Issue 61, Spring 1975
Natalie Clifford Barney, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1876 and who died in Paris in 1972 at the age of 95, was a legendary figure in France but almost unknown in her native land. She is the Amazone to whom Remy de Gourmont addressed his Lettres à l’Amazone, she appears as a character in half a dozen works of fiction, and her name turns up in scores of memoirs. For over sixty years her house in Paris provided the setting for an international salon frequented by many of the leading writers, artists, diplomats and intellectuals of the century, including Gertrude Stein, Sacha Guitry, Paul Valéry, Baron de Rothschild, Harold Acton, Janet Flanner, Bernard Berenson, Romaine Brooks, Colette, Gide, Cocteau, Eugène Jolas and Ezra Pound. She herself was a writer, but her notoriety stems even more from her being unquestionably the leading lesbian of her time.
I had first heard about Natalie Barney when I was writing a book about the Americans in Paris. At that time the magazine Adam devoted an issue to Natalie Barney containing selections from her work and commentaries by me members of her circle. But what impressed me more was the remark made by Janet Flanner in declining to contribute to Adam: “Miss Barney is a perfect example of an enchanting person not to write about.” I am still puzzling over that remark, wondering if I may have taken it in the wrong sense. At the time I took it as a warning that this enchanting person wanted to be left in peace. As it turned out, Natalie Barney did not take this view at all. Eight years after, when I finally met her, she kept exclaiming, “Oh, why didn’t you come before?” and “Why have you waited so long to come?”
There she was, this extraordinary survival from another era, this fabled creature, once a legendary beauty who defied convention, now ancient and shrunken, wrapped in a pale blue dressing gown to match her pale blue eyes and very fine white hair. She looked like a carefully wrapped doll in that expensive hotel drawing room (she had been living in the Hotel Meurice as an invalid for the past two years, though her faithful housekeeper Berthe still lived at her old home at 20 rue Jacob) with its vases of tall expensive flowers—not at all the setting in which she had lived her life—but there was still a spark of animation behind the vague look in her eyes.
She was not very good at answering questions but quite lucid in asking them and particularly acute in questioning me about my private life. When she learned that I was married and had children she exclaimed, “Why, then your career is finished!”
She didn’t say much about the crucial period in her life, about what made her decide to live in Paris and to live the way she did. But she did say several times, “It was very dangerous then.” Of her intimates she mentioned only Romaine Brooks who had died in Nice the previous December. Romaine was her oldest friend, and she felt her death most keenly.
She repeated several little anecdotes or remarks about Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and George Antheil. Disconcertingly she kept asking me if I knew them, if I’d been in Paris then, what had happened to them and others, most of them dead. Her mind wandered, repeating itself like a broken record.
She said she went for walks around the quartier every night with Gertrude Stein and her dog. This must have been after 1937, when Gertrude Stein moved to the rue Christine, quite close to the rue Jacob. They used to talk about family quarrels, and Gertrude always said, Never mind, families always quarreled, that was what consanguinity was all about. Evidently Alice Toklas didn’t accompany them on these walks, for her memories of Miss Toklas were vague (“What’s her name? What’s become of her?”), while she clearly remembered walking the dog and spoke of Gertrude as a good friend. When the dog died, it didn’t seem to bother Gertrude. She simply got a new one and gave it the same name.
Ezra Pound she remembered in the company of Olga Rudge—his protegée, she explained, a violinist. She remembered playing tennis with Pound, so this must have been in the early twenties when he lived in Paris. Pound brought other poets to call. She kept trying to recall a remark, with three adjectives in crescendo, something like: “Ezra Pound was arrogant, outrageous and unspeakable.” But she couldn’t get the adjectives straight. I gathered that her intention was not to criticize Pound, whom she liked, but to fix him in a phrase.
George Antheil she remembered as a tiny little man, like a monkey, with a tiny little wife; she wondered if they had ever had any children. She also remembered Virgil Thomson and the man who lived with him, though she couldn’t remember his name. Thornton Wilder continued to come and call on her. Julien Green she did not like, finding him too strait-laced and puritanical.
Most of the time she preferred to speak English, but she kept testing my French. I had the impression that she expressed herself most deftly in French, though she was totally bilingual. Her English had a nineteenth century flavor about it, reminding me of the way my grandmother spoke.
After two and a half hours Natalie Barney was still going strong, and I had to excuse myself, for I was overdue for a dinner invitation, never having expected the interview to last more than a half hour. That was the last I saw of Natalie Barney, for I left Paris two days later, and the following winter she died.
In the 1920’s Natalie Barney became as famous for her avowal of lesbianism as she was for her literary salon. Her Pensées de L’Amazone (1920) presented the conclusions that she had reached about Sapphic love during her stormier years. This book must have done a great deal to establish her position, which one of her friends summarized in the phrase “l’ impératrice des lesbiennes.” Something of this reputation is suggested by Sylvia Beach in her book of memoirs, Shakespeare and Company:
One of the people who always took a great interest in my bookshop and also Adrienne’s was my compatriot Miss Natalie Clifford Barney, the Amazone of Remy de Gourmont’s Letters. She rode horseback in the Bois de Boulogne every morning, hence the name. She wrote poetry, and her salon was famous in the Paris literary world, but I wonder if she ever took literary things very seriously. As an amazon, Miss Barney was not belligerent. On the contrary, she was charming, and all dressed in white with her blond colouring, most attractive. Many of her sex found her fatally so, I believe.
Renée Vivien was Natalie Barney’s first great love, and her early death is sometimes said to have been caused by Natalie Barney. The following is Colette’s extraordinary and rather full account of Renée Vivien in her declining days. It is from Le Pur et l’impur. The unnamed “master” mentioned here is commonly assumed to be a Baroness van Zuylen, née Rothschild. Colette’s explanation seems particularly reliable, not only because she was a neighbor and eyewitness but also because she studied Renée Vivien’s behavior with concern. Her portrait is remarkable for being at once sympathetic and unsentimental.
