Natalie Barney: An American Amazon

Natalie Barney painted by her mother Alice Pike Barney

Natalie Barney (1876-1972) was probably one of the most fascinating and maddening woman of the 19th and early 20th century. She was a great seductress whose list of conquests sounds like a who’s who of the Belle Époque, Collette, the poet Renee Vivien, the painter Romaine Brooks, Dolly Wilde, the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre, just to name a few. Although her epic love life alone would be enough for a place in the history books, Natalie was much more than just a female Casanova. She was also a writer, playwright, and poet who held a salon for more than 60 years on Paris’s Left Bank, which brought together artists from around the world. Barney was a bridge between the Parisian community and the ex-pats who flocked to Paris particularly after WWI. She was what you might call a facilitator. She also worked to promote women writers by founding a “Women’s Academy” in response to the all-male French Academy.

Like Gertrude Stein, Natalie’s family was wealthy which afforded her the the freedom to live openly as a lesbian in Paris. Her father Albert Clifford Barney was the son of a wealthy manufacturer of railway cars. Her mother Alice Pike Barney, who later became an artist of some renown, also came from a moderately wealthy family. Natalie was born in the heartland, in Dayton, Ohio, on October 31, 1876. Her parents had an unhappy marriage. Natalie’s father was a heavy drinker who could be abusive when drunk; he was unfaithful, and obsessed with appearances. Her mother had a more even temperament, a live and let live attitude. The first cracks in the marriage occurred when Albert discovered letters from Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer, in a trunk. Alice and Stanley had been sweethearts until Stanley went off on another expedition to Africa. Alice had promised to wait for him, but being only 17 at that time and newly launched into society, her promises soon turned to dust. Albert was furious and jealous at that relationship, even when Alice proved to him that she hadn’t even bothered to read most of the letters that Stanley had sent back. While her mother found a way to go around Albert’s more overbearing ways, Natalie was openly rebellious.

As a young girl, Natalie had fallen in love with Paris when her parents sent her and her younger sister Laura to boarding school at Les Ruches; founded by feminist Marie Souvestre (Souvestre would later have a huge influence on Eleanor Roosevelt who attended her school in England). The school encouraged the girls to think for themselves which was unheard of in the 19th century where women were expected, if they had opinions, to echo their fathers or their husbands. As an adult she spoke French fluently without an accent, and nearly all her written work was in French. From the age of 22 until her death at 95 in 1972, Natalie spent most of her adult life in Paris. Her father’s death in 1902 gave her the freedom to live how and wherever she chose.

While Barney published several books of poetry, a few novels, and several books of epigrams, she never seems to have taken her work as seriously as others wanted her to. She rarely revised her work, insisting that the first flush of inspiration was the best, that editing turned writing stale. Her lasting achievement is the salon that she held on Friday afternoons at her home. Although her own tastes were decidedly traditional, Natalie wasn’t afraid of new talent or new ways of thinking. During the 1920’s, she even bobbed her hair although she clung to her long skirts! Joan Shenkar described Barney’s salon as “a place where lesbian assignations and appointments with academics could coexist in a kind of cheerful, cross-pollinating, cognitive dissonance.” Natalie was a gifted hostess, able to combine a stage manager’s precision with that of a showman. She was equally at home conducting a celebration for hundreds or an intimate dinner party for four.

Even Mata Hari made an appearance at Barney’s salon, hired to dress up as Lady Godiva on a white horse harnessed with turquoise cloisonné before performing one of her Javanese numbers. Natalie would sometimes feature poetry or theatricals written by her or in co-written with her mother. During WWI, the salon became a haven for those opposed to the war, Natalie being chief amongst them. Other visitors to the salon during the ‘20’s included Andre Gide, Anatole France, Jean Cocteau, Thornton Wilder, Sinclair Lewis, Peggy Guggenheim, Nancy Cunard, Rainer Maria Rilke, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Isadora Duncan. Another American, poet Ezra Pound became a good friend of Barney’s, he met his mistress Olga Rudge at the salon. Several contemporaries including Colette, Djuna Barnes, and Radclyffe Hall created characters based on Barney

Of course, one can talk about Barney without discussing her love life. Natalie later said that she knew by the age of 12 that she was a lesbian, but even if she hadn’t been, her parents’ marriage made her determined to never get married. As a teenager, she had been courted by the painter Mary Cassatt’s nephew Bob, who wanted to marry. Natalie loved and respected him enough to let him know that she preferred women. In response, Bob offered what was known as a mariage Blanc or marriage of convenience, both parties would be able to pursue their own interests, and Natalie would have the protection of his name. However Natalie realized that Bob was too jealous of her affairs with other women.

