Natalie Clifford Barney and Dolly Wilde — Re-creation by Joan Shenkar


Dolly Wilde in the 1930s

...with a helping of historical imagination, here is what that first meeting between Dolly Wilde and Natalie Barney might have been like — and how a later Friday afternoon at the Barney salon could have gone for Dolly after she had come to stay at 20 rue Jacob.

28 June 1927: a Re-creation

Everyone in Paris in 1927 said the spring weather had been exceptionally unsettled. More unsettled than spring in Paris had been for a long time. Winds rolled down the boulevards and whipped up the streets of the quartiers, forcing the clientele inside the cafes. Rains fell in icy sheets, then in hard little drops. One minute the sky was the colour of graphite, the next minute sun flooded the Seine, lighting the stalls of the bouquinistes so brightly that even serious customers couldn't make out the titles on the books stacked up for sale. The garcons at the great cafes on the Left Bank, Le Dome, Le Select, and La Coupole in Montparnasse, and Deux Magots and the Cafe de Flore in St Germain, watched the green and yellow wicker chairs on their terrasses fill and empty with unusual regularity. Even the Pernod drinkers didn't want to wait out such temperamental weather....

Dorothy Wilde, fresh as a citron presse and lightly shielded from the uncertain weather in a summer wrap, had already decided against taking a taxi. She felt unusually buoyant this afternoon, as the memory of her brilliant 'performance' at Marie-Louise Bousquet's salon the previous Thursday and another, somewhat hazier, appearance on Sunday afternoon at Jean Cocteau's salon chinois still flooded her with small satisfactions. Not that Dolly remembered what she had said on either occasion, or who had laughed at it. Too much champagne at Mme Bousquet's (Dolly sometimes had too much champagne) and too much of whatever Cocteau was offering in his little pipes cast a shimmer of error over both gatherings, and 'facts', which Dolly liked to docket in her 'formidable memory', were not precisely her forte this week. But the remnant feelings were marvellous and she was certain that the details had been divine. That, at least, was the message telephoned to her hotel yesterday afternoon by her provocative friend, the Surrealist writer Jacques Rigaut.

Dolly Wilde's wicked, darting wit was, like Dolly herself, completely spontaneous, with hardly a 'thought for the past and only a shudder towards the future'. Her resplendent, unrehearsed phrases and swift, concentrated epigrams charmed and amused whole rooms-full of sophisticates in the salons and clubs, but left no traces on her own memory. It was up to her small, devoted audience to remember Dolly's 'quickest, lightest, most extravagant nonsense, with no bounds, no inhibitions ...', just as it was up to them to notice that she could draw out even the most inhibited guests with real skill. Last Thursday afternoon Bettina Bergery was astonished to see the usually unhappy Andre Gide 'laughing helplessly' in his chair at something Dolly said.

Dolly was walking to her destination in the 6th arrondissement desultorily, almost without direction, as she always walked, when she walked, which was not often. She much preferred taking taxis or driving herself, but today the accidental encounters that come with being on one's feet appealed to her more than the cold comforts of punctuality. Dolly, anyway, never carried a watch and was always 'naturally' late for everything. Her lifelong habit of delaying pleasure so as to savour its prospects which, she averred, were so much more satisfying than its fulfilments, probably inspired her to walk in such changeable weather. The stroll would allow her to give some thought to a translation due all too soon — and not yet begun.

The wind blew up from the west as Dolly walked along the Quai des Grands Augustins. She knew that western winds were supposed to be 'favonian' — Dolly read widely in the classics — and are said to confer good fortune. The previous night had been so cold that Dolly was taking advantage of the day's relative mildness by walking out of her way to pass the home of Alice DeLamar, an acquaintance from her old ambulance-corps days during the Great War. Alice's narrow house was at the bottom of the rue Git-le-Coeur. It had an apartment (decorated, at one point, by the writer and furniture designer Eyre de Lanux) which housed guests like the richissime Americans Sara and Gerald Murphy and, later on, Dolly herself. 'Leaning forward, hurrying up, by flurried uneven steps, as though to make up for lost time...' Dolly turned back to the quai, cupping her palms to light a Russian Black against the sudden wind. The violation of smoking in public was a pleasure she shared with her uncle Oscar.