If I were to publish the correspondence of this poet who never ceased claiming kinship with Lesbos, it would astound only because of its childishness. I stress this very particular childish quality, which strikes a false note—dare I say a note of obvious insincerity? The charming face of Renée Vivien reflected only a pan of that childlike quality, in the rounded cheek, soft and downy, in the innocent short upper lip, so typically English, curled up and revealing four tittle front teeth. A bright smile constantly lit up her eyes, a chestnut-brown which became greenish in sunlight. She wore her long, beautiful ash-blond hair, which was fine and straight, massed at the top of her head, from which many locks came down now and then like wisps of fine straw.
There is not a single feature of her youthful face that I do not vividly recall. Everything in it bespoke childishness, roguishness, and the propensity to laughter. Impossible to find anywhere in that face, from the fair hair to the sweet dimple of the weak little chin, any line that was not a line of laughter, any sign of the hidden tragic melancholy that throbs in the poetry of Renée Vivien. I never saw Renée sad. She would exclaim, in her lisping English accent, “Oh, my dear little Colette, how disgusting this life is!” Then she would burst into laughter. In all too many of her notes, I find that same exclamation repeated, often spelled out frankly in the coarsest words: “Isn’t this life sheer muck? Well, I hope it will soon be over!” This impatience of hers amused her friends, but her hope was not dashed, for she died in her thirtieth year.
Our friendship was in no way literary, it goes without saying—or rather, I should say, thanks to my respect for literature. I am sparing of words on that subject, except for occasional exclamations of admiration, and in Renée Vivien I found the same diffidence and well bred restraint. She, too, refused to “talk shop.” Whenever she gave me any of her books, she always hid them under a bouquet of violets or a basket of fruit or a length of Oriental silk. She was secretive with me on the two literary aspects of her brief existence: the cause of her sadness, and her method of work. Where did she work? And at what hours? The vast, dark, sumptuous, and ever changing flat in the avenue du Bois gave no hint of work. That ground-floor flat in the avenue du Bois has never been well described, by the way. Except for some gigantic Buddhas, all the furnishings moved mysteriously: after provoking surprise and admiration for a time, they had a way of disappearing. . .
Among the unstable marvels, Renée wandered, not so much clad as veiled in black or purple, almost invisible in the scented darkness of the immense rooms barricaded with leaded windows, the air heavy with curtains and incense. Three or four times I caught her curled up in a corner of a divan, scribbling with a pencil on a writing pad propped on her knees. On these occasions she always sprang up guiltily, excusing herself, murmuring, “It’s nothing, I’ve finished now. . .” Her lithe body devoid of density languidly drooped, as if beneath the weight of her poppy-flower head with its pale golden hair, surmounted by immense and unsteady hats. She held her long and slender hands in front of her, gropingly. The dresses she wore were always long, covering her feet, and she was afflicted with an angelic clumsiness, was always losing as she went her gloves, handkerchief, sunshade, scarf. . .
She was constantly giving things away: the bracelets on her arms opened up, the necklace slipped from her martyr’s throat. She was as if deciduous. It was as if her languorous body rejected anything that would give it a third dimension.
The first time I dined at her place, three brown tapers dripped waxen tears in tall candlesticks and did not dispel the gloom. A low table, from the Orient, offered a pellmell assortment of hors d’oeuvres—strips of raw fish rolled upon glass wands, foie gras, shrimps, salad seasoned with sugar and pepper—and there was a well-chosen Piper-Heidsieck champagne brut, and very strong cocktails—Renée Vivien was ahead of her time. Suffocated with the obscurity, mistrustful of the unfamiliar fire of Russian, Greek, and Chinese alcohols, I scarcely touched the food. I remember that Renée gay laughter, her liveliness, the faint halo of light trembling in her golden hair all combined to sadden me, as does the happiness of blind children who laugh and play without the help of light. I did not believe that this meeting in this luxurious fiat submerged in darkness could result in any real friendship with this tall young woman who tossed off her drink with the obliviousness one sees in bridesmaids at a country wedding.
Among the beverages that she raised to her lips was a cloudy elixir in which floated a cherry harpooned on a toothpick. I laid a hand on her arm and cautioned her.
“Don’t drink it.”
She opened her eyes so wide that the lashes of her upper eyelids touched her eyebrows.
“I’ve tasted it,” I said, embarrassed. “It’s . . .it’s deadly. Be careful, it tastes like some kind of vitriol.”
I dared not tell her that I suspected a practical joke. She laughed, flashing her white teeth.
“But these are my own cocktails, ma pethith Coletthe. They are excellent.”
She emptied the glass at one gulp, neither gasping nor blinking, and her rounded cheek kept its floral pallor.
I did not notice that evening her almost total abstention from food, but later on I discovered that she subsisted mainly on a few spoonfuls of rice, some fruit or other, and alcohol—especially alcohol. During this first evening, nothing could dispel the uneasiness engendered by the strangeness of the place, bound to astonish a guest, the semi-darkness, the exotic foods on plates of jade, vermeil, or Chinese porcelain, foods that had come from countries too far away.
However, I was to see Renée Vivien many times after ward.
We discovered that her house and mine communicated, thanks to the two garden courts separated only by a grille, and that the concierge who had the keys was not incorruptible; I could therefore go from the Rue de Ville just to the Avenue du Bois to visit her without setting foot in the street. Occasionally I used this facility. On my way, I would rap on the windows of the garden flat where Robert d’Humieres lived, and he would open his window and hold out an immaculate treasure, an armful of snow, that is to say, his blue-eyed white cat, Lanka, saying, “To you I entrust my most precious possession.” saying, “To you I entrust my most precious possession.”
