Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) was one of the most compelling and maddening women of the 19th and early 20th century. She was a great seducer whose list of conquests include some of the most accomplished females of the Belle Époque. But, she was so much more than just a female Casanova. She was also a writer, playwright, and poet. She held a salon for more than 60 years on Paris’s Left Bank, which brought together artists from around the world. Barney was a bridge between the Parisian community and the ex-pats who chose to live in Paris after WW I. She dedicated herself to promoting women writers by founding a Women’s Academy in response to the all-male French Academy. ‘s
After Barney moved to Paris at 22-years old, she published 10 books in French and hosted the weekly salon that was a hotbed of Sapphic shenanigans but was also the center of the city’s literary culture. Among her regular guests: Colette, T.S. Eliot, Auguste Rodin, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Djuna Barnes, Isadora Duncan, Radclyffe Hall, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Janet Flanner, Andre Gide, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim, Sinclair Lewis, Thornton Wilder, Virgil Thomson, Truman Capote, Mary McCarthy, Somerset Maugham, Ford Maddox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, but somehow, never Ernest Hemingway.
The spy Mata Hari showed up at Barney’s salon dressed as Lady Godiva on a white horse harnessed with turquoise cloisonné before performing her big dance number.
Dolly Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s niece was one of Barney’s great loves, but Wilde drank a lot, was addicted to heroin, and attempted suicide several times. Despite her wit and charm, Wilde never managed to actually write anything, preferring to be taken care of by others. Barney paid for her stays in the early 20th century equivalent of rehab but nothing worked. After being diagnosed with cancer, Wilde refused surgery and committed suicide in 1941.
Besides living openly as a lesbian, Barney also advocated against monogamy. Anyone who fell in love with Barney needed to get used to sharing her. She usually had two or three lovers at a time. She once wrote out a list dividing her lovers into separate categories: Liaisons, Demi-Liaisons, and Adventures. Many of her former girlfriends stayed lifelong friends. Barney was fearless in pursuit of women; she was not shy about making her attentions known. Many straight women succumbed to the allure of Barney’s special charms. While not exactly beautiful, she had long, lustrous blonde hair, and deep blue eyes. The lesbian scene in Paris knew her as ”The Amazon”.
Her longest relationship was with another wealthy American, painter Romaine Brooks. Romaine and Barney met during WW I. Less social than Barney, Brooks disliked Paris, and she also disliked most of Barney’s friends. Brooks was footloose; spending most of her life traveling between Europe and the USA. She kept Barney interested because she never knew when Romaine was going to pack-up and leave. Brooks also was better at dealing with Barney’s other girlfriends. For most of their 50-year relationship, they kept separate residences. To accommodate Romaine’s need for solitude, their summer cottage consisted of two wings joined by a dining room.
Barney kept the party going until 1972, when she left this world at 95 years old. She is buried at Passy Cemetery on the Île-de-France, close to where Brooks is buried.
After her death, Barney’s life and work has largely been forgotten. A decade ago, on her birthday, Barney was honored with a historical marker in her home town of Dayton, the first in Ohio to make note of the sexual orientation of its honoree.