Dolly decided on impulse — as she decided everything — to go back along the river and turn left up the rue de Seine. She wanted a look at the sneering statue of Voltaire insouciantly installed at the river end of that narrow street. The filmy air of the day was obscuring the details of her walk; the contrasts of foreground and background were softer than in any Impressionist sketch, but Dolly was alive with anticipation for this rendezvous with a woman she'd been hearing about for years, a woman whose notoriety had even reached the ears of her cousin, Vyvyan Holland, in London.

Dolly's excitement was so pronounced that she just had to delay her encounter a little more, and so, as she turned up the rue de Seine off the quai, she stopped to look carefully at the statue of Voltaire. Perhaps it was now that she noticed that the house towards which she was heading — a pavillon at the end of a courtyard on the rue Jacob was virtually around the corner from the hotel where her uncle Oscar had died almost thirty years before.

A few hours before Dolly began her walk, Berthe Lauvernier (not yet married to Henri Cleyrergue), was making her way east along the rue Jacob. Three weeks ago, Berthe had left her job in a shop selling American products in the 6th arrondissement to join the household staff of the salonniere Natalie Clifford Barney. Berthe later said that the number 8 and the month of June were 'sacred' to her: she came to the rue Jacob on 8 June, she met her husband-to-be on 18 June, and she first saw Dolly Wilde on 28 June.

This morning, Berthe was on her way to the rue de Buci's pictuesque outdoor market — a scant 100 metres away from Barney's pavillon — to bring back delicacies for the little reception her new employer was giving this afternoon. Although Natalie Barney had been comfortably established for the last twenty years in her courtyard pavillon, she had terrible trouble keeping competent household staff in her employ. Her private life was a scandal and her public behaviour with servants was intensely critical. Perhaps this shopping expedition was a kind of test for the newly hired young maid. As Berthe navigated the crowded sidewalks of the market stalls that June morning in I927, turning the fruit for signs of bruising and comparing the colours of the various butters, she was not thinking much beyond the flowers blooming in the market stalls or the just-purchased pate de lapin which was too firm, almost, to cut. Coming back from the rue de Seine, Berthe paused at the courtyard door of 20 rue Jacob to adjust the string bags she carried. She had a sudden, strange presentiment and took a moment to savour the feeling.

Late that afternoon, a little after five o'clock, Berthe, carrying a serving tray, entered the salle a manger — always the coolest room in Natalie Barney's dusky, dimly illuminated pavillon — and paused again, this time in surprise. There, in the rotonde, where Natalie had strictly forbidden smoking, amidst a sprinkling of other guests, sat a beautiful, dark-haired woman with violet-blue eyes, skin like the petals of a hothouse flower, and a pronounced widow's peak, decoratively arranged on a side chair and deliberately inhaling a smouldering cheroot. She was speaking swiftly and intimately, punctuating her remarks with languid displays of her lovely white hands. She had a clear, low, musical voice and her very occasional gestures scattered ashes all down the front of her fitted jacket and over the Persian carpet.

She looked as full and as delicately flushed as a bouquet of white peonies, miraculously delivered from a sweeter season and a more exotic country. She seemed to radiate, as if from some secret, personal reserve, both light and heat in that cool, dim room, and Berthe instinctively stepped closer to her to engage the warmth of her presence. In front of the visitor, apparently entranced and ignoring the smoke, the ashes, and her own household rules, was Berthe's employer, Natalie Barney, Remy de Gourmont's 'Amazon' of letters, and the most notorious salonniere in Paris.

On this day, Natalie scarcely said a word as her lovely visitor continued a delightful monologue, 'scintillating with . . . so many epigrams that no one had time to remember any'. Natalie never took her eyes from the young woman's floral features. She was concentrating hard, and she laughed and laughed as she looked. Nothing, usually, was ever that funny to Natalie Barney, who was used to making her own rules and watching the world abide by them. Clearly, the young woman in front of her was an 'exceptional being'. 'When I saw the beauty of that woman sitting in the rotonde, I was astonished,' said Berthe.

The blooming beauty with the dramatic attitide whose looks Berthe so admired, was, of course, Dolly, who was making her first recorded appearance at 20 rue Jacob. Sitting in Natalie's chair that afternoon, delivering charming variations on her bons mots at Mme Bousquet's salon, Dolly was on the verge of increasing her audience. She was about to become one of the brighter stars in the firmament of Natalie Barney's salon, as incandescent and memorable as any of the remarkable personalities Barney collected at 20 rue Jacob — the place where, as Bettina Bergery said, 'Dolly shone at her brightest'.

