- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

It is an aspect of the biographer's art to reconstruct a life not only in terms of who the subject was and what they did to make them interesting to us now, but also how such a person came to be. Natalie Clifford Barney presents unusual difficulties in this regard, because she was so consciously and defiantly various.
There is, additionally, the matter of Barney's longevity, which carried her through two world wars and other major cultural and social transitions from her birth on Halloween, 1876, to her death in Paris in the arms of Janine Lahovary, one of the last of her multitude of women lovers, on Feb. 2, 1972.
Barney ran through love affairs at a great rate, yet also could be capable of sustained devotion. These were for the most part real love affairs involving passion, idyllic episodes, infidelities and inevitable hard feelings. A sentence that must be one of the most piquant in Suzanne Rodriguez's "Wild Life," introduces an outstanding case, leaving the reader not sure whether to laugh or cry:
"Sometime around the start of … [World War I] they never could remember exactly when Natalie met the painter Romaine Brooks, probably the greatest love of her life. Their relationship would last for more than fifty years, until Romaine broke it off for good when both were over ninety."
Brooks, the singularly self-contained woman and portraitist in black-and-white, was the closest Barney came to having an erotic peer. In middle age, she planned her years around visiting Brooks in Italy and another longtime woman friend on the Cote d'Azur. When, upon the outbreak of World War II, Barney refused to return to the United States with her younger sister, Laura, she and Brooks wound up spending the duration in Florence.
Barney had brought along Berthe Cleyrergue, her resourceful housekeeper, and the latter more than once ran interference with the Nazis, Barney being partly Jewish. This side of her heritage was at odds with the unattractive displays of anti-Semitism that got into some of Barney's published aphorisms and other utterances. It is typical of the sheer contradictoriness in her character. Socially a sexual radical and feminist, she remained conservative politically and in the late 1930s allowed herself to be influenced by the crackpot ideas of her friend Ezra Pound.
Barney's great contribution to life was literary, and it too amazes (though by no means unpleasantly) in its paradoxes. A rich girl from Ohio her grandfather made his fortune building railroad cars when "espite medical warnings about the dangers that excessive speed could wreak upon the human body, trains caught on" Natalie preferred horseback riding to school studies and wound up getting little formal education during her family's frequent moves between Dayton, Washington, D.C. and Paris.
Instead, the young woman taught herself Greek, studied the violin and pursued other self-chosen pursuits of a serious nature. She experimented in free French verse (11 of her 12 books would be written in French), but preferred the Symbolists Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme. As a writer of poetry, aphorisms, playlets, portraits and essays, her work was condemned to unevenness by Barney's refusal to edit herself. To Pound, and she was one of the few women writers he went out of his way to help, Barney was a lazy writer.
About half of Barney's books were in print when I last looked. The early "Quelques portraits-sonnets de femmes" (1890) included poems to her lover of the hour, the American poet Pauline Tarn (pen name Renee Vivien), whose later suicide some attributed to Barney's faithlessness and neglect, and others to Liane de Pougy, who had been set up in Paris by Edward VII and enjoyed the reputation of being greatest of the Belle Epoque courtesans. Barney's affair with Liane in her early 20s established the young American as a notorious high-society rebel and was related in Liane's novel "Idylle saphique" (1901).
Such epistolary goings-on among women was far from the sum of Barney's literary output, nor did she confine her relations to literature's lighter and social side. Colette became a friend from early on and Gertrude Stein, skeptical at first, later. Here we return to Barney's autodidactic choices.
Through ambition, resolve and her ability to attract and retain the attentiveness of important others, she made of herself a wit, epigrammist and mistress of the quick and apt conversational response. She became a brilliant figure and was reckoned one of the best minds in an age abounding in fine minds.
The opinion was not held only by women, far from it. Pierre Louys and Remy de Gourmont (his "Lettres a l'Amazone" enhanced Barney's Paris celebrity) were devoted mentors; Andre Gide, Paul Valery, Ford Madox Ford, "Jim" Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway were friends or visitors to the rue jacob, as was Barney's reign lasted so long the young Truman Capote.
The occasions for these comings and goings were Barney's "Fridays," the salon which she established in 1909 and which persisted through thick and thin for more than 60 years. Barney ran her salon along French lines in the tradition of Madames de Maintenon and de Sevigne, and of George Sand, whose attendees included Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin and Victor Hugo.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the salon as Paris institution was running out of steam, but Barney restored it to its full glory. Tiring of political talk during the first war, she emphasized maintenance of cultural life while the bombs were falling, somewhat as Cyril Connolly would do in London with his magazine Horizon. During the 1920s, in a concession to politics (feminist), Barney established her Academie des Femmes to rival the all-male French Academie. Early honorees included Stein and Radclyffe Hall.
Key differences in Barney's salon from its predecessors was her mixing of women and men and bringing in international elements rather than a merely French membership. How did she do it? For Ms. Rodriquez, the answer lies in Barney's "incredible presence." Whether getting women to fall over her from tenderest youth until a great age, or winning and keeping the respect of the cultural high-achievers of a seminal age, Barney got the attention of most all of them. A disapproving Edith Wharton was one of the few holdouts.
How was such a person created, how did she happen? Suzanne Rodriquez does her best in taking a stab here and there at possible causation, such as speculating that Barney's lifelong abhorrence of childbirth had its roots in her mother's travail and depression following the birth of Laura. But such stabs don't go very deep, and the book is left a paintstakingly researched and very readable (no shame so far as that goes) A-Z "story" of Natalie Barney's life.
It is in some part a Washington story. Barney Neighborhood House here in D.C. was established by Natalie's mother, Alice, some of whose paintings may be seen in the National Museum of American Art. Alice's Studio House has long been a city landmark, and it was in the garden there that Laura's then-scandalous nude statue, believed to be modeled on the young Natalie, once lay, bringing reporters and busloads of tourists to Sheridan Circle.
Natalie's father, Albert Barney, was a very rich, socially-conscious idler, drinker and clubman though London clubs were his great love, he had a hand in the founding of the Chevy Chase and belonged to the Metropolitan, Washington Golf and Alibi Clubs here. Natalie resented, evaded and at times loathed her father. But she also loved him and was the last member of the family to spend time with him before he died, alone, at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo.
It is to Alice to whom one turns for traces of the daughter. Her youthful, thwarted love affair with Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer, was the single worst event in her life, and she quickly tired of her husband when she got him. Busy with her painting, she was a laissez-faire mother whose two daughters, born three years apart, enjoyed uncommon autonomy.
Alice came to accept Natalie's lesbianism when it remained socially disgraceful, and in widowood she committed derrring-do of her own, disastrously marrying Christian Hemmick when she was 53 and he 23. So, in her smaller way, she too was a woman-and-a-half. But even this comparison doesn't get one far. When Alice's engagement to Albert was announced, one friend remarked that it was difficult to imagine Alice loving anyone.
Natalie, in contrast, loved and loved and loved albeit it often in a fickle way. Her great goodness lay in a sincere aspiration to help gifted and talented others around her achieve the most of which they were capable. Her countervailing faults, too often on display and admitted by herself, were being "brutal, cold, and self-centered."
She remains a mystery.

By Suzanne Rodriguez
Ecco, $27.95, 410 pages, illus.

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