Why you should care
In Paris, poet Natalie Clifford Barney became a champion of gay rights, simply by refusing to follow the rules.
The lush, green garden bustles with people on a warm Parisian evening. Guests drink champagne and snack on hors d’oeuvres, the hum of their chatter rising into the night air. It’s the roaring twenties and some of the most renowned writers, artists and musicians in Paris are on hand, including T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein. This was a typical Friday night salon hosted by poet and author Natalie Clifford Barney, one of the most outspoken and well-respected writers of her time. Not only did Barney break barriers by living as an openly gay woman in the 1920s, she also gave female artists and writers a platform to share their work. In doing so, she became a champion of gay and women’s rights, simply by refusing to follow cultural norms.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1876 to a wealthy railway pioneer father and an artist mother, Barney was surrounded by creatives from a young age. At 5 years old, she met Oscar Wilde, who became a close family friend. At age 10, Barney went to Paris for the first time, to attend school, fell in love with the city and learned to speak French like a native.
Barney published her first book of poems in 1900. Quelques Portraits-Sonnets de Femmes (Some Portrait-Sonnets of Women) made her the first woman to write openly about loving other women since the ancient Greek poet Sappho. Reviews were positive — though most ignored the lesbian themes, except for an article in The Washington Mirror that directly compared Barney to Sappho. Her father was so displeased with the review that he bought the publisher and destroyed their printing plates. Worried by her father’s volatility, Barney published her next book under the pseudonym “Tryphé.” After he died, leaving her a tidy sum of money, she resolved never to use a pseudonym again.
Barney had a taste for prominent, yet wild, women.
Because Barney was firmly opposed to monogamy, she had many lovers throughout her life, which became part of her legacy. “The fact that she was sexually liberated, for many women, that made her ahead of her time,” says Karla Jay, LGBT activist and author of The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien. In 1899, Barney began a passionate and tumultuous romance with fellow poet Renée Vivien. But Vivien wanted commitment, and Barney’s dismissal of monogamy proved detrimental to their relationship. Vivien, who was an alcoholic, attempted suicide by overdosing on opioids in 1908; she died a year later at the age of 32. Fifty years after her death, Barney wrote of her former lover in a memoir: “She could not be saved. Her life was a long suicide. Everything turned to dust and ashes in her hands,” according to the book Wild Girls by Diana Souhami.
Barney had a taste for prominent but wild women. She had notable relationships with the memoirist Élisabeth de Gramont, who was the Duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre and a descendant of Henry IV of France; the portrait artist Romaine Brooks; and Dolly Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s niece and, like Vivien, a heavy drinker and drug user. The two were separated during World War II when Barney fled to Italy and Wilde fled to the U.K., where she died in 1941 from what was believed to be a drug overdose.
Around the turn of the century, Barney began hosting salons at her home in Paris, a weekly affair that lasted for 60 years. It was an opportunity for artists, writers and musicians to meet and exchange ideas. It was at these salons that some of the most famous modernist writers of the early 20th century shared their work. In addition to Eliot and Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Colette and William Carlos Williams attended, among many others. Barney’s salons welcomed both men and women at a time when the Académie Française, the French literary academy, refused to admit women. In response to this rule, Barney founded a “Women’s Academy” in 1927, hosting regular readings to honor the accomplishments of French female writers who’d been largely ignored by the mainstream.
After the war, Barney resumed her weekly Parisian salons. She continued her Women’s Academy readings, including one that featured Marguerite Yourcenar who in 1980, eight years after Barney’s death, would become the first female member of the Académie Française. To date, only nine of the 732 members in the history of the Académie Française have been women and just six of the 40 seats today are held by women.
Though Barney wrote more than a dozen books of poetry, plays and a novel, she is remembered mostly for the way she lived. “She really wasn’t a first-rate writer,” Jay says. “Her life really was, in many ways, her finest work.” And ironically, the fact that she lived so long — she died of heart failure in 1972 — allowed her work to fall into the shadows, largely neglected by second-wave feminists. Barney was buried in Paris, but in 2009 her hometown of Dayton erected a marker in her honor — the first distinction of its kind in the state to note the sexuality of the honoree.
While she may not be considered an activist by today’s standards, Barney was an icon for women and the LGBT community, both during her time and after. Her life was the inspiration for the British novel The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall, the most acclaimed lesbian novel of the 20th century. Barney is depicted as the “placid and self-assured” salon hostess Valérie Seymour. In her life, Barney was entirely unapologetic, says Jay. “I think her attitude was ‘I’m a woman and I’m not going to change that, so we’re going to see what women can do.’”