Natalie Clifford Barney


Natalie young: portrait photo at 20, photo in costume as Hamlet with wolfhound


Natalie reclining: studio photo on rug, nude photo probably taken in Maine


Natalie dressed up: photos as page, in gown by Worth, and attired for riding in Bois de Boulogne


Natalie as young lady of fashion, with portrait by her mother Alice Clifford Barney


Natalie's portrait by her lover Romaine Brooks (20, rue Jacob in background)


Natalie mature and aging: during and after WWII

So who was this woman? Wikipedia's article on Natalie provides a good overview of the facts; the video presentation about Natalie from the film Paris Was A Woman fleshes out the story.

And Natalie speaks for herself in this passage from her unpublished autobiography as quoted in Jean Chalon's Portrait of a Seductress (pp. 47-48). The gossip Natalie reacted to concerned her affair with courtesan Liane de Pougy in 1899 (when she was 22):

The friend of the family came to tell me what they are saying about me: things so repugnant that one has to pity the minds that have conceived them. Our feelings and our acts are cheapened by publicizing them and it's hard to restore our pure intentions once they have passed through certain brains. To call them by their name seems to make them anonymous. The world is a distorting mirror which makes us appear unrecognizable.

When the family friend set out again, having fulfilled his "painful duty" and I found myself alone, I considered myself without shame: albinos aren't reproached for having pink eyes and whitish hair, why should they hold it against me for being a lesbian? It's a question of nature: my queerness isn't a vice, isn't "deliberate," and harms no one. What do I care, after all, if they vilify or judge me according to their prejudices? Their "taboos" have bowed heads way beyond them, clipped the wings of enough enthusiasm for them to be despised. The so-called virtuous make the mistake of pitying those who are different, of feeling compassion for the fate of those they censure. If someone is unselfish enough to devote his life to another despite worldly considerations, why should it be important to him if Madame-so-and-so snubs him in the street? There's no room for anything else in such love. His joys and sorrows create a solitude where the soul soars all alone . . . . So long as I live, the love of Beauty will be my guide .... Did my parents create me to deny myself? This allusion to my parents' chagrin managed to trouble me, however. The friend of the family may thus be assured in any case that for me society seems preferable to the demimonde, but that neither can ever suit me. I therefore have to find or found a milieu that fits my aspirations: a society composed of all those who seek to focus and improve their lives through an art that can give them pure presence. These are the only people with whom I can get along, and communicate and finally express myself openly among free spirits . . . . Let's be snobs, but in the opposite sense of our society which only accepts ready-made values; let's discover real values which alone can inspire us or make us comprehensible. I will submit to their much stricter laws than the social obligations which shield their egotistical inclinations by a cold philanthropy, proving that they have never really come face to face with anyone.

Something of her spirit and allure is captured in these excerpts from Meryle Secrest, Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1974), pp. 315 and 333-335:

So many people idealized Natalie Barney. Perhaps it was her humane, humorous tolerance of others' foibles, since Natalie was virtually unshockable, or what seemed like an enviable inner serenity, or a genuine and kind interest in everyone she called her friend. (She wrote once, "Where friends are concerned I am extremely lazy; when I give my friendship I don't take it back.") Or perhaps it was her wit, so droll and succinct and telling, or her quick intelligence, or the impudent sense of fun that drew them all to the rue Jacob, since one never knew quite what to expect. They came for fifty years....

...Natalie's flirtations were interminable. What gave spice to her receptions and added to their allure was the possibility that, in that endless sea of new faces, there would be a particularly interesting face. Her urge to conquer continued to be as impetuous and vernal as in those early days with Renee. She would meet someone and disappear for days. "Once she simply left. She had gone to sleep with a married woman," Madame Berthe said. "Finally she called me up four days later, with no explanations. She said, "Berthe, there will be ten people for dinner tonight." Madame Berthe continued, "There were some women who weren't worth it, but how can you explain love?"

Natalie was not always the pursuer. She had been watched, Madame Berthe said, by a neighbor who had remarked upon a charming procession of ladies to and from 20 rue Jacob. When her passionate letters went unanswered, that neighbor gained entry to the house on some pretext or other while Natalie was out (it was before Madame Berthe's vigilant reign) and installed herself on Natalie's bed, naked. How Natalie responded is not recorded.

Perhaps what was so shocking was that her tastes were different, which meant disgusting, decadent and even threatening, to her contemporaries. In addition, she made no bones about it. Far from acting like the social outcasts they were, she and her friends were openly seducing all corners and were most skillful at satisfying their lovers; a quality that would seem to recommend them to our sexually more tolerant age.

They seem harmless, even disarming, this band of ladies, who loved fine food and good conversation, who wrote poetry and gave receptions at which they were most meticulous hosts, who had indefatigable flirtations and sexually satisfying affairs....

Note: Most of the images of Natalie are from "a generous selection of photographs" given by Natalie to Jean Chalon or by Berthe Cleyregue to George Wickes; all were scanned in from one of the books described in Further Reading on Natalie Barney.


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Last modified on January 30, 2010 by Kay Keys (kay@kaykeys.net)