To Natalie, Dolly must have seemed the jewel in the crown of her long, imaginative involvement with the life and legend of Oscar Wilde, begun when she was a child. To Dolly, Natalie must have appeared as the enchanted gatekeeper to her own aspirations to be a 'famous conversationalist' and to have a real 'home life' and a 'true friend'. In any case, Dolly Wilde was soon to be installed in both the rue Jacob salon and in Natalie Barney's bedroom. She became Barney's second-best and most troublesome lover, finding in her thirteen-year relationship with that cool enchanter a storm system unequalled by any weather produced in the changeable Paris spring of 1927.

Given the quick affections and sexual directness of both Dolly Wilde and Natalie Barney, Dolly was probably already on her way to Natalie's bed by the time Berthe Cleyrergue first saw her. Berthe was not privy to the particulars of Dolly's and Natalie's conversation which, like all their conversations in front of servants, was conducted exclusively in English.

Berthe, in fact, knew only one phrase in English — 'Thank you very much' — and her pronunciation of it reproduced with wonderful charm the cadences of Natalie Barney's American accent; an accent, as Dolly's friend Scott Fitzgerald wrote about someone else, that was 'full of money'. Still Berthe, whose loyal identification with Natalie was almost complete, said, 'We always spoke English with Dolly'. Natalie and Dolly enclosed their love affair in English when they were together in Berthe's presence — and then confided in her separately, each in her own way and each in French, when they were apart.

Although Natalie usually shut down her salon by the middle of June and left an ordinarily hot and dusty Paris for the country, she might have stayed on in the city this summer solely for the purpose of seducing Oscar Wilde's attractive niece. Natalie had certainly braved extremes of time and temperature before to seek out women who interested her. When she and the poet Renee Vivien were having their love troubles, Natalie used to wait through long nights outside Vivien's door just for the cruel pleasure of rejecting her in the morning. At another time, pierced through the heart by the beautiful actress Henrietta Roggers, Natalie dropped everything and pursued the woman the whole frozen way to St Petersburg, Russia. Only, as Natalie said later, to be cuckolded by a series of titled and articled gentlemen.

However Dolly and Natalie found each other, it is clear from the dating of their first letters that the relationship kindled very quickly and just as quickly became a deep one. 'The Nile has overflowed its banks & wet a strip of arid desert tres bare,' wrote a momentarily overcome Dolly to Natalie; and whatever their love affair's emotional weather, it brought Dolly (for a while) in out of the cold of her constant demenagements, her 'emergency seductions', and some of her well-founded financial terrors.

Before falling in love with Natalie Barney, Dolly had been able to forget herself whenever she wanted. She sought out her several oblivions, she evaded or encountered private love and public life at will, and she scumbled over her history, refusing to keep track of herself with the creative unconsciousness of someone who lives for the present — someone who does not want to look at where she's been for fear of knowing where she's going.

After falling in love with Natalie, Dolly had a kind of planetary home, a 'fatal moon', since Natalie's blonde paleness often elicited lunar images. 'Pale lunar enchantress', Dolly called her as she whirled around Natalie in successive orbits: 'You compel my imagination, make turmoil of my thoughts & every night I miss your lover's attentions — what else is love? (J'ai ete l'amant mais personne n'a ete mon amant.)'

After Natalie, Dolly could never again be incognito in quite the same way. She had to give an account of herself, as she does in her letters, and that account is often a candid one. When Dolly did not send reports regularly (and Natalie complained that she did not), Dolly's next picking up of the epistolary stitch would always begin with an apology.

When Dolly first entered Natalie's pavillon in I927, she was a fortnight from her thirty-second birthday and at the peak of her salon form. Provocatively arranged in Natalie's dining room, 'half-androgyne and half-goddess', as Natalie described her, dazzling her hostess with a flood of epigrams and a wealth of wit, scattering her ashes in forbidden places, and displaying her white hands with 'touching candour', Dolly was merely doing what she did best: performing her personality for a very appreciative and very attracted Audience of One.

At this time Dolly was probably occupying her favourite room, a front one, Room 65, in the Hotel Montalembert, Paris's newest and smartest hotel in the 7th arrondissement. Room 65 was (and still is) a small, classically square room, dominated by a beautifully inlaid Louis Philippe bed, adorned with the kind of curves Dolly appreciated, and a matching armoire. The room has one of the largest balconies on the sixth floor: a view of the roofs of Paris and a generous expanse of sky were available to Dolly whenever she chose to look at them. Perhaps as pertinent to Dolly as its attractive skyscape was the fact that the Montalembert had one of the first cocktail bars in Paris.

