The Era of Natalie Barney

by  Nevenka Adria Zovko

“Elle était l’amie des homes et l’amant des femmes.”
(She was a friend of men and the lover of women.)
– Natalie Barney

Sometime before the publishing of Ernest Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises, in 1926, Gertrude Stein said to him “you are all a lost generation” and coined the phrase that would forever describe the intellectuals, poets, artists and novelists that rejected the values of post Word War I America and flooded to Paris to live a “bohemian” lifestyle.  The term stuck and the mystique surrounding these individuals continues to fascinate us.

Writers and artists expatriated from America for many reasons, but once in Paris they were free to create some of the finest American literature to date.  The Lost Generation led the way in expression of the themes of spiritual alienation, self-exile and cultural criticism, and their literary innovations challenged traditional assumptions about writing and expression.

What may be less known to most readers and admirers of this movement is that on the Left Bank of Paris there existed a community of women writers, journalists and playwrights who were just as influential to the Modernist movement.  These women challenged the political and cultural conditions of the Paris setting, and their energy and intelligence nurtured the development of Modernism.

From the turn of the century to the twenties, although both men and women appeared to share a common reason for expatriating – they wanted to escape America and find in Europe a cultural, sexual and personal freedom to explore their cultural intuitions – they left for different reasons.

The reasons for women expatriation were particularly female reasons, and call into question the myths and clichés of Paris, which became enshrined in the popular imagination.  The unrelenting cultural fascination with “the Paris of the Twenties” ignores the fact that many expatriate women arrived long before the Twenties and stayed long after the decade ended. For women, Paris was an altogether different city from that which their male counterparts experienced.

In Paris women found the freedom from the cultural expectations that kept them locked into social roles.  Paris was for some women a release from Puritanism and a release from that which in Western society served as the norm: the privileging of the white, male heterosexual.  It was the promise of freedom that attracted these women to the city, the chance to live in a unique and extraordinary world.  Women with creative energy and talent, women with a passion for art and literature, women without obligations that come with husbands and children, were especially drawn to the Left Bank.

In Paris women were free from constrains of both American and French society.  The social pressures that forced French women into preconceived roles did not affect the lives of American women.  They were not French and they were not part of its society.  American women were not affected by French mores or prejudices and were not involved in French affairs.  By having this special status they were free to dismiss the fear of rejection, the weight of inhibition, and, most of all, the constraint of traditional attitudes and roles.

Along with Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and many other women expatriates, the Left Bank of Paris also housed a charismatic, brilliant and wealthy American heiress, Natalie Clifford Barney (1876 – 1972), who is best known for two reasons: her powerful Left Bank literary salon at 20, rue Jacob, and the courage she displayed in openly celebrating her love of women.

Natalie Clifford Barney was born in Dayton Ohio on October 31, 1876 to a financially independent upper middle class family.  Both her parents came from wealthy Ohio families.  Her father was extremely conventional, but her mother was a free spirit and an accomplished painter who studied in Paris.  She lived in Europe off and on until she settled there permanently in 1902.

Barney was wild and rebellious and was not afraid to defy the conventions and traditions of society. She once wrote to her mother: “It seems to me, that those who dare to rebel in every age are who make life possible – it is rebels who extend the boundary of right, little by little.”  She was ahead of her time in the politics of personal freedom, and spent her whole life trying to revise the lesbian images held by the public and lesbian women themselves.  She was a role model through her own behaviour, and through her poetry she made an effort to rewrite lesbian experience and history. From the beginning, her writing had a positive feminist component.  She celebrated everything female, praising women’s power and intelligence.  She liked men, but was not afraid to speak strongly against masculine devices, for example war, that destroyed what women created.

Natalie loved to write, and although she could sum up anything with a smart epigram, she was always a firm believer that life itself was more important than poetry.  She wanted to be out in the world doing things and experiencing life, creating art out of her life.  Through her salon, Natalie Clifford Barney could be, if she chose, very helpful to a writer’s carrier.  So, instead of concentrating on her own writing, Natalie Clifford Barney concentrated on her greatest work of art: her salon.

1902, the year when Natalie permanently moved to France, was a time when the literary salon still played an important role in cultivating great writers.  Natalie wanted to know them all, so the blond American everyone was talking about decided the way to meet the new faces was by giving parties.

20, Rue Jacob, Barney’s home and salon, became a landmark when she began her “Fridays”, the day she would uninterruptedly (except for World War II) host gatherings for almost sixty years. Natalie’s salon was both exclusive and inclusive.  There were standards of admission.  You had to be accomplished and intelligent, and most of all you had to love life, and have a sense of humor.

In addition to the high standards needed to get into the salon, women were also required to possess beauty and style.  Natalie loved the feminine and was at a complete loss to understand why a woman would want to look like a man.  Natalie objected to any form of dress behavior that suggested that lesbians were really men trapped in women’s bodies.  She objected to cross-dressing and the need to mime the male in dress, speech and demeanor.  If you had all the requirements, nothing else about you mattered: your political views, sexual persuasion, nationality, or religion were irrelevant.  To be so democratic in those days was rare, and until the nineteen-twenties, the only place in Paris where writers and artists of different nationalities could mingle was at rue Jacob.

What made Barney’s Fridays the place to be was the fact that it was acceptable to be who you were.  For instance, Natalie’s embrace of her sexuality was both joyous and a matter-of-fact, and she often said, “I am a lesbian.  One needn’t hide it, nor boast of it.”  Natalie came to like being viewed as disreputable and was fond of saying that she had the most respectable of bad reputations.  No matter what anyone wanted to say about her they could not deny her excellent manners nor her money, and this “respectability”, together with her strong will and sharp intelligence, allowed her to snub conventional regard.

Guests at the Fridays were the who’s who of Twentieth-Century Literature and Arts.  In The Passionate Years Caresse Crosby writes: “Among her many friendships one may cite the most beautiful and talented women of Paris and among those frequenting her salon were the best-known literary figures of the day.”

Natalie Barney’s Sapphic circle invited women Modernists who were talented and determined; women who rebelled and “extended the boundary of right, little by little.”  At Natalie Barney’s, life and art were entwined, and it was the place where the passionate souls of these women created a circle where their intellectual and artistic energy could be released.  It was at Natalie’s that these powerful personalities could come together and express themselves.

An endless stream of expatriates came to Paris with their own individual, private motives, and somehow Natalie was intertwined in the lives of them all.  Natalie Clifford Barney transformed the world around her and she will always be remembered as the Amazon who not only knew writers, but also inspired them.  Natalie Barney was an advocate of the equal social and economic rights of women before the women’s liberation movement existed, and she had never made a secret of her preference for her own sex.  Throughout her life she promoted art, and created her life into a work of art.  “Her world was that meeting place of society and literature which [was] better organized in Paris than anywhere… Many women in Paris attempted to found a salon; Miss Barney succeeded.”
(Rodriquez, p.180)


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