Photograph by Frances Benjamin Powers created between 1890 and 1910.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972)
In addition to being the muse and inspiration of other writers, American expatriate Natalie Clifford Barney, known as the Amazon, was a poet, memoirist and epigrammatist in her own right.
Barney was born in Dayton, Ohio, on October 31, 1876; she grew up in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. Her father, Albert Clifford Barney, inherited a railroad fortune, and when the family lived in Washington, Natalie moved in the highest social and diplomatic circles. The rigid protocol of high society bored her, however, and she was eager to pursue her own adventures in an atmosphere more conducive to sexual, and especially lesbian, expression. As a child, she had visited Europe many times, and when she was twenty-four she settled permanently in Paris.
Famous for her operatic love affairs most notably with the poet RenЁ¦e Vivien and the painter Romaine Brooks and her philosophical commitment to flirtation and nonmonogamy, Natalie Barney met her last lover on a park bench on the Avenue des Anglais in Nice, in 1956 at the age of seventy-nine.
Her life and temperament have provided inspiration for many literary portraits, including those of Flossie in Liane de Pougy’s Idylle sapphique (Sapphic Idyll, 1901), Miss Flossie in Colette’s Claudine s’en va (Claudine and Annie, 1903), Valerie Seymour in Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), and Laurette in Lucie Delarue Mardrus’s L’Ange et les pervers (The Angel and the Perverts, 1930).
Though these characters are quite different one from another, they share a strong lesbian identity, generosity of spirit, and the ability to laugh at themselves. Renee de Gourmont, the French writer and literary critic, struck up a close friendship with Natalie Barney after reading her Eparpillements (Scatterings, 1930). He published two collections of the letters he had written her. Lettres Ё¤ l’amazone (1914), and Lettres intimes Ё¤ l’amazone (1926), thus she became known in French literary circles as “the Amazon.”
Barney was not merely the muse of other writers, but a poet, memoirist, and epigrammatist in her own right. Her first collection of poetry, Quelques portraits-sonnets de femmes, celebrating many of her lovers, was published in 1900.
Although her poetry and plays are mostly works of juvenilia or old-fashioned exercises in nineteenth-century French verse style, her memoirs and portraits such as Aventures de l’espirit (Adventures of the Mind, 1929), and Souvenirs Indiscrets (Indiscreet Memoirs, 1960) are vivid, perceptive pieces that describe many of the gays and lesbians who frequented the literary salon she held in Paris for fifty years: Colette, Andre Gide, Lucie Delarue Mardrus, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Romaine Brooks, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust. She comments on the gay lifestyles of the period, producing a spirited defense of homosexuality with the same unabashed openness and enthusiasm with which she lived her life.
It is, however, the epigrams Eparpillements, Pensees d’une amazone (Thoughts of an Amazon, 1920) and Nouvelles pensЁ¦es d’une amazone (More Thoughts of an Amazon, 1939) that show a real literary merit and a rare talent for beautifully turned, perfectly aimed verbal barbs and ironic comment.
Natalie Barney died on April 24, 1972, at the age of ninety-five in the same house at 20 rue Jacob where she had lived and run her salon for more than fifty years. It was not, however, until 1992 with the publication of A Perilous Advantage and Adventures of the Mind that her work became available to English-speaking readers.