It was widely agreed that Dolly rarely spent a night at her hotel, but where else and with whom she was spending her nights at this time were not generally known. After 28 June 1927, however, whole parts of Dolly's days and many of her Paris nights were spent chez Natalie Barney. With Natalie, Dolly began the longest, most serious instalment in the narrative of her love life. With Dolly, Natalie began an important passage in the history of the Barney salon. This new chapter, with both the salon and the salonniere equally involved, continued to offer Dolly a tantalisingly and completely unattainable 'family life'; a 'home life' she could never quite embrace, or keep to herself, or believe in for more than the length of a letter.

Dolly at the rue Jacob: April, 1930: a Re-creation

Here is a typical Friday afternoon at Natalie Barney's salon as it might have happened after Dolly Wilde came to illuminate it with her presence. It is spring, 1930 now. Dolly Wilde and Natalie Barney have been lovers for three years and Dolly has an official room in Natalie's pavillon, the 'blue room', which she uses when Natalie is on vacation with Romaine Brooks, or out of Paris in pursuit of some fresher conquest.

Berthe Cleyrergue, now married to her beloved Henri (in a grey dress designed by Mme Vionnet and given to her by Dolly) and installed in the entre-sol over the carriage entrance to 20 rue Jacob, is in the kitchen of the pavillon where she is regulating the ovens and cutting dozens of cucumber sandwiches. She has been promoted up through the ranks of Natalie's servants to gouvernante of the Barney salon now, and she is also Natalie's personal attendant. Although the salon will see some twenty cooks come and go by 1935, Marie, the cook of 20 rue Jacob much loved by Dolly, is still there and the five other members of Natalie's staff — rather poorly trained because Natalie's outrageous amatory behaviour still encourages a rapid belowstairs turnover — are preparing the house for company. They are placing huge bouquets of white lilies, their mistress's signature flower, everywhere. Natalie is out 'visiting' with her grey-clad chauffeur, and Dolly is upstairs in 'the blue room', preparing for the afternoon's festivities by pouring a clear liquor into a cordial glass and downing it.

Dolly is thirty-five now, and drinking a little more heavily than she did when she was in her twenties. Her body has thickened somewhat and her resemblance to Oscar is even more 'hallucinating'. She has temporarily abandoned the champagne with which she used liberally to baptise most public and private occasions. She drinks red wine and gin now and she drinks too much of them. Drinking is a poisonous activity for someone with her heredity, but she has yet to become alcoholic. Drinking just a little too much allows her to sustain that semblance of 'romance' without which her life is beginning to feel like a badly mortgaged house whose beautiful furnishings are slowly being repossessed.

Romantic ideas or no, Dolly is smuggling bottles into the blue room at rue Jacob or hiding them in her closet at the Hotel Montalembert. She is suffering terribly from being Natalie Barney's second-best lover, just as her father Willie suffered from being the second-best Wilde. Dolly's suffering has forced her to violate her uncle Oscar's most cherished precept — that art and life are distinctions with a difference — and her violation takes the form of living out roles she used only to assume. In the last year, Dolly has come to refer to herself as 'Oscaria' and to insist, ironically: 'I am more Oscar-like than he was like himself'.

Nonetheless, Dolly continues to retain much of what Janet Flanner called 'that floral quality which was the bloom of her charm', and she appears bedewed with an 'almost mythical pristine freshness . . . that, alas, later became a bit tarnished, though she never completely lost it', as Alice Toklas wrote. Still, Dolly has been seen exiting numerous private bathrooms blowing white powder out of her nose and laughing her marvellous musical laugh, which her friend Katy Fenwick always insisted was the response Dolly substituted for tears.

On this particular Friday afternoon, all is running smoothly. Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney's favourite companion for almost fifteen years now, is at the country house she and Natalie have built together in Beauvallon: the Villa Trait d'Union, the Villa Hyphen, composed of two separate living and working quarters joined by a common room for dining; it is a symbol of the independences upon which the relationship of these two extraordinary women rests. There will be no strained exchanges between Dolly and Romaine on this day, no ultimatum from Romaine to Natalie, as there has been in the past, about shaking 'the rat [Dolly] from out of your skirts'.

