My one, my eternal mate

In a welcome recent phenomenon, gay men in a number of countries who were prosecuted for “gross indecency” in less enlightened times – often with catastrophic and even fatal consequences – have had their convictions overturned in acknowledgement of the injustice of earlier laws (see for example First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s moving apology in the Scottish Parliament last year). But if transgressions can be annulled, might same-sex unions entered into prior to the rise of marriage equality in North America, western Europe, Australia and elsewhere also be recognised?

One hundred years ago today, one such union was solemnised in a ceremony that as far as we know was attended only by the two people in question – both writers, one French and one American. The venue for the wedding of Élisabeth de Gramont and Natalie Clifford Barney was the Hotel de l’Europe et Villa Victoria in the Savoyard spa town of Aix-les-Bains, and the marriage contract was drawn up on the hotel’s letterhead. “Lily” de Gramont, it should be noted, was already married at the time. Her husband was a fellow member of the French aristocracy, and according to Gramont’s friend Marcel Proust he “was violent and led her a life of hell”, causing her to miscarry twice. Gramont had separated from this odious individual six years previously, by which time she had met and fallen in love with Barney. This was around the same time that the American began her renowned Paris salon on the Left Bank, which would continue, on and off, for around six decades. Setting a high bar for romantic gestures, Barney captured Gramont in the prose portrait The Woman Who Lives with Me and had it printed – in an edition of two. “Perhaps she is too limitless to be possessed,” writes Barney. “I fear that this is so, and sometimes I hope it is.”

The marriage contract in her hand sketches a similarly expansive horizon. It is a blazing testament to liberty and self-determination, a choice of freedom over fear, proclaiming a union with “no prejudice, no religion other than feelings, no laws other than desire”. It concludes:

Since the danger of affairs is ever-present and impossible to foresee, one will just have to bring the other back, neither out of revenge, nor to limit the other, but because the union demands it
No other union shall be so strong as this union, nor another joining so tender—nor relationship so lasting
As a token of this promise let us place our ring as wide as the universe around the horizon of the future and of ourselves.
This exclusive ring must be green, shining and unbreakable. And the one I marry shall not be called my wife, nor my slave, nor my spouse, which are sexual terms for fleeting times—but my one, my eternal mate.*

Its explicit acknowledgement of the pair’s other liaisons was both forward-thinking and realistic. Indeed Natalie had already embarked on the most famous partnership in her life, that with painter Romaine Brooks, following affairs of varying duration with the likes of courtesan Liane de Pougy and writer Colette (confused? Here, have a diagram).

The pair waited until after the war to take their honeymoon. Having married in Gramont’s homeland, they enjoyed their lune de miel in Barney’s. And not just anywhere, but Niagara Falls, long a byword for newly wedded bliss. The union made official on 20 June, 1918, repeatedly tested but ultimately resilient, endured until Gramont’s death in 1954.

* from the 2005 article “Elisabeth de Gramont, Natalie Barney’s “eternal mate”” for the South Central Review by Gramont biographer Francesco Rapazzini

Further reading
Circles: Natalie Clifford Barney
Last night I dreamt I went to rue Jacob again
Wild hearts at midnight
Wild hearts in wartime
Romaine Brooks: A Life
Amazons in space
Goodbye Dolly
Salon queen

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5 comments

  1. Suzanne Stroh

    James, what an entertaining post. Thank you! I’m making a donation today to the Renee Vivien poetry fund at the University of Maine at Augusta. Every single year, Lily would write Natalie a sweet, tender note on the anniversary of Vivien’s death.

    It had occurred in the early days of their love affair, in 1909, and it was from Lily’s house that Natalie left one summer morning to take flowers to Vivien, who lay dying from anorexia a few blocks away. Natalie arrived and was told by the butler that Mademoiselle had died. As she started going into shock, Natalie was prevented (probably by Helene van Zuylen van Nyevelt, who had been caring for Renee) from entering, and something about that encounter shook Natalie to the core. Wracked with guilt that her neglect may have played some part in Vivien’s demise, Natalie staggered off and fainted on a park bench.

    When she recovered her senses, she knew that the only one she wanted—the only person who could comfort her in grief—was Elisabeth de Gramont. But in a moment of clarity, Natalie realized that she’d have to confess the polyamorous orientation that, she feared, had contributed to Vivien’s despair. She was deeply in love with Lily, but she was incapable of monogamy. The time had come to risk telling Lily that. On top of an already exhausting morning!

    She headed back to Lily’s house on the rue Rayounard—remembering to pick up flowers at the same shop along the way! Classic NCB!

  2. Linda Hollander

    Love this! Thank you.

  3. Exploring the circles around Barney and got side tracked to Dolly Wilde. Proof that running in circles can actually lead one somewhere.

  4. Pingback: Scorpions Club 2018 – Suzanne Stroh

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