Twenty meters father on, and I would confront, at Renée, the air which, like stagnant water, slowed down my steps, the order of incense, of flowers, of overripe apples. It is an under statement to say that I was stifled in that gloom. I became almost wickedly intolerant there, yet never wore out the patience of the gossamer angel who dedicated offerings of lady apples to the Buddhas. One day, when the spring wind was stripping the leaves from the Judas trees in the avenue, I was nauseated by the funereal perfumes and tried to open the window: it was nailed shut. What a contribution such a detail is, what a fiourish it adds to a theme already rich! What a quantity of lurid gleams and glints of gold in the semi-darkness, of whispering voices behind the doors, of Chinese masks, of ancient instruments hanging on the walls, mute, only vaguely whimpering at the banging of a door beneath my heavy hand. At Renée Vivien’s I could have wished to be younger, so I could be a little fearful. But impatience got the better of me and one evening I brought an offending, an inadmissible big oil lamp, and plumped it down, lit, in front of my plate. Renée wept big tears over this, like a child—it is only right to add that she consoled herself in like manner.
Try as she would to please me by inviting along with me two or three of my best friends, to make me happy, our intimacy did not seem to make any real progress. At the table in the darkness, or lounging comfortably and provided with exotic food and drink, Turkish cigarettes or Chinese blond tobacco in miniature silver pipes, we remained a bit stiff and uneasy, as if our young hostess and we ourselves apprehended the unexpected return of an absent and unknown “master.”
This “master” was never refer red to by the name of woman. We seemed to be waiting for some catastrophe to project her into our midst, but she merely kept sending invisible messengers laden with jades, enamels, lacquers, fabrics . . .A collection of ancient Persian gold coins came, glittered, disappeared, leaving in its place glass cabinets of exotic butterflies and other insects, which in their turn gave way to a colossal Buddha, a miniature garden of bushes having leaves of crystal and fruit of precious stones. From one marvel to another Rene’e moved, uncertainly, already detached, and showing the indifferent self-effacement of a guard in a museum. indifferent self-effacement of a guard in a museum.
When I recall the changes which gradually rendered Renée more understandable, I believe I can link these with certain gestures at first, then with some words that threw a different light on her. Some people become transformed by riches, others acquire a real life only by impoverishment, their very destitution giving them life. When was I able to forget that Renée Vivien was a poet, I mean, when did I begin to feel a real interest in her? No doubt it was one evening when dining at her place, an evening of spicy foods and of disquieting drinks—I risked drinking only two glasses of a perfect and very dry champagne—a gay evening and yet inexplicably strained, when gaiety expressed itself in laughter, in an eagerness to applaud exaggeratedly any least droll word.
Exceptionally that evening she wore a white dress that bared her delicate and youthful throat and the nape of her neck, where wisps of her soft straight hair were always coming undone. Between two remarks and without warning, she suddenly leaned against the back of her chair, her head bowed, her chin on her thin chest, her eyes closed . . . I can still see her two slender hands resting open and lifeless on the tablecloth.
This fainting spell, or whatever it was, lasted less than ten seconds, and Renée came to without embarrassment.
“Forgive me, my dears, I must have gone to sleep,” she murmured, and resumed the argument she had left for the fleeting death from which she had returned fired with a strange frenzy.
“Oh, that B.!” she exclaimed, “I don’t want to hear any more about him or his verses tonight. He has no talent. He is—wait, I know what he is, he’s a cunt, a cunt with a pen. Yes, a cunt with a pen!”
The word fell into our silence, coarse, blunt. Anyone of us would have been capable of pronouncing that word in an undertone and among ourselves, but as Renée repeated the indecent remark, there reigned on her childlike features a blank expression that set the words outside time, deprived of any significance, and revealed in the speaker a profound disorder.
The wily lunatic is lost if through the narrowest crack he allows a sane eye to peer into his locked universe and thus profane it. After ward, it is the sane eye that changes, is affected, becomes fascinated with the mystery it has seen and can never cease to question. The more sensitive the lunatic, the less able is he to resist this prying interest of the normal human being. I felt that Renée’s change of key—to myself, 1 compared Renée to a sweet melody, a little flat despite its laborious harmonies—was approaching.
This was her very pathetic secret, the confession of a quite ordinary neurosis. Or was it? Yes, if one can be satisfied with a single fact, as I was for a time—a rather short time. Renée was dying when I was told how she had managed in a weirdly simple way to drink to excess without anyone in Paris or anyone in Nice in the little house in the Pare Cessole ever being able to catch her at it. . .
Adjoining the bathroom, in a small room that substituted as a linen closet, her docile chambermaid sat sewing. Quick, maladroit, stumbling against the furniture, Renée was constantly calling out for help to . . . let us call her Justine, for that was absolutely not her name.
“Justine, my dear, will you sew on this hook that’s come off?” “Justine, dear, have you ironed my embroidered frock?”
“Quick, my slipper ribbon is undone. . .” “Oh! These new gloves still have a price tag on, do take it off, Justine, will you?”
“Please, Justine, tell the cook that tonight. . .”
Behind the sewing-room door, which remained open, you heard only a murmured reply: “Yes, mademoiselle. Very well, mademoiselle. ... ” And the maid did not leave the chair where she sat at work. Every time Renée appeared, Justine had only to lean over to reach, under her chair, one of the filled wineglasses that her skirt concealed. She held it out in silence to Renée, who emptied it at a gulp and went from the linen closet to the bathroom, where she found waiting her, punctually renewed, a glass of milky-looking water clouded with perfumes. She would gargle this and hurriedly spit it out. People who had seen and smelled that glass of perfumed liquid believed and have affirmed that Renée Vivien drank toilet water. What she so foolishly imbibed was no better.
I sometimes met Renée in the mornings, when I led my memorable cat Prrou out on a leash for a walk along the grassy paths in the avenue du Bois, and I recall one such encounter. As usual when she ventured out into the streets, Renée was a bit overdressed. In getting into the carriage that morning, she stepped on the hem of her long skirt and caught the strap of her bag on the handle of the door.
“Where are you going this early in the day?” I asked.
“To buy my Buddha. I’ve decided to buy one every day. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”
“Excellent. Enjoy yourself!”
She turned to wave goodbye and knocked her hat askew. To hold it on, she raised the hand she had passed through the strap of the bag and it, still shut, fell open, scattering a quantity of crumpled bank notes. “Oh, mon Dieu,’’ she exclaimed, laughing softly. At last the fiacre, the big hat, the dress with the ripped hem went off in the distance, while, close to my cat hygienically scratching the grass, I stood, reflecting: “The alcohol . . . the thinness . . . the poetry, the daily Buddha. . . . And that’s not all. What is the dark origin of all this nonsense?”
