James-esque world of East Coast privilege and social anxiety. The intense amorous liaisons and illustrious literary connections which she maintained over a long life seemed to be foretold by an unusual early encounter. As a child of six Barney was playing on a Long Island beach one day when she met Oscar Wilde, then on a reading tour of the US.
Not only would she, like Wilde, become a pioneer of open and guiltless same-sex pairings and one of the best-connected, most talked about figures of her time, she also struck up a close friendship (and rumoured but improbable engagement) with Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Moreover she would have a long affair with the great playwright’s niece Dolly, also a lover of Joe Carstairs (at this point the keen-eyed reader may have discerned intersecting points between the last few days’ posts, overlapping like an exquisite corpse).
Like Carstairs, Barney used her inherited fortune to flee her origins and direct her life exactly as she wished. But if Carstairs essentially lived an action-adventure flick, Barney’s vision was something much more arthouse. Moving to Paris shortly before the turn of the century, she installed herself in a Left Bank pavilion where she would live for most of her life. With its overgrown garden and neo-classical temple dedicated to friendship, it was no less an island than Carstairs’ cay; for her exclusively female inner circle it was a refuge of fantasy, romance, sensuality, ideas and liberty which consciously, even self-consciously, alluded to another island, Lesbos.
It was there, too, that Barney would become the 20th century’s greatest saloniste, drawing together more or less everyone who was anyone in arts and letters of the time. A brief list of visitors to her Friday afternoon meetings might include Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, André Gide, Jean Cocteau, Colette and Rainer Maria Rilke; Barney had almost unerring prescience in encouraging writers whose works would be not merely successful, but canonical.
Barney’s zealous networking, fin-de-siècle affectations and Sapphic play-acting weren’t to everyone’s taste; the poet Bryher said she “was inclined to know the conventional French and was already considered a bit too Right Bank and smart.” Djuna Barnes, technically a friend of Barney’s, called her “a cheap—well kept, smug, over fed, lion hunting S.O.B.”, though at her insistence Barnes created a gently caustic parody of her milieu in the book Ladies Almanack. Along with Dolly Wilde, the roman á clef featured painter Romaine Brooks, who was the longest serving of Barney’s lovers, but suffered from her incessant indiscretions.
While Barney’s own writings – poems, epigrams, essays – never reached a broad public, her role as both a fearless free spirit and a facilitator of Modernism can’t be overestimated. After maintaining her salon for about 60 years, she was forced out of the pavilion and into a hotel, where she died on this day in 1972 at the age of 95.
There is so much more to say about Barney and her connections and her influence and the singular life she led, but for now – like a bad relief teacher – I will take a break and hand you over to a video, taken from a documentary based on Andrea Weiss’s book Paris Was a Woman:
[sorry, video missing!]