Amazon, Empress, and Friend: The Life of Natalie Clifford Barney
By Karen Robertson
If you’ve seen the traveling exhibit, Ohio Women Vote: 100 Years of Change, one of the women you may have met is Dayton’s own, Natalie Clifford Barney. This exhibit is based around quotes from Ohio women, so as a writer and a poet, Barney was a great fit.
Barney is very quotable, and after diving through her work Pensées d’une Amazone, (Thoughts of an Amazon)[i] for exhibit research, my curiosity was piqued. I wanted to know more about this woman whose poetic thoughts I had been reading. The following blog post is just a bit of what I learned about this remarkable Ohioan.
Barney was well known for her quick quips, her striking reflections, her loyal friendship, and her outspoken confidence. She was an out lesbian at a time when, as she said, “being other than normal [was] a perilous advantage.” She was known as the Amazon, and “l’impératrice des lesbiennes” (the empress of lesbians). After a childhood spent between Dayton, Cincinnati, Paris, and Washington D.C., Barney settled in Paris for most of her life. It was here that she thrived, in a city that was one of the safest places for LGBTQ+ people in the 1920s and 30s. Barney herself contributed to that culture of safety, hosting regular salons that welcomed creative souls, particularly lesbians in her community.
Natalie Clifford Barney was born in 1876 in Dayton, Ohio, to Albert Clifford Barney and Alice Pike Barney. Both sides of Barney’s family were well-off, and the family lived off of their inheritance. In particular Barney’s paternal great grandfather had become incredibly influential in Dayton, founding the Dayton Academy, Cooper Female Seminary, and Dayton Car Works. Natalie Clifford Barney was incredibly accomplished in her own right, but she also had an incredible head start thanks to her ancestors.
As a young child, Barney moved with her parents and younger sister Laura to the Cincinnati area. Here Natalie and Laura enjoyed adventures with their many pets: two dogs, a goat, baby alligators, two parrots, and a Shetland pony named Tricksy. Natalie began learning to ride on Tricksy, a skill she would enjoy for the rest of her life. The Barney girls also enjoyed playing with their neighbors, Violette and Mary. After a day running about, the four girls would settle in for stories from their governess. Often read in French, these stories helped Barney learn the language that would be key to her adult life.
Barney’s father was cold and distant, but her mother, an accomplished artist, was Natalie’s favored parent. Of her father she wrote, “His affection for me was demonstrated with gifts and bruises: he would pull me back from traffic with such vigor that I would have preferred the accident.” But of her mother, she said, “…when she bent over my bed before she went out to a party, she seemed more beautiful than anything in my dreams; so, instead of going to sleep, I would stay awake, anxiously waiting for her return…”
The Barney family was well accustomed to travel, meaning one of Natalie’s most influential childhood memories happened not in Ohio but in New York, at Long Beach. At the age of 5, running from a group of bullies during a summer vacation, Natalie ran directly past Oscar Wilde. He scooped her up, put her on his knee, and told her a story while the bullies disappeared. This meeting became even more important for Alice Pike Barney. Upon retrieving her daughter, Alice spoke with Oscar who encouraged her to continue exploring her art and helped her make connections to mentors who would change her life.
When Natalie was about ten years old, her family moved to France for the first time. She later wrote that she “missed the little river,” likely a reference to the actually very large Ohio River that runs through Cincinnati. However, she also noted that she and Laura quickly changed into high spirits “at every strange novelty,” including their “first sight of a bidet” which created “fits of laughter.”
The Barneys stayed in France for about 18 months, with the girls attending a well-known boarding school, Les Ruches. The school was founded by Marie Souvestre, a firm believer in strong education for girls, who also taught future first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Barney would later state that she knew she was a lesbian around the age of 12. Looking back on her time in France, she is clear about her developing sexuality. Before the Barneys left for France, Alice Barney had her daughter’s portrait painted. As Natalie later wrote, “Not wanting any passing fashion to date this picture of me at ten, she dressed me as a page. This was, perhaps, imprudent…” Natalie remembered playing at being a page with one particularly pretty girl at school, who began to call Natalie her husband.
After about a year and a half, the Barneys moved to Washington D.C., into a home that Alice, an architect as well as a painter, had designed. It was here that Natalie would spend her teenage years. The Barney household was very near the home of Vice President Levi P. Morton. Natalie often spent time with one of his daughters, riding their horses, as Barney said, “Drunk on freedom and the balmy air, we would skirt the woods, now full of new buds, which surround the capital.”