Although she was discreet, Natalie never hid who she was, although both her parents were shocked when they found out after her first book of poetry Quelques Portraits-Sonnets de Femmes were published. With this volume, Natalie became the first woman to openly write about the love of women since Sappho. While most reviewers either didn’t get it or glossed over the subject matter, a newspaper article entitled “Sappho Sings in Washington,” alerted her father who bought and destroyed the remaining stock and the printing plates. Natalie’s mother Alice was also shocked, but she loved her daughter enough to eventually accept her sexuality. Natalie was shunned by the community of upper-class American ex-pats in Paris, as well as by the social register in Bar Harbor and Washington, DC. Not that Natalie cared, unlike her father, she didn’t give a damn what people thought.

As well as being openly lesbian, Barney also advocated against monogamy. Anyone who fell in love with Barney would have to get used to sharing her. At any given moment, she would be juggling at least two or sometimes three lovers at a time. She once wrote out a list dividing her loves into separate categories: liaisons, demi-liaisons, and adventures. Many of her former lovers evolved into lifelong friendships. Natalie was fearless in pursuit of her amours; she was not shy about making her attentions known. Quite a few heterosexual women succumbed to the allure of Barney’s charisma. While not conventionally beautiful, she had long, lustrous blonde hair, and deep blue eyes. Her close friend, the writer Remy de Gourmont dubbed her “The Amazon.”

Her first major relationship was with the courtesan Liane de Pougy. She had seen de Pougy riding her horse in Bois de Boulogne and was instantly attracted to her. Determined to win her, she showed up at de Pougy’s door dressed in a page costume, declaring that she was a “page of love,” sent by Sappho. Their brief affair ended because Barney couldn’t deal with de Pougy’s profession. The love affair was immortalized in de Pougy’s novel entitled Idylle Saphique. Published in 1901, the book was reprinted almost 70 times in its first year. Far from being hurt or offended, Barney even contributed several chapters to the novel.

After de Pougy, Barney fell in love with a fellow American Pauline Tarn who wrote poetry under the nom de plume Renee Vivien. Vivien fell deeply in love with Barney, considered her a muse, but she was unable to deal with Natalie’s infidelities. She had other demons of her own; she was anorexic, addicted to alcohol and the drug chloral hydrate. After 2 years, Vivien stopped answering Natalie’s letters. She moved on to other lovers but Natalie wouldn’t accept her decision. All throughout her life, Natalie would want what she couldn’t have. After a brief reconciliation which included a trip to the island of Lesbos, Vivien ended the relationship for good. She died in 1909. Barney later wrote, “She could not be saved. Her life was a long suicide. Everything turned to dust and ashes in her hands.” Another lover, Dolly Wilde, was almost a repeat of her relationship with Renee Vivien. Like Vivien, she seemed hell-bent on self-destruction. She drank heavily, was addicted to heroin, and attempted suicide several times. Despite her wit and charm, she never managed to write anything, preferring to be supported by others. Barney financed stays in the early 20th century equivalent of rehab but nothing worked. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Wilde refused surgery, committing suicide in 1941.

Not all of Barney’s love affairs ended in tragedy or publication. Her longest relationship was with the painter Romaine Brooks. Another wealthy American, Romaine and Natalie met during WWI. Less social than Natalie, she disliked Paris and most importantly she disliked most of Natalie’s friends. Brooks was a nomad who spent most of her life traveling between Europe and America. She was aloof which kept Barney interested since she never knew when Romaine was going to take off and leave. Romaine also seemed better able to tolerate Natalie’s infidelities. For most of their 50 plus relationship, they kept separate residences. To accommodate Romaine’s need for solitude, their summer home consisted of two wings joined by a dining room.

After Barney’s death in 1972, her life and work was largely forgotten. In 1979, Judy Chicago honored Barney with a place setting in The Dinner Party (now ensconced at the Brooklyn Museum of Art). In the 1980’s, her work began to be rediscovered and translated into English. Two major biographies were written, her influence on early 20th century authors and literature was noted. Her work also began to be translated into English, allowing contemporary audiences to discover her, but her most of her plays and her poetry are still not translated. In October 2009, Natalie was honored with a historical marker in her home town of Dayton, OH, the first one in Ohio to note the sexual orientation of its honoree.