May I be excused for having included as an element of "all this nonsense” the word “poetry.” Renée Vivien has left a great many poems of unequal strength, force, merit, unequal as the human breath, as the pulsations of human suffering. The cult of which they sing arouses curiosity and then infatuation; today they have disarmed the indignation of even the lowest kind of moralists—and this is a fate I would not have dared to promise them if they had lauded only the love of Chloe for Daphnis, since the lowest kind of moralist follows the fashions and makes a display of broad mindedness. In addition. Renée's work inhabits a region of elevated melancholy, in which the amies, the female couple, daydream and weep as often as they embrace. Admirably acquainted with our language, broken to the strict rules of French meter, Renée Vivien betrays her foreignness—that is to say, her assimilation of French master works relatively late in life—by exuding her Baudelairism in the years 1900-9, which was rather late for us.
When I found out she was so fallible, so faddy, so enslaved to a ruinous habit that she hoped to keep secret, my instinctive attraction to Renée changed into friendship. Friendship is not always circumspect, and one day I went so far as to put a strange question
“Tell me, Renée. Are you happy?”
Renée blushed, smiled, then abruptly stiffened.
"Why, of course, my dear Colette. Why would you want me to be unhappy?”
“I didn’t say I wanted it, ” I retorted.
And I went off, dissatisfied with us both. But next day her embarrassed laugh was apologetic and she thrashed the air around me with her long arms, maladroit and affectionate, as if she were looking for a way into my confidence. I noticed her listlessness, the dark rings under her eyes, and I asked her if she was ill.
“Why, not at all,” she protested emphatically. She then yawned behind her hand and explained the reasons for her lassitude in terms so clear that I could not believe my ears. And she did not stop there. . . What new warmth had melted her reserve and encouraged such expansiveness? Unhindered by any ambiguity, she spoke openly, and what she spoke of was not love but sexual satisfaction, and this, of course, referred to the only sexual satisfaction she knew, the pleasure she rook with a woman. Then it was a question of the satisfactions of another epoch. another woman, and regrets and comparisons. Her way of talking about physical love was rather like that of little girls brought up for a life of debauchery: both innocent and crude. The most curious thing about her calm and far fetched confessions, during the recital of which Renée never left off the tone of tranquil gossip, strangely in accord with the least ambiguous terms, was that they revealed an immodest consideration for “the senses” and the technique of obtaining physical satisfaction. . . And when, beyond the poet who praised the pallor of her Lesbian loves, their sobbing in the desolate dawns, I caught a glimpse of “Madame How-many-times,” counting on her fingers, mentioning by name things and gestures, I put an end to the indiscretion of those young half-conscious lips, and not very tactfully. I believe I told Renée that certain frank remarks she had made were as suitable to her as a silk hat to a monkey. . . As a sequel to this incident, I still have the brief note she sent me, very imposing in its form:
You gravely offended me last night, Colette, and I am not one who forgives. Adieu. Renée
However, the other Renée, the good and charming Renée, saw to it that I had a second note two hours after the first one. It read:
Forgive me, dear little Colette. God only knows what I wrote to you. Eat these lovely peaches as a toast to my health and come to see me. Come dine with me as soon as you can, and bring along our friends.
I did not fail to do so, although I took exception to the odd, clandestine character of those feasts laid out among three candles, to which sometimes Renée invited a harpist, at other times a soloist. But on the threshold of her apartment, which I always said smelled like "a rich man’ s funeral,” we met Renée in a black evening dress, ready to go out.
“No , my dears,” she murmured agitatedly, “you’ve not made a mistake, I was expecting you tonight. Sit down at the table, I’ll be back very soon, I swear it by Aphrodite! There are shrimps, foie gras, some Chios wine, and fruit from the Balearic Isles. ... ”
In her haste, she stumbled on the steps. She turned her golden head toward me, the luminous heart of a great beehive of dark velvet, then came back to whisper in my ear:
“Hush, I’m requisitioned. She is terrible at present.” Constrained, mystified, we remained and we waited. . . . And Renée did not return.
Another time she was gaily having dinner, I mean to say, she was watching us dine, and at the dessert she stood up, gathered together with a shaky hand her long gloves, a fan, a little silk purse, then excused herself:
“My dears, I have to go. . . Voila . .”
She did not finish what she had to say but burst into tears and fled. A carriage waiting for her outside bore her away. In spite of my old friend Hamel (called Hamond, in the Vagabonde), who had a paternal affection for Renée and who now interceded for her, I went home with dignity, swearing never to return. But I did return, because the friendship one has given to a human being who is already going to pieces, is already headed toward her downfall, does not obey the dictates of pride. When I went back, urged by Renée in a laconic note, I found her sitting on the rim of the tub in the cold, ugly, and rudimentary bathroom. Seeing her pallor, the trembling of her long hands, her absurd thinness encased in a black dress, I tried to cheer her by addressing her as the Muse of Levy-Dhurmer. She paid no attention.
“I’m going away,” she said.
“Yes? Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. But I’m in danger. 5 will kill me. Or else she will take me to the other side of the world, to countries where I shall be at her mercy. . . She will kill me. ”
In four words she explained how she might perish. Four words of a frankness to make you blink. This would not be worth telling, except for what Renée said then.
“With her I dare not pretend or lie, because at that moment she lays her ear over my heart.’’
I prefer to believe that this detail and the "danger,’’ which both, alike, seem to have been borrowed from P. J. Toulet’s Monsieur du Paur, were conceived under the influence of alcohol. Perhaps, even, the exhausting Lesbian lover never existed. Perhaps, invisible, she owed her strength, her quasi-tangibility to the last effort, the last miracle of an imagination which, getting out of hand, brought forth ghouls instead of nymphs?