Like most teenagers, the two talked about their crushes. Natalie’s friend favored “Lady C.,” a fancy debutante who the two friends sometimes saw in the streets of Washington. Natalie shared stories of Eva Palmer, her first true love. Natalie and Eva met as teenagers at Bar Harbor in Maine, where the Barney family vacationed. Like almost all of Natalie’s future romantic matches, Eva had a penchant for poetry. The two began dating when Natalie was seventeen. According to Natalie, they kept up a correspondence during the colder months, before they could see each other again in Maine.
In her late teenage years and early twenties, Natalie Clifford Barney moved between living in Paris and Washington. Often the women of the Barney family were to be found in Paris, while Mr. Barney spent his time in London.
Upon her first return to Paris, Natalie began courting women in earnest. When her mother left to visit her father in London, she left Natalie behind with a handful of cash and a promise to have her portrait painted. A portrait never surfaced. Natalie would later admit, “I spent all the money on flowers and presents for various ladies- and what ladies they were!”
While she courted the many fine ladies of Paris, Natalie was in turn being courted by the city’s men. It was in fact on a date with a “would-be fiancé” that she first saw Liane de Pougy drive by. Natalie’s date told her “She is nothing but a courtesan,” but Natalie was smitten and began sending flowers, eventually showing up at Pougy’s door in a recently acquired page costume.
The two began a love affair, but unfortunately, when Natalie’s father found her reading a letter from Pougy, he angrily sent Natalie back to Washington for two years, to play her “role as debutante.”
While she remained rather quiet during this time, Natalie later wrote, “Even after I had come out I continued to send flowers, notes and poems to those I admired.” This phrase sounds a bit confusing to modern ears, as now the phrase “coming out” refers to a member of the LGBTQ+ community disclosing their identity. However, at the time, Natalie meant that she was “coming out” into society, as a young woman did when she reached an age that made her eligible for marriage. So although she was forced to “come out” into society in the historic context, Natalie also continued to “come out” in the modern context, courting the women she desired.
Unfortunately, Natalie and Liane de Pougy broke up, due to their disagreements over Pougy’s career as a sex worker. Natalie wanted to “save” Liane, even offering to marry a man to acquire the funding necessary to keep Liane from needing to work. But Liane did not want to be saved.
Liane chronicled the couple’s journey in her book Idylle Sapphique. Barney wrote a less popular reply volume, which, despite its lack of popularity, ended up including her most famous quote:
“My queerness is not a vice, is not deliberate, and harms no one.”
When Natalie was allowed to return to Paris, she learned that her childhood friends from Cincinnati, Mary and Violette, were also in the city. The two introduced her to Renée Vivien, “who also wrote poetry,” and was also an out lesbian. Renée and Natalie fell in love, but later broke up due to Natalie’s desire for non-monogamy. Natalie was crushed, but never won Renée back.
While dating Renée, Natalie also began her long career as a writer, publishing her first book of poetry, titled Quelques Potraits-Sonnets de Femmes. The book included poetry dedicated to the women that Natalie loved and illustrations drawn by her mother. Historians have speculated as to whether or not Alice Pike Barney understood the themes in her daughter’s writing, but she happily illustrated the book.[ii]
When a Washington gossip columnist got ahold of a copy of Natalie’s new book and published a dramatic headline about Natalie’s confident show of her lesbian identity, Albert Clifford Barney quickly made his way to Paris and bought every single copy of the book, embarrassed to have his wife and daughter’s work circulating with such themes.
In 1902, Albert passed away, leaving Natalie quite a large inheritance. She was able to use this money to open a long serving “salon” in her backyard on Rue de Jacob in Paris. In Barney’s yard sat a small Grecian temple dedicated to friendship. It is in this temple that the salon would meet, each Friday, well into the mid-twentieth century. These salons would become one of Natalie Clifford Barney’s most important contributions to society.
Many of the great writers of the time gathered at Natalie’s salons, including Gertrude Stein, Colette, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, F Scott Fitzgerald, Isadora Duncan, and later Truman Capote. It was a center of literary creativity and bursting with ideas and even activism. In 1927, when the Academie Francaise refused to add women to its ranks, Barney began her own “Women’s Academy,” to honor those who would otherwise be left behind.
Barney’s salons also provided a safe space for lesbians in Paris in the 1910s- 1930s. At this time, Paris was one of the safest places in the world to be openly LGBTQ+. However even in a fairly safe city, there was a need for secure places for the community to meet. At night, many of Paris’s lesbians congregated at a bar called Le Monocle, in the neighborhood of Montmartre. Here, they signaled to each other their place in a shared community through monocles on their faces and white carnations placed carefully in the button holes of their shirts. And then every Friday many of the artists among them congregated at Natalie’s, discussing their courageous writing and for a moment feeling completely safe.