Suzanne Rodriguez  Wild Heart: A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris New York: Harper Collins (2002)

Diana Souhami: Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, New York, St. Martin's Press, 2005

Scandalous Review: Hysteria

Hysteria (2012)

Directed by: Tanya Wexler

Written by: Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer, Howard Gensler

Running Time: 95 minutes

Felicity Jones as Emily Dalrymple
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte Dalrymple
Hugh Dancy as Dr. Mortimer Granville
Rupert Everett as Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe
Jonathan Pryce as Dr. Robert Dalrymple
Ashley Jensen as Fanny
Anna Chancellor as Mrs. Bellamy
Gemma Jones as Lady St. John-Smythe
Malcolm Rennie as Lord St. John-Smythe
Tobias Menzies as Mr. Squyers
Sheridan Smith as Molly the Lolly
Kim Criswell as Mrs. Castellari

What it’s about: The film, set in the Victorian era, is about the invention of the vibrator. The film's title refers to the once common medical diagnosis of female hysteria. Dr. Mortimer Granville gets fired from yet another hospital after he questions the father old-fashioned medical techniques of his superior who doesn‘t believe in the existence of germs. Granville moves in with his friend Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe, a rather eccentric chap who experiments with electricity and is madly in love with the new-fangled invention the telephone. After many fruitless interviews, Granville interviews with Dr. Robert Dalrymple who has built up a rather successful practice treating female hysteria. Darlrymple is desperate to hire another doctor since his practice continues to grow. It seems that ½ the women in London suffer from hysteria. After demonstrating the procedure, which basically involves masturbating the patient to orgasm, Dalrymple offers Granville a job.

Mortimer meets Dalrymple’s two daughters Emily and Charlotte. While Emily is the epitome of Victorian womanhood, demure, sweet, content to play the piano and practice phrenology, her sister Charlotte is a passionate, feisty, outspoken suffragette who works at a settlement house in the East End of London. Dr. Dalrymple insists that Charlotte suffers from hysteria since she expresses her opinions so freely. When Charlotte asks for money to pay for the coal the settlement house desperately needs, her father refuses.

At first Granville is a success, to such an extent that Darlrymple intimates that one day he might not only make Granville a partner but he might leave the practice to him, especially if he marries Emily who Granville has been courting. Unfortunately Granville soon has more patients than he can handle and begins to suffer from hand cramps which begin to affect his performance at work. Charlotte brings a woman from the settlement house late one night to her father’s practice for help with her broken ankle. Mortimer sets the ankle and he and Charlotte spar some more. Charlotte insists that Mortimer could make a real difference treating patients in the East End, rather that treating her father’s wealthy patients. She finds her father’s practice contemptuous. When Mortimer is unable to satisfy a patient, Dalrymple fires him.

At Lord Edmund’s, Mortimer discovers that his electric feather duster gives a great hand massager. It occurs to him that perhaps the massage function could take the place of the human in the treatment of female hysteria. Eureka! The vibrator is born.

My thoughts: Who knew a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator could be not just funny but also give the audience a bit of a little history lesson about how women were treated in the 19th century? I would have loved this film just because it features so many of my favorite British actors such as Jonathan Pryce, and Gemma Jones, not to mention the still very handsome Rupert Everett. The film treats a very serious subject, the treatment of female hysteria in the 19th century, with humor, but it doesn’t miss the chance to point out not just the absurdities of the treatment of female hysteria but also how much damage was done to perfectly normal women.

The film is factual to a certain extent, women were really give manual massages to relieve the systems of hysteria in the 19th century, some were even committed to asylums and given hysterectomies, and there really was a Mortimer Granville, actually his name was Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville (1833-1900) and while he did come up with a battery powered massager, he never intended it to be used on women. In fact, he was actually appalled that his invention was used for such a purpose. It’s ironic that masturbation in the 19th century was considered sinful, but yet doctors used it to treat hysteria.

However, in this film Granville is set up as the harbinger of modern medical techniques. Although since he such an advocate for cleanliness to get rid of germs, you would think that he would realize that hysteria was just a catch-all diagnosis, instead of really treating what ailed women in the 19th century. Even after inventing the vibrator, he still doesn’t realize that all he’s doing is just giving women the sexual satisfaction that they aren’t given at home. It’s up to Charlotte to say out loud what the audience already know, that women do have sexual feelings. Granville grows in the film from a man who while interested in modern medical techniques, is still somewhat trapped by the what was considered the traditional roles for men and women. At first, he has a hard time understanding what drives Charlotte to give up the world of an upper middle class young woman to help those less fortunate.