While I was on tour—the Baret Music Hall Tour—I was unaware that Renée was very close to death. She kept losing weight, always refusing to eat. In her spells of giddiness, in the aurora borealis of starvation, she thought she saw the flames of the Catholic hell. Someone close to her perhaps fanned the flames, or described them to her? Mystery. Enfeebled, she became humble and was converted. Her paganism was so little rooted in her. Fever and coughing shook her hollow chest. I was by chance spared the sight of Renée drying, then dead. She carried off with her more than one secret, and beneath her purple veil, Renée Vivien, the poet, led away—her throat encircled with moonstones, beryls, aquamarines, and other anemic gems—the immodest child, the excited little girl who taught me, with unembarrassed competence: “There are fewer ways of making love than they say, and more than one believes. . .”
Blond, her cheek dimpled, with a tender, laughing mouth and great, soft eyes, she was, even so, drawn down beneath the earth, toward everything that is of no concern to the living. Like ail those who never use their strength to the limit, I am hostile to those who let life burn them out. Voluntary consumption is, I always feel, a kind of alibi. I fear there is not much difference between the habit of obtaining sexual satisfaction and, for instance, the cigarette habit. Smokers, male and female, inject and excuse idleness in their lives every time they light a cigarette.
The habit of obtaining sexual satisfaction is less tyrannical than the tobacco habit, but it gains on one. O voluptuous pleasure, O lascivious ram, cracking your skull against all obstacles, time and again! Perhaps the only misplaced curiosity is that which persists in trying to find out here, on this side of death, what lies beyond the grave. . . Voluptuaries, consumed by their senses, always begin by flinging themselves with a great display of frenzy into an abyss. But they survive, they come to the surface again. And they develop a routine of the abyss: “It’s four o’clock. . . At five I have my abyss. . .” It is possible that this young woman poet, who rejected the laws of ordinary love, led a sensible enough life until her personal abyss of half past eight in the evening. An abyss she imagined? Ghouls are rare.
Another of Natalie Barney’s great loves was Romaine Brooks, an American-born painter who lived most of her life in France. Until her death at the age of 96, the two remained the closest of friends. They first met in 1915. It is surprising that they did not meet sooner, for both had been in Paris off and on for twenty years, and Romaine Brooks also knew Renée Vivien. But Romaine Brooks was a serious painter who hated to waste her time in social frivolity; the morbid affectations of Renée Vivien may have put her off meeting Natalie Barney. In her unpublished memoirs (“No Pleasant Memories”) she devotes chapters to both Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney.
It was unfortunate that Renée Vivien crossed my path at that very moment, and when her own life was at its lowest ebb. She had long since broken away from all social ties, but of her exile she had made a lieu more desolate than can be imagined. I was taken by a friend to her fiat, arez-de-chaussée on the Avenue du Bois.
There comes before me the dark heavily curtained room, overreaching itself in lugubrious effects: grim life-sized Oriental figures sitting propped up on chairs, phosphorescent Buddhas glowing dimly in the folds of black draperies. The air is heavy with perfumed incense. A curtain draws aside and Renée Vivien stands before us attired in Louis XVI male costume. Her straight blond hair falls to her shoulders, her flower-like face is bent down; she does not lift it even to greet us. Though I know that she is a very gifted poetess it is difficult to detect other than a seemingly affected and childish personality. Besides it is the claptrap of her surroundings that holds perforce the attention. We lunch seated on the floor Oriental fashion and scant food is served on ancient Damascus ware, cracked and stained. During the meal Renée Vivien leaves us to bring in from the garden her pet frogs and a serpent which she twines round her wrist.
Everything in her flat shows a like desire to surprise: a tunnel-shaped Japanese bed lighted from within; carved doors with Oriental lattice windows defying privacy. What possible affinity is there between those ugly surroundings and the poetical images of our pale hostess? It is clear that the world of things does not hold for her its further significance.
Though this first visit was followed by many others, her melancholy child-like self amid such a show of affectation never ceased to embarrass me and to keep me silent. I dare say she thought me naturally so, but it seemed to make no difference in her liking for me, and being completely as ray, I soon found myself drifting along with her.
As these recollections insist on importuning me now, she herself becomes more and more indistinct; her face undefined is bent over. . . even so it was then and I to wonder why. Later I know that she had never freed herself from an early sorrow . . . and she sought relief.
If ghosts were wont to visit and haunt me, she, pale life, visited and haunted death. She expresses this in her epitaph:
Voici la porte d’ou je sors . . .
O mes roses et mes épines!
Qu’importe I’autre fois? Je dore
En songeant aux choses divines . . .
Voici done mon âme ravie,
Car elle s’apaise et s’endort
Ayant, pour I’amour de la Mort,
Pardonné ce crime: la Vie.
When she intimated that an old friend of hers was jealous of me, I willingly believed her and made it the pretext to end our friendship. But she had taken this indirect way hoping to attach me still further. Some one came to intercede for her. She was now alone and would I not go back? I could not go back—a few months after ward I heard that Renée Vivien was dead.
Her short life had been but an effort to reach this goal. She had waved to me from afar, not that she wanted help, but that she hoped that I might turn and join her.
Renée Vivien had often spoken to me of Natalie Barney and I found little interest in listening to those endless love grievances which are so often devoid of any logical justification.
Before I knew Natalie I often caught glimpses of her from my car solemnly walking in the Bois de Boulogne followed by a pretty but insignificant little woman dressed in Oriental clothes with a shawl on her head. This left me wondering till I knew and understood Natalie. She possessed, along with many other literary people, the capacity of endowing the commonplace with her own poetical fancies. She told me that when this little woman danced (and very second-rate dancing it was) it brought to her all the splendors of the East. It was the same at another time with a Chinese girl. This young person who looked Chinese except for a long nose, had been educated in Belgium and during the process lost all the natural reticence and dignity of her race to become like some over-free and crude Westerner. But Natalie would thrust a sword into her hands and tell her to jump about in Chinese fashion and that sufficed to create an illusion.