Of course Romaine Brooks is also fond of Dolly, and sends her money and words of comfort when Natalie betrays her with other women. But periodically Romaine feels the need to assert her primacy and Dolly is packed off to London or Warsaw or Biarritz, until Romaine's emotional boil cools to a simmer. This toing and froing at the mercy of her beloved's other relationship is a 'herald of unimaginable suffering' for Dolly and does not discourage her habits of finding solace in liquids or inspiration in chemicals. Dolly's final preparation for this Friday is a hypodermic which she keeps in her purse. She takes it out, injects herself quickly in the thigh — something she will do quite openly at dinner parties in London, but only secretly in Paris — and leans back until the initial rush of the drug subsides to a steady buzzing hum; a line of life she can build on; a vibration that erases her inhibitions, frees her flowing phrases, and quiets her anxieties. At last, she has set herself 'straight' enough to descend the staircase.

In the little salon, all is waiting. The square table is set beautifully for tea with hundreds of Berthe's sandwiches, dozens of rich cakes, champagne, and the sweet wine Natalie likes. Berthe's gallicised version of fruit cup will be brought out at the end of the evening at around eight o'clock, to sweeten the discussion and speed the farewells. Moet et Chandon will be served as well, but sparingly — three bottles here, five bottles there. After Natalie's death, Berthe insisted that people got more champagne in her tiny apartment than in the whole of Miss Barney's salon. Dolly, who loved life's finest, always complained bitterly when Natalie served vin mousseux instead of champagne. In the careful lists she made and kept for her receptions, Natalie Barney noted the price of everything and what was to be served — and re-served.

The mirrored walls of the salon room reflect banks of white lilies, the four abandoned nymphs painted on the ceiling, and an oil portrait of Remy de Gourmont in the drawing room, which Natalie commissioned when Gourmont was at the height of his infatuation with her. Everything is slightly distorted by the patinations of the old reflecting glass. Although she is generally completely without physical self-consciousness, Dolly doesn't trust mirrors and avoids them now. She has remarked that 'mirrors are more lying than photographs', that most people are not 'mirror-genic', and that 'no mirror can ever show you your real appearance'.

On her way to the garden, Dolly circumnavigates the drawing room which she says is so 'frowsty and damp' that if you turned the chairs up, you'd find oysters growing on their bottoms. Now that Dolly has a room in Natalie's house, she abides by its rules. When Dolly wants to smoke, which is often, she walks the garden paths between the tall trees. Recollections of the 'Fridays' at the rue Jacob might begin with Dolly viewed in the garden through the salon windows. She is always smoking and walking — and she is always talking.

This Friday, as ever, Berthe Cleyrergue is at the front door, greeting the old friends as they arrive, and dispensing carefully measured doses of gossip to the journalists looking for copy. Natalie has returned from whatever rendezvous engaged her and she is pouring tea in the salon, having changed into a white Vionnet gown like any correct lady of good society. Dolly suspects Natalie has just come from an afternoon with the actress Rachel Berendt, who will be present later on. Dolly has yet to undergo the double indignity that will come when Natalie moves the Chinese lawyer-cum-cross-dressing-army officer, Nadine Hwang, into the pavillon — and begins to make canny use of her as both chauffeur and secretary.

Because there is no official 'entertainment' planned for this evening, no reading or theatrical presentation or musicale, and because this is not a Friday for the Academie des Femmes, that society which Natalie Barney loosely formed as a reproach to the Academie Francaise, the company is crowded into the salon room, the small dining room, which seats twenty at table and perhaps fifteen more on side chairs. The crowd swirls in and out, changing its character and its constituency every forty-five minutes. Natalie tends to the teapot and the conversation and Dolly, her cigarette finished, circulates vivaciously among the guests. The drug and the alcohol have done their work and Dolly is perfectly primed for company.

Here is the renowned, ancient classical scholar, Charles Seignobos, to whom Dolly gave a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover — along with instructions for reading it. It is the only novel he has ever read through. When the American publisher Samuel Putnam wrote about his favourite afternoon at the Barney salon, he seemed to be describing one of Dolly's meetings with Professor Seignobos, as well as the social manner and sexual allure which suited Dolly like her Schiaparelli scarf.

Among the guests was an exceptionally beautiful woman of the kind that radiates sex, and the aged Sorbonnist, whose lecture-room was a famous one, was getting more than his share of the refractions . . . He capered and cavorted, literally danced around the lady, who led him most expertly to the delight of everyone present. The conversation that accompanied all this as the professor made his whinnying exit was one whose subtle Rabelaisian quality Remy de Gourmont himself would have appreciated.

