Natalie Clifford Barney's Salon at 20, rue Jacob, Paris


Natalie's home (17th century "pavillon"), set in a courtyard at 20, rue Jacob


interior photos, as published in Tony Allen, Americans in Paris (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1977), pp. 75 and 77


The salon "map" Natalie drew for publication in Aventures de l'esprit
Natalie's housekeeper/friend Berthe Cleyrergue in the salon


photo of Natalie in front of the Temple à l'Amitié and a sitting room/stage inside

Here's Natalie Barney's home/salon as described/meditated on in Meryle Secrest, Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1974), pp. 315-317 and 333-336:

What made No. 20 a kind of miracle on the Left Bank was its garden, a small oasis in a jungle of tightly packed streets, and a remnant of the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century gardens which once stretched from the rue Jacob down to the Seine. It contained a tiny Doric "Temple d'Amitie," now decreed a national monument and probably built during the First Empire or the Restoration, and a disused well which Natalie Barney never bothered to explore. The Germans cleared it out during World War II and found that it led to an underground cave and a passage going underneath the Seine to the Louvre.

"You can't believe the charm of the house," Bettina Bergery said. "First of all there was a curtain of ivy over the walls and a huge tree in the courtyard, now chopped down, which hung over the house. There was this lovely rambling garden with its eighteenth-century temple and it dominated the house. Inside, one found a green aquarian light. Everything was subdued and warm. Plus a big greedy table of food where we all used to eat like mad."....

It seemed to be transfixed, this house on the rue Jacob, at the moment when the visitor stepped through the door in the wall which barricaded it from the street, crossed the cobbled courtyard and had been greeted by Madame Berthe, always smiling, who remembered everyone's name; had wandered into the salon, vaguely red and packed tight with sofa beds covered in brown velvet, with lavish fur throws, with tapestries, portraits, photographs, vast mirrors, the grand piano on which Landowska and Darius Milhaud played, a bust of Natalie's close friend the poet Milosz, a portrait of Natalie as a page at the age of eleven, painted by Carolus Duran, her mother's art teacher; objects which loomed out of a perpetual semi-darkness since, Natalie said, "I have lived in the twilight and when I am not there, my things are sleeping." Everything would be overcast with the faintest air of disarray or neglect. A lingering trace of someone's Oriental scent would mingle with the decaying smell of roses wilting in a vase. There would be a box of half-eaten chocolates on a table beside a lute whose strings were broken; and a stack of new copies of Natalie's essays, their pages uncut, would be covered with dust.

One walked through the house into the dining room, dominated by a large hexagonal table with a lace cloth, spread with a sumptuous feast prepared by Madame Berthe, who was more than a housekeeper, who had become a confidante, Natalie Barney's amanuensis. She was the kind of old-fashioned cook who might go to the Gare St. Lazare just for cheese and to the rue du Cherche-Midi for bread. "There would be a list of guests and food as long as the kitchen wall," she said. "We would have 20-60-100 people. Somehow we could seat everybody. We served sandwiches, cakes, fruit, crystallized strawberries, tea, port, gin, whiskey, everything. The whiskey always disappeared fast when we had American guests."

There were Madame Berthe's famous chocolate cake and harlequin-colored little cakes and triangular sandwiches, "folded up like damp handkerchiefs," Bettina Bergery said, and pitchers of fruit cup, and the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre presiding at one end, pouring regal cups of tea, and the green half light from the garden filtering into the room, "reflecting from the glasses and silver tea urn as from under water." (Eyre de Lanux.)

One might wander out into the garden, more like a miniature forest with its rambling paths and iron chairs balanced at forlorn angles on the uneven ground; paths which might be packed with leaves. One attempted the hammock, which every year lost one or two more strings and finally became so hazardous that friends removed it. One inspected the marble fountain, long since choked with weeds, which stood in the middle of what had once been a lawn. One regarded one's image in the mirror ingeniously covering a side of the house, or walked up and down the steps of the Temple d'Amitie. Or one watched the rain drifting through the leaves like smoke in that gar den where the sun never penetrated, where, Colette wrote in Trois, Six, Neuf, aqueous plants grew which "wreathe the interiors of wells." One waited for the unmistakable impression one always had at Natalie's, that she was allowing the past to coexist harmoniously with herself in that house; of the past and future blurring into an eternal present.

"Men have skins," Natalie wrote, "but women have flesh—flesh that takes and gives light." And so the likelihood that vague, wicked, and delightful acts were being practiced behind a serene facade lent the final allure of the forbidden to an invitation to 20, rue Jacob. There must have been plenty of guests who found an excuse to go up the circular staircase followed around by a brown velvet rope; who paused, as if breaking into an Egyptian tomb after centuries of silence, before pushing open the double doors, expecting . . .

Perhaps a "love feast on the fallen bedclothes," where a bed stood in the far corner of that high, pale, still room. Perhaps she had stood on this bearskin rug, "her body's line uninterrupted by any bathing suit . . . Her breasts, uplifted centres, where heart and senses unite and exalt each other—no longer closed eyelids of flesh, but remoulded in the glow of the fallen daylight, again they looked at us." She was embellished by the gray-and-white starred bedspread which matched the curtains on the French windows; was resplendent under the pale oval of that dim ceiling; she was more compelling than the shimmer of green outside that both challenged and defined the room's stillness. All the objects in the room, the old tiara askew on top of a heavy brown wardrobe, a clutter of letters, an old cane, a china vase of a white swan's torso, sensuously curved, were reflected back by that mirror, which "recorded the gesture through arcades of watery distance and vistas of drowning lights." (Quotations from The One Who is Legion.)

"The warmth of her in our blood . . ." The room is as silent and impenetrable as Natalie in old age; as white as the vast landscape of her mind, those empty spaces that the wind sweeps across; as faded as the cheeks of her withered, peach-soft skin; as enigmatic as her utterances. There are only three photographs of a woman in a top hat, arranged in the shape of a fan, on a cluttered desk. I go back down the stairs.

Suzanne Rodriguez provides another imagined account in A Visit to the Salon.


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Last modified on August 17, 2008 by Kay Keys (kay@kaykeys.net)