Natalie, my husband kisses your hands, and I the rest.
--Colette, note to Natalie Clifford Barney
Natalie Clifford Barney is a paradox: an American who wrote in French, a writer unknown to many people who read the more famous writers who admired her, a progressive thinker who lived quietly through the Nazi occupation of France.
Born in 1876 to wealthy parents in Dayton, Ohio she moved with her family to Washington, D.C. while still quite young. Barney lived a privileged lifestyle, traveling regularly and studying at a French boarding school. Despite a penchant for scandalous behaviour—she smoked publicly and frequently escaped her chaperones—wealthy suitors considered the teenaged Natalie, a beautiful, statuesque blonde with a considerable dowry, to be highly desirable. In fact, she considered herself a lesbian, and may have been drawn to Belle Epoch Paris by its more tolerant attitudes. Her first recorded relationship was with a celebrated courtesan, Liane de Pougy, who in 1901 wrote a book about their love, which had already become the talk of Parisian gossip columns.
Natalie Barney’s own first book, Quelques Portraits-Sonnets de Femmes saw publication a year earlier; it consisted of poems dedicated to women, including de Pougy. …Portraits-Sonnets… had a limited run, and her wealthy father bought many of the copies to keep them from circulating. It is now extremely difficult to find. She wrote a dozen other books, most of them collections of poems, drama, memoirs, and witticisms. Her most famous work is Pensées d’une Amazone, published in 1920. Her final work was a memoir, Traits et Portraits, published in 1963.
Her lovers included Colette, Djuna Barnes, and Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly. Many other affairs gained her a reputation as a female Don Juan. Her longest-lasting relationships were with Renee Vivien and the painter, Romaine Brooks.
In 1909, Barney moved into a small house at 20 Rue Jacob, on Paris's Left Bank. She would remain there for the rest of her life. During the early twentieth century, a significant number of celebrated writers and artists lived within a few blocks of each other in this same neighborhood. Barney’s yard became famous for parties and events. Her guests included Djuna Barnes, Romain Brooks, Paul Claudel, Jean Cocteau, Colette, Nancy Cunard, Isadora Duncan, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Andre Gide, Peggy Guggenheim, Mata Hari, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Mina Loy, Somerset Maugham, Mary McCarthy, Count Robert de Montesquieu, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ezra Pound, Rainer Marie Rilke, Auguste Rodin, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Renee Vivien, William Carlos Williams, Marguerite Yourcenar. The yard boasted a small replica of a Greek temple, inscribed À l’amitié-- “to friendship.” The book Women of the Left Bank claims the Temple of Friendship still stood in the late 1980s; when I had a chance to look in on the yard in 1996, it no longer seemed to be there.
Natalie Barney died in 1972. French literary magazines have devoted entire issues to her, but she remains largely unknown in her native land.
Shari Benstock. Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900-1940. University of Texas, 1987.
“Natalie Barney.” Wymen in Art Herstory. http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Suite/9048/HERSTORYlist2.html#natalie
The World of Natalie Clifford Barney. http://www.natalie-barney.com/