Sunday, November 9, 2014

Out Spotlight

Today's Out Spotlight was a leading pioneer of feminist literature, was a free spirit whose eccentricity and insatiable desire for life, love and art make her one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century. Today's Out Spotlight is Natalie Clifford Barney.

Natalie Clifford Barney was born October 31, 1876 in Dayton, Ohio, to Albert Clifford Barney and Alice Pike Barney. Her father was the son of a wealthy manufacturer of railway cars and of English descent, and her mother was of French, Dutch and German ancestry.

When Barney was five years old her family spent the summer at New York's Long Beach Hotel where Oscar Wilde happened to be speaking on his American lecture tour. Wilde scooped her up as she ran past him fleeing a group of small boys, held her out of their reach then sat her down on his knee and told her a story. The next day he joined Barney and her mother on the beach, where their conversation changed the course of Alice's life, inspiring her to pursue art seriously, despite, years later, her husband's disapproval.

 Like many girls of her time, Barney had a haphazard education. Her interest in the French language began with a governess who read Jules Verne stories aloud to her so she would have to learn quickly to understand them. Later she and her younger sister Laura Clifford Barney attended Les Ruches, a French boarding school founded by feminist Marie Souvestre and attended by such notables as Eleanor Roosevelt. As an adult she spoke French fluently without an accent and made her home in Paris. Nearly all her published works were written in French.

After coming of age, she moved to Paris.  Barney’s life in Paris was a far cry from what her wealthy Midwestern parents expected. They assumed she would marry an aristocrat and generally “behave.”

Barney had no interest in marriage or behaving. She studied for 18 months at a boarding school in Fontainebleau, France, that encouraged girls to think for themselves. Her time there began her passion for the French bohemian lifestyle.

Barney took up residency on the Left Bank, in Paris. France gave her the artistic and sexual freedom she craved. She started a famous salon that served as a gathering place for leading artists and intellectuals. In addition to her weekly salon, Barney founded the Académie des Femmes to mentor women writers.
Her expansive catalog of work, written from a lesbian perspective, includes poetry, novels, epigrams and plays.

Paris served as the epicenter of Barney’s irrepressible love life, where her charisma earned her the reputation as a female Casanova. Her many romantic liaisons became the subject not only of her own literary work, but also of the work of other prominent French artists and intellectuals.

 Barney later said she knew by age 12 she was lesbian and was determined to "live openly, without hiding anything." In 1899 after seeing the courtesan Liane de Pougy at a dance hall in Paris, Barney presented herself at de Pougy's residence in a page costume and announced she was a "page of love" sent by Sappho. Although de Pougy was one of the most famous women in France, constantly sought after by wealthy and titled men, Barney's audacity charmed her. Their brief affair became the subject of de Pougy's tell-all roman à clef, Idylle Saphique (Sapphic Idyll). Published in 1901, this book became the talk of Paris, reprinted at least 69 times in its first year. Barney was soon well known as the model for one of the characters. By this time, however, the two had already broken up after quarreling repeatedly over Barney's desire to "rescue" de Pougy from her life as a courtesan.

At age 24, Barney began an affair with Anglo-American writer Renee Vivien. From a new and feminist perspective, the two wrote prolifically about sex and gender.

But Barney’s most notable romance was her 50-year nonmonogamous partnership with painter Romaine Brooks. In November 1899 Barney met the poet Pauline Tarn, better known by her pen name Renée Vivien. For Vivien it was love at first sight, while Barney became fascinated with Vivien after hearing her recite one of her poems which she described as "haunted by the desire for death." Their romantic relationship was also a creative exchange that inspired both of them to write. Barney provided a feminist theoretical framework which Vivien explored in her poetry. They adapted the imagery of the Symbolist poets along with the conventions of courtly love to describe love between women, also finding examples of heroic women in history and myth. Sappho was an especially important influence and they studied Greek so as to read the surviving fragments of her poetry in the original. Both wrote plays about her life. Barney was Brooks’s muse for some of her famous works.

 For over 60 years, Barney hosted a literary salon, a weekly gathering at which people met to socialize and discuss literature, art, music and any other topic of interest. Barney strove to feature women's writing while also hosting some of the most prominent male writers of her time. She brought together expatriate Modernists with members of the French Academy. Joan Schenkar 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."

She vitalized the lesbian literary tradition and served as an inspiration for free spirits by being unapologetically herself.

Barney passed away  February 3, 1972, in Paris, France.

 “Your life is your most beautiful poem; you are your own immortal masterpiece.”

1 comment:

the real m said...

Wow, what a fascinating life. And to be so sure of what you want at age 5 is incredible.

Jake does look out of sorts in those photos from yesterday's post. But honestly he rarely seems happy to do the star thing anymore- not like he was in the beginning when he was beaming from end to end back in the pre Brokeback and Brokeback days. His joy was what drew you to him. I do think his demeanor now has reduced his fan numbers.