Over there in a corner of the salon is Andre Gide in serious conversation with the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, but still capable of being reduced to tears of laughter by almost anything Dolly says. Janet Flanner, always on the alert for material for her New Yorker column, is talking to Djuna Barnes, who drinks much more than Dolly does and whose love troubles with the painter Thelma Wood are painful and legion; they will eventually inspire Barnes's extraordinary novel Nightwood. Djuna has already depicted Dolly as Doll Furious in her hand-illustrated satire of the Barney circle, Ladies Almanatk. Doll Furious is enslaved by love and sex to Evangeline Musset, the Natalie Barney character. Although Barnes's grandmother was a friend of both Dolly's grandmother and her father and even attended Lady Wilde's salon (bringing Karl Marx's daughter with her), Dolly and Djuna carry on a kind of muted rivalry and each speaks sarcastically about the other behind her back.

H. G. Wells drops in suddenly and repeats the remark he recently made to Dolly at a Paris PEN meeting, that it is delightful to meet 'a feminine Wilde'. Nancy Cunard and her Negro lover, the jazz musician and singer of spirituals Henry Crowder, appear, along with Nancy Cunard's cousin Victor Cunard, the London Times correspondent in Venice and Dolly's great friend and admirer, the man who, Berthe says, makes Dolly's eyes 'sparkle like sapphires'. Natalie Barney and Henry Crowder, both of whose mothers live in Washington, DC, understand each other perfectly and chat together comfortably.

By now, the small circle of people around Dolly has quieted down to listen to her as she picks up on some casual inquiry and begins to fabricate a kind of monologue, an elaborate recounting of a wonderfully amusing country weekend she has just enjoyed. Dolly's clear, low voice wraps itself easily around 'resplendent phrases', 'adventurous adjectives', and 'Oscar-like epigrams', releasing them all in a dazzlingly rapid flow of fanciful inventions on the theme of her weekend, all done in 'perfect taste' and with a magnificent elevation of esprit (abetted by the drink, the drug, and the company) and a perfectly pointed sense of satire. Dolly — who is usually such a delightful guest that her hosts feel that they should be the ones proffering thank-you notes — is, for entertainment's sake, perfectly willing to make use of her weekend for 'performance material'.

As she tells her story, Dolly's whole being seems possessed by the Spirit of Imagination and she speaks without thought or premeditation. Her inspired and spontaneous delivery is unlike anything these accomplished and worldly guests have ever heard before. Unless they were old enough to have witnessed Oscar Wilde at the height of his powers, or were present at the rue Jacob last Friday afternoon when Dolly had a quite different, but just as beguiling, story to tell.



Natalie in hammock at 20 Rue Jacob in the 1930s or 1940s


Joan Shenkar on the experience of writing Truly Wilde

In I985, on a trip to Paris and on a whim, I took a room at what was then the Hotel d'Isly on the rue Jacob, a scant half-block from where the Barney salon had been. By then I had read everything I could about the Barney salon and tracked down, in a lazy way, the few tantalising tidbits about Dolly Wilde that were available....

I knew that Berthe Cleyrergue, the elderly Burgundian woman who had been Natalie Barney's housekeeper and confidante since I927 (when Djuna Barnes told Berthe — it could only have been in an antic mood — that working for Natalie Barney would be just as interesting as travelling), was, as recently as 1976, still living at 20 rue Jacob in a tiny apartment over the carriage entrance to the courtyard. Was it possible that Mme Cleyrergue was still living there in I985? She was as much a personnage as Proust's Celeste or Colette's Pauline. What stories she could tell if I could find her!

Berthe Cleyrergue, as Janet Flanner once remarked, was the only married woman around Natalie Barney. She had been the author of the Barney salon's fabled cuisine and was privy to Barney's affaires de coeur, in particular to the fourteen-year relationship with Dolly Wilde. Gifted with almost total recall and an unusually vivid talent for description, Berthe had become an invaluable source of original material for many books and films about literary Paris.

Berthe was much closer in age to Dolly Wilde than anyone else around Natalie Barney, and Dolly and Berthe had entered the Barney household in the same month: Berthe arrived on 8 June 1927 and Dolly appeared on 28 June 1927. Because Dolly made a practice of being friendly with Natalie's long-suffering help, Berthe and Dolly became very companionable, girlfriends almost. Dolly had given Berthe the Vionnet dress she was married in and Berthe repeated until she died that Dolly was the most wonderful and charming woman of all the charming, wonderful women who visited Miss Barney.

