I was worried that you kids weren’t getting enough lesbianism. I feel you can never have enough stories of gay women. I wouldn’t know about Djuna Barnes (1892 – 1982), except that when I lived in New York City in the mid-1970s, my boyfriend, a native, would take me on literary tours of the city. Barnes spent the last decades of her life living in a carriage house in a charming gated Greenwich Village mews, Patchin Place. It is one of my favorite spots in the city. It consists of just 10 three-story brick row houses that have been home to several famous writers, including Theodore Dreiser, e. e. cummings, and John Reed, plus Marlon Brando. Patchin Place remains physically unchanged since the 1840s. It even retains its 19th-century gas street lamp, one of only two in New York City.
Before publishing the plays and novels she’s now known for, Women’s Rights advocate Barnes was a journalist and illustrator and a provocateur.
She wrote only one major book, Nightwood (1936), but it’s one of the most influential novels of the 20th century; remaining in print since its first publication, and more widely read today than it when it first came out.
Barnes was born in a log cabin, near Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. Her grandmother was a journalist and Women’s Suffrage activist. Her father, Wald Barnes, was a composer, musician, and painter. He married Barnes’s mother in 1889 and his mistress moved in with them in 1897, when Barnes was five-years-old. There were eight children between the two women. Wald did little to support them financially.
Barnes spent much of her childhood helping care for her younger siblings and half-siblings. She was home schooled by her father and grandmother, who taught her writing, art, and music but neglected subjects such as math and spelling.
When she was 16 years old, she was raped by a neighbor with the knowledge and consent of her father. Barnes refers to the rape obliquely in her first novel Ryder (1928) and directly in her furious final play The Antiphon (1958). She shared a bed with her grandmother for years, so, maybe incest too? When she was 17 years old, she “married” the mistress’s brother in a private ceremony without a license. He was 52. The match had been strongly urged by her father and grandmother, but she only stayed with him for a few months.
In 1912, the Barnes’ family, facing financial ruin, split up. Barnes moved to New York City with her mother and three of her brothers. She attended Pratt Institute from 1912 to 1913 and at the Art Student’s League of New York from 1915 to 1916, but she needed to support herself and her family and she left school to take a job as a reporter at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. At her job interview, Barnes declared:
”I can draw and write, and you’d be a fool not to hire me.”
Over the next few years her work appeared in almost every newspaper in New York City. She wrote interviews, features, and reviews, often illustrating them with her own drawings. She also published short fiction in the New York Morning Telegraph‘s Sunday edition and in the pulp magazine Cavalier.
Barnes’ whimsical drawings lent a satirical charm to her reporting. I imagine some of her articles being printed today in The New Yorker.
She embraced the quirky and held the idea that became so famous with feminists a half century later: The personal is political.
She found curious types around Brooklyn, over all classes and races and drew pictures for her audience. Literally. Barnes, whose upbringing had been erratic, negligent, even abusive, was drawn to the whimsical and eccentric. Her favorite spot for finding subjects was Coney Island.
Barnes was part of the Bohemian Greenwich Village scene, among her social circle were lesbians: photographer Berenice Abbott, writer Edna St. Vincent Millay and a Dadaist artist with the groovy name Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
Barnes became a regular contributor to popular magazines such as Smart Set, McCall’s and Vanity Fair. She also had some success as a playwright in 1919 when Eugene O’Neill‘s Provincetown Players produced three of her one-act plays. The plays, and a collection of Barnes’s poems, short prose pieces, and drawings were published as a book called A Book (1923).
Greenwich Village in the 1910s was a hotbed of sexual and intellectual freedom. Barnes was raised with a philosophy of Free Love, espoused by her grandmother and her father. Her father believed in unlimited procreation, which Barnes strongly rejected; criticism of childbearing would become a major theme in her work. She did believe in sexual freedom, to say the least. She had dozens of affairs with both men and women during her Greenwich Village years.
Before Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion in the 1960s, Barnes believed the observer was as important as the story, so why pretend otherwise? She often made herself the subject of her pieces. Her instinct to insert herself into her stories gave her the chance to showcase her courage and her evocative prose, yet it carried real danger. The photograph below was taken for her article, My Adventures Being Rescued, about how she went through a firefighters’ training session and pretended to be saved three times.
