Were I to tell you that there exists interview footage of someone, somewhere, discussing Alice B. Toklas in the present tense while also recalling a midnight tête-à-tête with Marcel Proust and a childhood encounter with Oscar Wilde, I imagine this would be of more than passing interest.
Were I to add that the someone is in fact Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972), then in her nineties, and that the somewhere from which she summons these spectral luminaries is her legendary Left Bank lodgings in the rue Jacob where for the better part of six decades she hosted a salon through whose doors passed a selection of 20th century literary figures that, for want of time but with no undue exaggeration we can summarise as “everyone”…well, it’s just a little bit exciting, no?
The year is 1962. The interviewer is Miron Grindea, editor of the Adam International Review, an arts journal which that year devoted a whole issue to Barney’s life and work. But if you detect a note of impatience in Barney’s answers, it might help to know that she thought little of her interlocutor. The process of putting together the edition was one for which Grindea expected Barney to open not just her archives, but her purse as well; she complained to friends of the effort and expense of it all.
The all too brief interview finds Barney in her magic garden, the site of a temple to friendship (curious Francophones will find an exhaustive study of this structure here); the chatelaine refers to herself as its “vestal”. Referencing her “genius for friendship”, Grindea concentrates largely on Barney’s role as a cultural catalyst which, while crucial, is not the whole story. Her own work, which was addressed at length in Adam and is still being rediscovered (as we saw just recently), is passed over with barely a word here. Work, in general, is viewed with suspicion: “One must be idle in order to become oneself”, Barney announces in one of her characteristic aphorisms, addressing the camera directly as she warns us not to confuse personhood with profession.
Elsewhere, La Barney bitches – enchantingly, of course – about Lord Alfred Douglas and frenemy Gertrude Stein, her terse rocking the outward sign of a mind undimmed by age. It’s difficult not to be blinded by the sheer improbability of the footage; I also found the dreamlike atmosphere, overgrown gardens and palpable presence of spirits put me in mind of Rebecca, or Suddenly, Last Summer. Perhaps we will all wake tomorrow and discover that those patrician tones, august features, dappled drops of sunlight, haunting piano figures and talk of Belgian bells were but a dream. But for now – sleep on, enjoy.
My thanks to Cassandra Langer for alerting me to this treasure.