Natalie: An Overview: A brief look at Barney's long life.
Charismatic, brilliant, and wealthy, the American heiress Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) is best known for three things: her powerful Left Bank literary salon; her books of pensées, witty encapsulations of truth that follow an ancient French tradition; and the courage she displayed, from Victorian days onward, in openly celebrating her love of women.
Natalie deserves to be known for a fourth reason: she was a vital foremother to each and every woman who is today leading a life she has chosen with her own free will. "It seems to me," Natalie once wrote her mother, "that those who dare to rebel in every age are those who make life possible—it is the rebels who extend the boundary of right, little by little." Only seventeen when she penned those words, Natalie couldn’t possibly have known that she herself would extend such boundaries by expanding the notion of what a woman’s life "should" be.
How did Barney do all of this? Simply by daring to live exactly as she chose, offering neither apology nor explanation. Those who didn’t approve were free to go elsewhere. Some did. Most stayed, however—for the simple reason that, in Natalie’s presence, life seemed magical. She was witty and smart and fun; she was friends with a vast array of exciting people; she had a way of making almost everyone feel special; and she knew how to squeeze the last drop of pleasure from life.
In many ways Barney seems extraordinarily contemporary, but she was born in 1876. Both her parents came from wealthy Ohio families. Her father was extremely conventional, but her mother, an accomplished painter who studied in Paris with Whistler, was something of a free spirit. At eleven, Natalie and her younger sister Laura entered a French boarding school. By the time the girls returned to the States in 1889, the Barney family had moved to Washington, D.C. For the next few years Natalie’s life revolved around an axis of Washington winters, summers in Bar Harbor, and jaunts to Europe.
Natalie seems to have emerged defiant from the womb. She was a willful child, and as an adolescent didn’t hesitate to rebel against Victorian mores. She refused to wear corsets, insisted on letting her long golden hair hang loose, and was punished for smoking cigarettes at boarding school. She loved to desert chaperones: her favorite trick was to jump from a moving carriage and run off, leaving the hired caretaker staring open-mouthed at her retreating back. When she rode astride, gossip columnists had a field day.
By her late teens Natalie had emerged as a captivating, magnetic young woman with long masses of blonde hair, a willowy figure, amused blue eyes, and a gift for witty repartee. She loved fashion, spoke fluent though slightly archaic French, and got by reasonably well in German. She was an excellent violinist, a superb horsewoman, and a budding poet. She was also, as the daughter of wealth, possessed of a generous dowry. Needless to say, she was heavily courted by eligible young men. But, since her interest in men was only "from the neck up," it was women who received her favors. It wasn’t until the late 1890s that she had her first serious love affair, with Liane de Pougy, a famous Belle Époque courtesan. They made no secret of their passion, which blazed in the face of Parisian society and was openly discussed in the city’s gossip sheets. In 1901 Liane’s roman à clef, Idylle sapphique—recounting almost every moment of her affair with Natalie, and barely disguising their identities—became a French success de scandale (Barney, by the way, helped with the writing).
In 1909, Natalie moved into an elegant little house on Rue Jacob, a narrow seventeenth-century street on the edge of the Latin Quarter near St. Germain des Prés. The place was a quiet retreat, removed from the street by a deep courtyard. It possessed an overgrown garden, and a small Doric-columned temple whose entrance was crowned by the words À l’amitié—to friendship—carved into stone. Rue Jacob became a landmark when Natalie began her "Fridays." Essentially a literary salon, these gatherings continued uninterrupted (except for WWII) for almost sixty years.
The salon’s guests over the decades reads like a Who’s Who of Twentieth Century Literature and the Arts. Among them were Auguste Rodin, Rainer Marie Rilke, Colette, James Joyce, Paul Valéry, the Sitwell siblings, Pierre Loüys, Anatole France, Count Robert de Montesquiou, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Somerset Maugham, T. S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Isadora Duncan, Ezra Pound, Virgil Thomson, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, André Gide, William Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes, George Antheil, Janet Flanner, Nancy Cunard, Peggy Guggenheim, Mina Loy, Caresse and Harry Crosby, Marie Laurencin, Oscar Milosz, Paul Claudel, Adrienne Monnier, Sylvia Beach, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Emma Calvé, Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, Alan Seeger, Mary McCarthy, Truman Capote, Françoise Sagan, and Marguerite Yourcenar. And that's just a start!
Despite their literary flavor, the Fridays weren’t confined to readings. Among the more memorable events were George Antheil’s premiere of his "First String Quartet," Colette and Paul Poiret acting the principal roles in Colette’s La Vagabonde while accompanied by the famed harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, Virgil Thomson playing the piano and singing his own compositions, and Gertrude Stein reading from The Making of Americans in English followed by Natalie reading her own translation in French. (The famous incident in which Mata Hari rode naked through Natalie’s gardens on a white horse harnessed with turquoises actually took place in Barney’s Neuilly home a few years before she moved to Rue Jacob.)
Of Barney’s twelve published books, all but one were written and published in French. The books cover a variety of genres: poetry, memoirs, drama, fiction, and collections of pensées. Much of Natalie's writing addresses her philosophies about life, sex, and womanhood. Her thoughts on these subjects were revolutionary, pre-dating many of today’s progressive ideas by nearly a century.
One of the reasons Natalie charmed and fascinated most who knew her, men as well as women, is that she herself was essentially unknowable. A contradiction, she resolutely defied classification. The personal dualism of which she often spoke and wrote was a fact, apparent in every aspect of her being; it reflected back at her admirers, making them at once worshipful and worried. Many who loved Natalie also feared her, and frequently for the same qualities. Her wit inspired laughter, but it could just as easily cut. It was heaven to be the focus of those startling blue eyes and that energetic mind, but hell when the attention turned elsewhere. Her charm was thrilling; its withdrawal, chilling. The dyadic emotions that Natalie set loose in others underlay the fascination she held—and still holds.
It was Natalie’s very unknowability that caused many of her friends to attempt defining her. During her lifetime she was the thinly-disguised heroine of books by the likes of Djuna Barnes, Radclyffe Hall, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, Liane de Pougy, and others. Colette, one of Barney's closest friends, transformed her into Miss Flossie, a brief but shocking presence in Claudine s’en va. Rémy de Gourmont published his intellectual love letters to her under the title Lettres à l’amazone, giving her a nickname she would carry for the rest of her life—"The Amazon." She is featured in two of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and figures in memoirs of literary movers and shakers from the late Belle Époque onward. Though she never touched a stove in her life, her favorite recipe made it into the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. She appeared regularly in Janet Flanner’s Genet columns in The New Yorker. She was often featured in periodicals as either an author of poems, essays and stories—or as the subject of someone else's poems, essays, and stories. The respected French/English literary review Adam once devoted an entire issue to her, and in Spring 1975 she took up most of The Paris Review.
For almost one hundred years Natalie Barney shattered tradition, defied society, and celebrated life. To say that she lived fully seems somehow inadequate, as she herself admitted: "Having got more out of life, oh having got out of it perhaps more than it contained!"