Natalie herself was a miracle. Though she had lived many years in dank unhealthy houses, among many dank unhealthy people, she remained uncontaminated, as fresh as a Spring morning. The finer qualities of her intellect had allowed her to rise above rather than remain within her chosen “milieu.” Her “spirit” was used neither as a weapon of defense nor of attack, but rather as a game wherein she found few opponents worthy of her subtle repartee. She never ruffled anyone. To be “spirituelle” without malice, to keep well within two ruled lines is an achievement. Her rebellion against conventions was not combative as was mine. She simply wanted to follow her own inclinations—these not always bringing credit to her. In those days Bohemia was the only refuge for the independent, and when I first knew Natalie she was certainly one of its members. But later, after the war, when points of view had broadened, she actually became popular and this was a sore disappointment to me. It was not long before I was again meeting at her house the very hornets I had hoped to escape for ever. But I had never found a real woman friend before and Natalie brought me a wealth of friendship which I gratefully accepted and fully returned. After all, I reflected, the point is not whether she is popular, but that I remain firm in my contempt of popularity. So when in spite of myself I was dragged into her “milieu,” I soon became like one of those caterpillars we read about which when captured is paralyzed in such fashion as to allow its enemies to devour it alive and at leisure. In such wise friendship she held me prisoner. I could say little about this peculiar situation to Natalie for she soared above any such petty vindictiveness and besides she was apt to ignore what did not touch her directly. It took some twenty years before she realized that I had not been all along mildly afflicted with some form of persecution mania.
Née Bettina Jones, Madame Gaston Bergery was one of several gifted and attractive American sisters who went to Paris in the early 50s and worked for Schiaparelli and other fashion designers. She was 19 when she first met Natalie Barney and remained a constant friend and frequent caller until the end of her life. Madame Bergery is a keen observer with a remarkable memory, a great fund of anecdote and a rapid flow of wit. Her contribution to the volume of reminiscences collected by Natalie Barney, In Memory of Dorothy Ierne Wildej is by far the most vivid and verbatim.
Madame Bergery spoke glowingly of Natalie as a wonderful presence, always gracious and amusing, with extraordinary sparkle and gaiety. Though she looked like Mother Superior presiding with great dignity, she laughed like a schoolgirl. Because of her bearing she appeared tall, but actually she wasn’t. Madame Bergery described her eyes as very sparkling with stars in them, like dwarf dahlias with little round petals. This was a rare phenomenon that occurred in pale blue eyes. Oscar Wilde had it and Marshal Pétain and Natalie Barney. Madame Bergery knew of no one else.
By the 1930s Natalie was no longer slender and she looked rather like Benjamin Franklin. She and Romaine looked like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Madame Bergery remembered seeing them once with Ida Rubinstein, who looked like a scarecrow from the Ballet Russe, the three of them congratulating themselves on having succeeded in their chosen careers. She also remembered Natalie wearing a Wizard of Oz dress that was made for her by Madame Vionnet, with astrological symbols all over it.
Natalie and the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre were not grotesque like Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, or Colette, who was a peasant woman with rude manners and hands and feet like bunches of carrots. Natalie was very feminine. She didn’t like mannish women; she found them ridiculous or repugnant. She herself was always very well dressed in white tea gowns, sometimes embroidered, that she got from Madame Vionnet, and she patronized other fashionable dressmakers. Madame Bergery did not consider Natalie’s style at all dated; and Natalie didn’t wear costumes like the Duncans. In fact, Madame Bergery once visited the Duncan Academy with Natalie, who was dressed in a grey suit with a grey toque like any correct American society lady.
There were never crowds of people at the salon, even before the war. After all there wasn’t room for great numbers, since everyone sat down and everyone ate. Of course people came and went, some for only an hour, leaving the intimate members of the circle to stay longer. Sometimes in warm weather the doors to the garden were open, and a table was set up there. Sometimes there were three musicians playing discreetly out of sight behind a screen. Once Dolly Wilde remarked, “Oh Natalie, you forgot to put the hermaphrodites in the bushes.” Were they real hermaphrodites? Of course Dolly had a very Firbankish sense of humor.
In the 30s there were lots of English visitors, who came whenever they happened to be in Paris: Dolly Wilde, Daisy Fellowes, Victor and Nancy Cunard. When Nancy brought her Negro friend Henry, he and Natalie understood each other perfectly. Henry’s mother was a respectable Negro laundress back in Washington. So Natalie understood him better than Nancy, who was always taking on causes.
Sometimes there were recitals upstairs in Natalie’s room, with overly operatic voices accompanied by a crystal harp. But mostly Natalie was literary. There were little cucumber sandwiches like those served by Oscar Wilde and no doubt other literary delicacies besides. Many of Natalie’s deeds and gestures were self-consciously literary. “Natalie gave you a feast of reason, a seasoning of wit and a flow of words.’’
She didn’t read much when Madame Bergery knew her— she preferred to have people read to her—though she must have read a great deal at one time. She used to display on her table books from people she knew, and she would pick up little scraps from them.
People who were in a position to know said she spoke the most perfect eighteenth century French—better than any French person.
Natalie liked good food, but she didn’t drink much wine. As a rule she preferred sweet wines. She did not smoke opium, although it was fashionable in the 30s—like lesbianism.
Madame Bergery speculated about the motive behind Natalie’s conquests. She didn’t consider Natalie passionate and was inclined to agree that it was the desire to dominate. Among her great loves she mentioned Eve Palmer.
Among her great loves she mentioned Eve Palmer. She showed me two line drawings done by Ariel de la Pérouse, one a self-portrait, the other of Natalie Barney, both bare-breasted but stylized. Ariel was a person who experimented. In 1922, when she met Natalie, she experimented at being arty and lesbian. Later she experimented with literature and with marriage, then with having affairs with the surrealists and other famous people, and now with travel. Ariel de la Pérouse is supposed to be the principal character in Natalie’s novel. The One Who Is Legion, or A.D. ’s After-Life.
Natalie didn’t like funerals, but she was one of four people to attend Robert de Montesquieu’s after he had been ostracized by society. She was a “materialist,” Madame Bergery said a number of times, and usually saw no reason to make a fuss when someone was dead.