In happy times, Dolly and Berthe used to buy records like teenagers, playing them on Dolly's Victrola when Natalie wasn't around. In difficult periods — and there were plenty of these — Berthe saved Dolly from suicide more than once, fetching her back from solitary hotel rooms to the rue Jacob and nursing her to a fragile equilibrium.

It seemed impossible that Berthe Cleyrergue could still be alive in I985, or, if she were still alive, that she would still be in her apartment....Finally, I consulted the telephone directory. And there she was. CLEYRERGUE, Philiberthe, 20 rue Jacob, and the telephone number. I could feel Atlantis rising.

And so began a long, richly rewarding relationship with Berthe Cleyrergue and, with it, the real beginnings of this book. For it was clear from our first meeting, or perhaps it was the second — I was so shocked by this encounter with living history that I forget the facts and remember only the feelings of our first meeting — that Berthe had chosen me to hear the history of Dolly Wilde, and to make some-thing of what I had heard. I never asked why....

In the enchanted atmosphere of Berthe's crowded, low-ceilinged apartment, with its chronically overheated temperatures perpetually enhancing its hallucinatory qualities, Berthe's incredible photographs and mementoes of the Barney salon (arranged in shrine-like configurations on every possible surface) regularly combined with her rich Burgundian accent and superb French cooking to produce a synaesthesia of historical experience that, I swear, hypnotised me into the subject....

Who could resist such monologues? Or such a cuisine? I was a goner. Like all chosen people, I had no choice....

...Like most intensely talented, inadequately expressed people, Dolly Wilde entertained a thoroughly mixed collection of bad motives, good intentions, and crossed purposes — and I have tried to give the proper weight to each....

In a very 'real' sense, and to a sometimes shocking degree, I became involved with the life of Dolly Wilde. I was haunted by the idea of her, this deeply shadowed woman of great wit and glittering gifts who disappeared without a trace. And I developed a peculiar set of sensitivities which led me to information I could not have found, information which would not have been found, but for the intense telepathies produced by a communion with my subject. There is no rational explanation for these instincts and I present none. They exist, they are useful, and Dolly, I might add, would have been delighted by them. But nothing about their exercise has made any easier the experience of investigating the mercurial and instructive paradox that was Dolly Wilde. Writing about Dolly in terms that would not violate her has been as difficult and as interesting as trying to control quicksilver, invoke the scent of perfume, or precipitate a cloud....

Like the lives of too many Modernist women, Dolly's life was merely 'noticed', not 'recorded'. She managed to slip through literature's net, slide under the scan of the census, elude the long arm of the law, and die an unexplained death.... In finding ways to tell her story, I allowed Dolly's own passionate interests to guide me: her feel for inventive imagery turned me to the vivid enlargements that metaphor permits; her contempt for time gave me the intense concentrations that thematic — rather than chronologic — treatment enables; her unalloyed romanticism lead me to the 'recreations' that make up the next chapter of this book, etc., etc. From time to time, I have used different styles of writing in different settings to suggest Dolly's own changing — and very elusive — states of being.

But none of these dim instruments illuminate Dolly Wilde as well as she could illuminate herself in those rare, private moments when she took the trouble to explain — pen in hand and always on someone else's writing paper — how she felt about who she was. In the end, anyone who has ever assembled the collection of 'partial' truths (in both senses of the term), painstaking researches, hopeful conjectures, informed intuitions, and educated guesses which constitute a biography knows by heart how far short of the mark this Tantalus form always falls. And while I hope this particular biography introduces you in a pleasurable and even a personal way to a remarkable woman, and that it helps restore Dorothy Wilde to the company she should be keeping — the company of her unusual grandmother, her legendary uncle, and the fabulous generation of Modernist women in Paris and London whose achievements bloomed so beautifully in the first half of the twentieth century — I am all too aware of what the work crucially wants.

Dorothy Wilde was an artist of the spoken word. Lacking the sound of her voice as others heard it and the shape of her sentences as she uttered them, I have only been able to bring her to you complete with missing parts. It remains for you to do what Dolly could have done so beautifully for us all:

Imagine the rest.

from Joan Schenkar, Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar's Unusual Niece (NY: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 21-36, 12-20.


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Last modified on June 26, 2008 by Kay Keys (kay@kaykeys.net)