A photograph from a story in 1913 shows her being saved by firemen while dangling off the side of a building. In a grimmer picture, she’s being forcibly fed through a tube.
At the time, suffragettes in Britain were taking Hunger strikes, and authorities were forcing water and food down a woman’s throat to keep her alive. Barnes decided to report on it by having it done to her for a piece she wrote for New York World, a magazine in 1914. It was called: How It Feels To Be Forcibly Fed.
In the early 1920s, Barnes moved to Paris where she joined a group of literary and artistic gay women on the Left Bank, which included: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Janet Flanner, and Sylvia Beach. She was also part of the inner circle of the influential salon of Natalie Barney along with painter Romaine Brooks, along with the queer writers Dolly Wilde and Radclyffe Hall. The characters in Nightwood are based on Barnes and her Paris circle.
Barney would become Barnes’ lifelong friend and patron, as well as the central figure in Barnes’ satiric chronicle of Paris lesbian life, Ladies Almanack (1928).
The most important romantic relationship of Barnes Paris years was with the artist Thelma Wood. Wood was from Kansas. She had come to Paris to become a sculptor, but at Barnes’ suggestion took up pen and ink instead, producing drawings of animals and plants that critics compared to Henri Rousseau. In the winter of 1922, they set up housekeeping together in a flat on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Of all Barnes’ many affairs, the relationship with Wood was her most profound.
Nightwood is set in the clubs, salons and empty churches of the pre-war Parisian gay underground, and focuses on the failed love affair between American “Nora Flood” and silent, androgynous “Robin Vote”, fictional stand-ins for Barnes and Wood.
Barnes referred to herself as ”the most famous unknown of the century”, bemoaning the fact that most people knew the gossip about her, but not the writing. Hardly ignored, Barnes, clad in a cape and cloche hat, was a legendary, glamorous figure among the Bohemian expatriates of 1920s Paris.
Barnes dedicated Ryder and Ladies Almanack to Wood, but, 1928, the year both books were published, was also the year that she and Wood broke up. Barnes wanted their relationship to be monogamous but discovered that Wood wanted her “along with the rest of the world”. Wood drank a great deal, and she spent her nights boozing and seeking casual sex partners. Barnes would search the cafés for her, often winding up equally drunk. Barnes broke up with Wood over her involvement with saucy heiress Henriette McCrea Metcalf, who is scathingly portrayed in Nightwood.
While writing Nightwood in 1932-33, Barnes stayed at Hayford Hall, an English country manor in Devon owned by arts-patron Peggy Guggenheim. Barnes published very little after the mid-1930s and was dependent on Guggenheim’s financial support. She drank more heavily; according to Guggenheim, she was finishing a bottle of whiskey a day. In 1939, she checked into a hotel in London and tried to kill herself. Guggenheim paid for her hospital and doctors, but finally lost patience and sent her back to New York City.
In 1940, Barnes’ family had her committed to a sanatorium in upstate New York to dry out. Furious, Barnes planned revenge by writing about her family. Throughout the 1940s she continued to drink and wrote nearly nothing. In 1950, realizing that alcohol had made it impossible for her to function as an artist, Barnes stopped drinking in order work on The Antiphon. She also returned to writing poetry, working eight hours a day despite arthritis so severe that she had difficulty sitting at her typewriter and turning on her desk lamp.
Barnes became a notorious recluse, intensely suspicious of anyone. e. e. cummings, who lived across the street, would check on her by shouting out his window: “Are you still alive, Djuna?” Writer Carson McCullers camped on her doorstep, but Barnes only called down: “Whoever is ringing this bell, please go the hell away!” Writer Anaïs Nin was a fan of her work, but Barnes would cross the street to avoid her. Barnes was angry that Nin had dared to name a character “Djuna”. When the feminist bookstore Djuna Books opened in Greenwich Village, Barnes called to demand that the name be changed.
Barnes left this world in home at Patchin Place in 1982, six days after her 90th birthday.
Although Barnes had many female lovers, in her later years she claimed:
“I am not a lesbian; I just loved Thelma.”
Last time I was in New York City, I noted that Patchin Place had not changed, however, the same privacy that had attracted writers also appeals to psychotherapists, who have transformed the street into a place now known as “therapy row”. It now has about 35 residents, plus 15 therapists’ offices. Djuna Books was gone.