Elizabeth Eyre was 18 when she and her husband Pierre de Lanux—one of the four young men of letters who founded 12. Nouvelle Revue Francaise—moved into an apartment in the main building at 20 rue Jacob overlooking the courtyard that led to Natalie Barney’s pavilion. They did not know who Natalie Barney was when they first watched with fascination the comings and goings of a striking group of people, distinguished elderly gentlemen with canes, equally distinguished younger gentlemen and elegantly dressed women. Then one day they met Natalie Barney at a reception given by Adrienne Monnier. Eyre de Lanux was too timid to address her, but Natalie Barney recognized her as a neighbor and invited her to come to the next Friday gathering. Mme. de Lanux soon found herself attending the salon regularly. She continued to go all through the 20s and into the 30s. Her impressions provide a glimpse of the salon in its heyday.
The hazardous Fridays as Paul Valéry called them. Why do I always remember them as though there’d been a light rain? Natalie’s house looked like an aquarium, with underwater light. There was never any sunlight in the salon because the light was filtered through the big trees in the garden. There were chairs all around the salon, as in a schoolroom, with people sitting all around the walls. I remember the triangular sandwiches and the harlequin colored little cakes from Rumplemayers. The punch came later, in the 30s.
The first person Natalie introduced me to was Professor Seignobos, who was very old and looked like a road. I met him every single Friday I went there. We never had anything to say to each other.
The second person was Doctor Mardrus, the great Orientalist, the translator of A Thousand and One Nights. He was a very charming, very learned man. When Natalie told him that I was translating something from the Egyptian, he asked whether it was in the demotic or hieratic. I had to explain that I was only translating from French into English.
Gertrude Stein was always there—the permanent occupant of right wall center, knees wide-spread, dressed in stout tweeds and mountain climbing boots; she seemed a game warden scrutinizing the birds. Miss Barney led me to her again and again but she gave no sign. I would usually go and hide or find some young person who could speak English.
There was also the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre. At that time I thought she was very funny because I was very young and she was from a different epoch.There was a charming lovely poet named Andre Rouveyre. Cocteau was there but not all the time. Gide came sometimes but not regularly. Eugene Jolas, who published transition, sometimes came. He published a poem of mine because Natalie introduced us. Ezra Pound was there but not all the time. Natalie took me to Pound once to show him a poem I had written about Les Halles and asked him, “What do you think of this?” Pound corrected it, making little drawings all over the page. I must have it here somewhere. I never saw Natalie playing tennis with Pound, but I played with her at Beauvallon. She played tennis very gently and very well. She beat me.
I must have been there when George An the played his music, but I have trouble remembering because I saw a great deal of George later on. I once had an apartment under him here in New York, and I chiefly remember how he pounded the piano then.
I was there for a wonderful masked ball one night in the summer—was it 1923?—the garden was illuminated and 20 rue Jacob was alive. It was most amusing. I don’t remember whether the was given for Poiret or designed by him, or exactly what Natalie wore: I’m hesitating between a harlequin and a clown. What did Natalie wear on her face? I remember no mask. She was never silly or funny.
One afternoon Isadora Duncan came, and another time Joyce was there, standing in the corner of the room, and I was very grieved because he could hardly see. But most of the time I never paid attention to anyone but Natalie. The others were like mannequins or props, and she had such extraordinary magnetism. She always wore a white Vionnet dress with large sleeves, what you might call a receiving gown.
Sometimes Natalie would forget her Fridays, and Berthe would have to go upstairs and tell her that people were waiting for her: ’’Mademoiselle, il y a vingt personnes qui vous attend ’’ Then she would come down and ’ into the room. She never began a conversation with the usual opening remarks; she’d always be caught in the middle of a conversation, like seaweed, and as she moved around the room there’d be this flow. I was completely aware of this remarkable way she had of approaching people as though she’d been there all the time. Of course she introduced people, but as though she were swimming along with them. She had the most extraordinary way of being present.
Natalie had great charm, but she could get very angry and could be quite cruel. About her cooks, she said, ” I always choose them blind and deaf. It doesn’t matter, so long as they can see enough to put in the salt.” Or about her chauffeurs, ” I always choose them tubercular, my dear. They’re necessarily careful.” She had a kind of electric hansom cab, and she carried a small whip or riding crop, with which she used to tap the chauffeur on the shoulder when giving instructions.
She took me on literary excursions all over France—to Anatole France, who lived in a large beautiful house, and when she introduced me she said, “Doesn’t she look like one of the Tanagras?” That was a nice little compliment. The next time I went to see him, there were lines of people, and he was dead. I went to his funeral too.
Natalie was quite fearless and thought nothing of walking home alone at night, wearing her cape and a little felt hat. She had a collection of those little hats in all shades of gray from Weather by on the rue de Castig lone. Once when she had walked home from Passy I asked if she wasn’t ever accosted. “Oh yes,” said Natalie, “it happened just last night.” Well, I asked, what did you do? “Oh , I said, ’Monsieur, vous nétes guere poli’. Sir, you are hardly polite!”
In May 1927 Natalie Barney wrote to Gertrude Stein, inviting her and her friends to join in a meeting of the salon to be held in her honor. The program included readings from Gertrude Stein and songs by Virgil Thomson, who had set several of her short pieces to music. Thomson and Gertrude Stein had met during the previous year and were close friends. He had met Natalie Barney about the same time, when his friend and fellow composer George An the had premiered several works at the salon. Thomson was always welcome at Natalie Barney's Fridays, but he said that he “was not thick with her” and did not attend frequently, because the salon was literary rather than musical. Still, he was interested in Natalie Barney as a phenomenon, he heard much about her through Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, and he remembered everything with great clarity and wit.
Virgil Thomson: Natalie had really very little interest in music. Letters was her affair. She wasn’t interested in painting very much either. The only musicians who ever made any kind of manifestation at her house in my experience were George Antheil and myself, and that in a very modest way.