The film is ably directed by Tanya Wexler, and there is just enough seriousness to counterbalance the humorous scenes in Dr. Dalrymple’s office as well as the hilarious scene where Edmund and Mortimer test out their new invention on the housemaid Molly. All the actors are wonderful, but for me, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance as Charlotte made the film. First of all her English accent is impeccable, and she manages to make Charlotte’s need to get up on her soapbox at every opportunity, charming not annoying which it could have been with a lesser actress. Her scenes with Hugh Dancy just sparkle, as she constantly leaves him flustered, at the same time opening his eyes to the possibility to women being the equal of men.

I suspect that this film will have more resonance for the women in the audience than the men. And I’m sure there will be people who wish that the story had not been framed in a traditional romantic comedy format. For me, I thought it was like having a really good historical romance novel with serious themes on screen, the type of story that I wish I had written. I do however wish that there had been some mention of the fact that Charlotte eschewed corsets and bustles in her work at the settlement house compared to her sister who wore costumes that often made her look like a rather fetching meringue.  There is a part of me that wishes that instead of Granville, they used a fictional character as the inventor of the battery operated vibrator but one can't win them all.

Verdict:  For a peek behind the velvet curtains of Victorian sexuality, I highly recommend Hysteria. Be sure to stay for the credits or you'll miss some fun bits!

The Queen's Lover

Author: Francine du Plessix Gray
Publisher: Penguin
Pub Date: June 14, 2012

  About the author: Francine du Plessix Gray has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker and is the author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, including Simone Weil, At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life, Rage and Fire, Lovers and Tyrants, and Soviet Women. She is most recently the author of the memoir Them: A Memoir of Parents. She lives in Connecticut.

What it’s about:   The Queen's Lover begins at a masquerade ball in Paris in 1774, when the dashing Swedish nobleman Count Axel von Fersen first meets the mesmerizing nineteen-year-old Dauphine, Marie Antoinette. This electric encounter launches a lifelong romance that will span the course of the French Revolution.

The affair begins in friendship, however, and Fersen quickly becomes a devoted companion to the entire royal family. As he roams the halls of Versailles and visits the private haven of Le Petit Trianon, Fersen discovers the deepest secrets of the court. But the events of the American Revolution tear Fersen away. Moved by the cause, he joins French troops in the fight for American independence. When he returns, he finds France on the brink of disintegration. After the Revolution of 1789 the royal family is moved from Versailles to the Tuileries. Fersen devises an escape for the family and their young children. The failed attempt leads to a more grueling imprisonment, and the family spends its excruciating final days captive before the King and Queen meet the guillotine.

Grieving his lost love in his native Sweden, Fersen begins to sense the effects of the French Revolution in his homeland. Royalists are now targets, and the sensuous world of his youth is fast vanishing. Fersen is incapable of realizing that centuries of tradition have disappeared, and he pays dearly for his naïveté, losing his life at the hands of a savage mob that views him as a pivotal member of the aristocracy. Scion of Sweden's most esteemed nobility, Fersen came to be seen as an enemy of the country he loved. His fate is symbolic of the violent speed with which the events of the eighteenth century transformed European culture. Expertly researched and deeply imagined, The Queen's Lover is a fresh vision of the French Revolution and the French royal family as told through the love story that was at its center.

My thoughts: Ever since I heard that this novel was being published, I couldn't wait to read it, so when I saw that it was featured on TLC Book Tours, I begged for the chance to review it.  As anyone who reads this blog know, I share a birthday with Marie Antoinette, so I'm a sucker for a novel that is about her or features her as a character.  I can say that I was not disappointed. The Queen's Lover is one of the best historical fiction books that I have read this year.  Told from the viewpoints of Axel von Fersen and his sister  Sophie, the novel offers a unique take of the story of Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution.  Of course, von Fersen is not a disinterested observer, due to his deep love not just for Marie Antoinette but for the whole French royal family.

The beauty of this novel is that we not only get to know Marie Antoinette through Axel's eyes, but we also get to know Fersen on a deeper level than I've seen in a novel before.  One of the more enjoyable things about the novel is that we get to experience not just the French court but the Swedish court of Gustavus III Adolphus.  The differences between the extravagance and the decadence of the French court and the austerity of the Swedish Court is striking, although there are similarities in that both the Swedish King and Marie Antoinette loved theatricals and balls!

There is going to be a certain segment who are going to dislike this novel without even reading it, simply because it suggests that Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen consummated their relationship, that the book is called The Queen's Lover.  However, the book is so much more than the love affair, platonic or not between the two. The book is more about how swiftly events moved in the late 18th century, and how one wrong move tumbled the whole house of cards.  The style of the writing will also not be for everyone, it's a little bit old-fashioned, more reminiscent of the late Jean Plaidy's novels.

