Natalie Clifford Barney – Left Bank Lover

Day 177 of Colourisation Project – October 31

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Two female lovers watch Sarah Bernhardt play Hamlet, when one poses the question,

“What is there for women who feel the passion for action when pitiless Destiny holds them in chains? Destiny made us women at a time when the law of men is the only law that is recognized.”

In Liane de Pougy‘s Idylle Saphique, a tell-all roman à clef, these words are uttered by the main character Flossie, who is based on the real life character of American heiress, Natalie Clifford Barney. Published in 1901, this novel became the talk of Paris, and was reprinted at least 69 times in its first year.

Natalie Clifford Barney

Photographer Unknown – Natalie Clifford Barney – Coloured By Loredana Crupi

Natalie Barney always claimed that she knew by age 12 that she was a lesbian and was determined to “live openly, without hiding anything.” Coming from a privileged and very wealthy background, she was pretty much allowed to live a life style that was impossible for most.

Born ahead of her time, on this day, October 31, 1876, in Dayton, Ohio, Barney was an American expatriate, who lit up Parisian society at the turn of the century, with her free spirited and defiant charm. Unfettered by societal shackles she was the most candid and daring lesbian of her time.

For Barney to be living openly as a lesbian and publishing love poems to women under her own name as early as 1900 was extraordinarily brave considering the mores of Victorian society.  From the late nineteenth century until World War II, Paris was the cradle of a sexual and creative freedom that shunned the prevailing outmoded moral standards. It is no wonder that Barney felt right at home here. Same-sex culture thrived. Paris attracted creative lesbians from America and Europe, as well as her own local, French variety lesbian writers and artists. At its core, Paris provided a Bohemian social, sexual, and creative milieu, that made this time and place unique in the history of lesbian culture.

Not one to ride side-saddle, Barney willfully defied tradition. Reviled by high society for her sexual appetite, Barney considered scandal as ‘the best way of getting rid of nuisances’ (meaning heterosexual attention from young males). Her sexual conquests included such luminaries as French author, Colette; the painter, Romaine Brooks; Oscar Wilde‘s wayward niece, Dolly Wilde; Liane de Pougy, a Folies Bergère dancer and notorious courtesan; the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre, and the poet, Renée Vivienne, who sadly committed suicide over her. She was opposed to monogamy and had many overlapping long and short-term relationships. Her love-life became the inspiration for many novels, including Radclyffe Hall‘s, The Well of Loneliness, arguably the most famous lesbian novel of the twentieth century.

Her epic love-life aside, Barney was also a writer, playwright, and poet, and like Gertrude Stein, with whom she shared an intense rivalry, Barney hosted an influential literary salon every Friday between 4:30 and 8:00pm. Although no liquor was served at these events, her salons on Paris’s Left Bank became an institution; true literary gatherings, with great names attending and performances to crowds of talented literati.

George Antheil previewed his First String Quartet, Paul Poiret and Colette performed Colette’s La Vagabonde, Gertrude Stein read from her Making of Americans, Virgil Thompson played and sang his own compositions, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska performed and Mata Hari once rode naked through Barney’s gardens on a white horse.

Names on her guest list included a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the literary scene: Truman Capote, Françoise Sagan, Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, Anatole France, James Joyce, Edna St Vincent Millay, Alice B. Toklas, TS Eliot, Sinclair Lewis, Isadora Duncan, Thornton Wilder, Ezra Pound, Nancy Cunard, Peggy Guggenheim, Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach, F Scott Fitzgerald, Caresse and Harry Crosby, and Janet Flanner.

Barney was a conduit between the Parisian community and other ex-pats who flocked to Paris particularly after WWI. Barney encouraged and promoted young women writers by establishing a ‘Women’s Academy’ (L’Académie des Femmes), an answer to the all-male French Academy, while also giving support and inspiration to male writers from Remy de Gourmont to Truman Capote.

For most of her long and controversial life, Natalie Barney was revered by writers for her generous, eccentric spirit and though most of her own plays and poetry remain largely untranslated, Barney’s legacy can be evidenced in her indirect influence on literature, through her salon and her many literary friendships, especially in the number of writers who have addressed or portrayed her in their works.

By the time of her death in 1972, Barney was a literary and social institution. She died at the age of 95 in her beloved Paris.


“Why grab possessions like thieves, or divide them like socialists when you can ignore them like wise men?”   –   Natalie Clifford Barney

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