On one occasion and through what influence I do not know, a string quartet of George Antheil’s was played at Natalie’s house. My small manifestation had to do with Gertrude Stein, because I had set some texts of Gertrude’s to music and I could sing them. Natalie didn’t have pianos downstairs, but there was a small one up in her bedroom or petit salon up there, and so at the end of the 5 o’ clock tea party we all went upstairs and I did those.
Wickes: Mrs. Antheil told me that Olga Rudge performed there. Was that in the string quartet?
Thomson: No, more likely she performed a violin sonata of George’s or some other violin work. Now George’s support was always literary rather than musical. He was a great friend of Sylvia Beach, Ezra Pound, James Joyce—the rue de l’Odeon crowd—and it may have been through there that Natalie was induced to pay for a string quartet playing. Natalie was not one to spend money on music. On letters perhaps, and certainly on lesbian ladies who were in need.
Wickes: Did Gertrude Stein go the salon much?
Thomson: Oh, from time to time. If Natalie was throwing a ceremony for Gertrude, with works being read and honors being made, naturally, yes. Or if this were being done for somebody who was a close friend of Gertrude’s, then she would. Or if Natalie sent her a pneumatique saying so-and-so’s coming on Friday, somebody she’d like to meet, some visiting English or Italian. I don’t know how often she would go just casually or accidentally.
Wickes: Was there rivalry between them?
Thomson: I can’t conceive that there was any because they weren’t doing the same thing. Gertrude didn’t have a salon, didn’t have regular days. Gertrude was home most afternoons by half past four or five o’clock, and sometimes close friends would drop in of an evening. And then Gertrude would throw a bit of a literary party from time to time, but that was all by invitation.
Gertrude and Natalie had a falling out at one point which was all about an indiscretion of Gertrude’s. I got to talking to Gertrude and Alice one evening about Natalie, and I said, “Well, here she is a world-famous lesbian practitioner, but who does she do it with, and where does she get ’ em ?” Alice said—Alice was always thinking the worst—“I think from the toilets of the Louvre Department Store.” Well, Gertrude wasn’t entirely convinced by that, but it had suddenly been brought to her attention that for all her talk with Natalie, who was always representing the lesbian point of view, Gertrude didn’t know really who Natalie slept with (unless there was a big love affair going on, which wasn’t always) or what kind of people: whether it was always literary ladies or actresses or whether she had some kind of rough trade.
So Gertrude was out for a walk just after, and she encountered Gwen le Galliene (who was staying with Natalie) on the side walk in front of the Café des Deux Magots and with a colossal indiscretion started questioning Gwen about her hostess’ habits—this right in front of the terrace of the Deux Magots, where hundreds of people were listening—not hundreds, but quite a number. Well, Gwen had sense enough not to tell her anything, but she did go home and tell Natalie what Gertrude had done, and Natalie was sore as hell.
Whether she ever mentioned the matter to Gertrude, i don’t know, but she bided her time and got her revenge some time later. This story was told me by Esther Murphy, Gerald Murphy’s sister, who had married John Strachey and later married Chester Arthur, but who was a practicing girl herself and a great friend of Natalie’s. This was a big lunch party with twelve people or so, and Lesbia was being discussed and people identified, and when Gertrude and Alice were brought up, Natalie said, “Oh, nothing like that there at all. It’s entirely innocent.’’ That was her revenge, you see, to have made a fool of Gertrude in front of the lesbians and in such a way as to put Gertrude into the position of a complete innocent for having inquired into her life. There were several months when Natalie and Gertrude didn’t speak or write.
Wickes: This suggests that they were in pretty frequent touch.
Thomson: Oh yes, she’d come to Gertrude’s house, and Gertrude would come to hers, and they’d write little pneumatiques all the time. Besides which, they were exchanging literary people. If the Sitwells came over and were around Gertrude’s, she’d probably take them to Natalie’s or have Natalie in or furnish them to Natalie for some soirée. If you’ve got Edith Sitwell on your hands, you don’t want to see her every day. You get somebody else to see her, which amuses her too, you get her around, distribute her.
Wickes: Now what happened at the Fridays? What was the routine?
Thomson: Well, it was the French style. There was tea at an enormous dinner table with lots of food. The French are terribly greedy at the end of the afternoon. It’s a thing they don’t have in their own lives, so that when they go to a party they all want to eat like mad. And there would be sandwiches and huge cakes and all sorts of things like that. And they would continue sitting at the tea table unless there were too many people, in which case they would move off into the parlor or sometimes into the garden in the summertime. It all depended on how many were there. Like any skill full hostess Natalie always saw to it that some were there, and sometimes would run up a much larger number if some star like Radclyffe Hall or maybe Rilke or someone like that would be around.
Wickes: Now I’m curious about her literary patronage. I know that she gave something to the Transatlantic Review.
Thomson: Well, that would be Ford. Ford was very good at these general literary occasions salon style because he was an amiable fellow and could talk about anything and had nice manners.
There’s a piece about Natalie in the Hemingway memoirs.
Wickes: The Hemingway memoirs is not a source I go to for information.
Thomson: Well, any snooting of lesbians on his part is pure tommyrot because he was very thick with Gertrude . . . and according to many persons in love with Gertrude . . . and I think she with him. That’s why Alice had to get rid of him.
Wickes: Hemingway writes about the Temple á l’Amitié and Ezra Pound’s scheme to get, as he puts it, Eliot out of the bank. Do you know anything about this?
Thomson: No. I know what he says, and it sounds perfectly reasonable. It was the kind of thing that Ezra would do, trying to get up a subscription so that this very successful poet already in his thirties could be got out of that bank job.
Wickes: But I haven’t come across any records of this scheme to subsidize Eliot. It’s the kind of thing Pound would propose, but I’m curious about Natalie Barney’s role in such a venture as this.
Thomson: Well, it would all depend on whether she felt like giving any money, and that would depend on what was in it for her. Natalie was not a woman of facile generosity. She spent money graciously, she kept a very luxurious table, she had not only the Fridays but people were always going there to dinner and to lunch. She led an active generous social life. And people went there and stayed with her. And she helped to get their works published—she may even have paid a bit of money. But she was not an easy touch. No, no, no.