Of course there are events in the book that Fersen and Sophie didn't experience first hand. Remarkably du Plessix Gray manages to make those sections just as thrilling as those that Fersen experienced first hand.  The last section of the book is the saddest as Fersen tries to find some meaning in his life after the tragic events of 1793. Fersen isn't afraid to reveal to the reader his flaws, his need for women, his aloofness that leads to his downfall.

Verdict:  A deeply heartfelt and tragic novel about some of the most tumultous events in the 19th century

Lincoln Center Festival 2012 | Émilie

Sometimes you find the most interesting things in the oddest places.  For example, I was perusing Time Out New York at work today (because I was bored) when I saw an ad for The Lincoln Center Festival.  What really caught my eye was the title Emilie.  For some reason, I just assumed that it had to be about one of my favorite Scandalous Women, Emilie du Chatelet.  And I was right. 

Here is the description:

Émilie is a modern one-singer, multimedia tour de force about an extraordinary woman: French Enlightenment thinker Émilie du Châtelet. Émilie was many things: the brilliant physicist who first defined kinetic energy; mistress to Voltaire, among other luminaries; a prodigious mathematician and the translator of Newton’s Principia Mathematica; the author of a treatise on the happiness of women; a pioneer of what are now called financial derivatives, which she invented in part to pay off a $1 million debt to card sharks accrued in an unlucky night gambling—all achieved before she died in childbirth in 1749, when she was 42.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is one of the most influential composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Her signature style was largely influenced by her years studying in Paris at IRCAM, where she learned unique techniques to blend live music with electronic effects. Here, she uses elevated speech and soaring melodic arcs to convey her heroine’s rumination on life and the universe, from the tiny new life inside her womb to the vastness of interstellar space, as Émilie struggles with her place in a universe larger than most of us ever contemplate.

World-renowned soprano Elizabeth Futral sings the title role with elegant depth and extreme technical skill, singing almost continuously for the entire 75-minute work. Futral unfolds her character under the direction of Marianne Weems, best known as the artistic director of The Builders Association, whose work exploits the richness of contemporary technologies to extend the boundaries of theater.

Doesn't it sound fascinating? I totally have to buy a ticket to see this.

May Book of the Month - Overseas by Beatriz Williams

Title:  Overseas
Author:  Beatriz Williams
Publisher:  Penguin
Pub Date:  May 10, 2012
What it's about: A passionate, sweeping novel of a love that transcends time.

When twenty-something Wall Street analyst Kate Wilson attracts the notice of the legendary Julian Laurence at a business meeting, no one’s more surprised than she is. Julian’s relentless energy and his extraordinary intellect electrify her, but she’s baffled by his sudden interest. Why would this handsome British billionaire—Manhattan’s most eligible bachelor—pursue a pretty but bookish young banker who hasn’t had a boyfriend since college?

The answer is beyond imagining . . . at least at first. Kate and Julian’s story may have begun not in the moneyed world of twenty-first-century Manhattan but in France during World War I, when a mysterious American woman emerged from the shadows of the Western Front to save the life of Captain Julian Laurence Ashford, a celebrated war poet and infantry officer.

Now, in modern-day New York, Kate and Julian must protect themselves from the secrets of the past, and trust in a true love that transcends time and space.

What are they saying:

"A sensational debut! OVERSEAS is a heady blend of wit, charm, and romantic sizzle, all wrapped around a tantalizing mystery that will constantly surprise and delight readers."
—Anne Fortier, New York Times-bestselling author of Juliet

“History meets romance meets suspense! Compelling, original and wildly romantic, Beatriz Williams’ prose is stunning and the plot edge-of-your-seat gripping. OVERSEAS is an absolute triumph—I loved every page.”
—Tilly Bagshawe, New York Times-bestselling author of Adored
"Overseas is one of those addictive stories that grabs you and doesn't let go. Beatriz Williams has an amazing storytelling talent."
 - Lauren Willig, author of the Pink Carnation series

Scandalous Women says:  OVERSEAS is the epic love story that Titanic wanted to be, if James Cameron weren't such a hack. Julian and Kate join the pantheon of romantic leads, next to Elizabeth & Darcy, Scarlett & Rhett, Jane & Rochester.

About the Author

Beatriz Williams A graduate of Stanford University with an MBA from Columbia, Beatriz spent several years in New York and London hiding her early attempts at fiction, first on company laptops as a corporate and communications strategy consultant, and then as an at-home producer of small persons. She now lives with her husband and four children near the Connecticut shore, where she divides her time between writing and laundry.