One of the attendees of Natalie’s salons was Radclyffe Hall, who later based a fictional character, Valerie Seymour, on Natalie Clifford Barney. Hall wrote that “For Valerie, placid and self-assured, created an atmosphere of courage, everyone felt normal and brave when they gathered together at Valerie Seymour’s….a kind of lighthouse in a storm-swept ocean.”
Elizabeth Eyre, Barney’s neighbor and a sometimes attendee of the salon, later described the experience in beautiful detail. She said that, occasionally, Natalie would forget that it was Friday and her housekeeper, Berthe Cleyrergue, would have to remind her that people were waiting. (Cleyrergue took the position with Barney in 1927 and stayed on at the house until 1977, five years after Barney’s death.) Of the sights and sounds of a typical salon, Eyre later wrote:
“Why do I always remember them as though there’d been a light rain? Natalie’s house looked like an aquarium, with underwater light. There was never any sunlight in the salon because the light was filtered through the big trees in the garden. There were chairs all around the salon, as in a schoolroom, with people sitting all around the walls. I remember the triangular sandwiches and the harlequin colored little cakes from Rumplemayers. The punch came later, in the 30s.”
During World War I, many salons turned into war hospitals, but Natalie Clifford Barney was a pacifist and refused to support the war effort. Her salon continued. During this time she began one of her longest lasting romantic relationships, with artist Romaine Brooks. Brooks accepted Barney’s need for an open relationship, so their romance lasted over fifty years.
During World War II, Natalie and Romaine lived together in Italy. Natalie was openly anti-fascist before the war, but her writing turned pro-fascist and anti-Semitic as the war raged on. Some have since claimed that she believed what she was writing, but it is equally possible that she was just trying to survive. Once the Italian government formalized a military pact with the other Axis Powers in 1940, Natalie was in danger as an open lesbian with Jewish heritage living in Italy. It is believed that Barney was able to use her American citizenship to help save some Jewish neighbors from deportation to German camps. She never published her pro-fascist and anti-Semitic writings.
After the war, Barney came back to Paris and reopened her salon in 1949. Romaine Brooks remained in Italy, straining their relationship, but never ending Natalie’s affections. When writer George Wickes went to visit Barney in 1971, shortly after Brooks passed away, he noted that “Romaine was her oldest friend, and she felt her death most keenly.”
It was perhaps Romaine who offered the best descriptions of Natalie Clifford Barney over the years. Brooks was honest and unforgiving, but also gentle and adoring, saying Natalie was “Perverse…dissolute, self-centered, unfair, stubborn, sometimes miserly, “ but also “…capable of loving someone just as they are, even a thief…”
Brooks also wrote that “Natalie herself was a miracle…as fresh as a Spring morning….Her rebellion against conventions was not combative as was mine. She simply wanted to follow her own inclinations…”
Natalie Clifford Barney was an important influence on her community. She provided a safe space and a creative space that helped others thrive. Many of the people who passed through her salon are now the great writers featured in our history books. But perhaps what is most intriguing about Barney is the attitude that Brooks described, that comes through viscerally in Barney’s writing. She knew who she was, she knew it was okay to be who she was, and she decided early on that she wouldn’t change for anyone. As she wrote in her Pensee’s d’une Amazone “Yes, you have to ‘comply.’/I never complied and yet I am.”
Natalie Clifford Barney passed away in 1972 in her home in Paris. Her family members are all buried in Ohio, but Barney is buried is the Cimetiere de Passy in the city she loved the most. In 2009, an Ohio Historic Marker honoring Barney was placed in her hometown of Dayton. This was the first historic marker in the state of Ohio to mention an honoree’s sexuality.
Interested in learning more? Here are a few of the resources that were used to write this blog post:
Natalie Clifford Barney Queen of the Paris Lesbians
A Natalie Barney Garland
A Perilous Advantage (available via kindle e-books, and possibly your local library as well)
Between the Wars, Paris Was The City of Lesbian Love
Left Bank Lesbians in 1920s Paris
You can hear directly from Barney, in a video interview she took in 1966.
You can also check out more images of Natalie Clifford Barney at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Natalie and Laura donated much of their mother’s art here, and you can see a few of Laura’s pieces as well.
Some of Natalie Clifford Barney’s work is available for free online, in particular Pensées d’une Amazone. The book is written in French, but if you follow the link to Project Gutenberg and select “Read this book online:HTML” you should be able to use your internet browser’s translate function to read in whatever language you like.