Ahead of Her Time: Natalie Clifford Barney

Natalie Clifford Barney, turn of the century.

One of the members of a Pagan women’s group I belong to recently led a program for us on Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. I got to see the exhibit in person in 2018; it’s now permanently housed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it!

We were collectively inspired to each choose one of the women commemorated with a plate in the exhibit, do some research on her life, and craft a presentation to the group. Here’s mine:

I was initially drawn to research Natalie Clifford Barney for two reasons: 

  1. She’s a feminist writer I hadn’t heard of, or studied in college.
  2. Natalie was the name of my favorite grandmother.

As I started to read up on her, I was amused by the connections that emerged. The Goddess has a sense of humor as she guides us toward synchronicities.

Natalie Clifford Barney was a writer, playwright, and poet. The likely reason that I hadn’t studied her at UMaine was that most of her published writing was done in French. She was a pacifist as well as a feminist. She’s actually most well known as a controversial hostess of gatherings of writers and artists (some well known, others not) on the Left Bank in Paris. The heyday of her literary salon was during the 1920s and 30s – although it endured for more than 60 years.

One of the connections that emerged is to Maine. Natalie was born in Ohio on October 31st, 1876. Her parents were both from wealthy families. When she was 10, Natalie’s immediate family moved to Washington DC. They had a second home built – a palatial 4-story “cottage” – in Bar Harbor, and Natalie, her sister Laura, and their artist mother, Alice, spent a lot of time there. 

In the summer, the women of the family wrote and hosted plays. They immersed themselves in art, the top floor of the cottage being a sunny studio.  They also wore long dresses and fashionable hats. One of Natalie’s earliest plays was based on the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. She recruited the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, who owned the summer house next door, to play the Queen.

Natalie was controversial not only for being a feminist, but also for being wild. Natalie’s mother, Alice Pike Barney, was a respected painter, and the family’s summer entertainments were reported on in newspapers – from local to international. In addition, Natalie made the gossip column of the Bar Harbor press because she quite scandalously didn’t ride sidesaddle, and she sped around town in her carriage as she pleased.

Also, in a time when it simply wasn’t discussed in society, Natalie was rather open about being a lesbian. She later said that she knew she was gay by the time she was 12. She said: “My queerness is not a vice, is not deliberate, and harms no one.” Her conventional father disagreed, but after he passed away in 1902, Natalie was free to do as she pleased, and did.

As girls, Natalie and her sister went to boarding school in Paris, and she fell in love with the city. She lived there most of her adult life. The boarding school they had attended was founded by a feminist, and girls were taught to think for themselves, at a time when women were expected to share the opinions of their father or husband

Not only was she gay, but throughout her lifetime, Natalie was non-monogamous. This is another of the connections to my own life – we call it polyamory, or loving more than one, these days. Natalie was a pioneer in terms of unconventional relationships, or at least of being open about them. She was with one woman for more than 50 years, but they seldom lived together.  Many of her former lovers became lifelong friends. She wrote passionate poems to her lovers, and was the first woman to write openly about her love of women since Sappho.

She was rather infamous as a seductress, and acquired the nickname “The Amazon.” Other literary women who fell in love with her, some of whom had been heterosexual, included Natalie in their novels or poetry. Natalie once said, “Most virtue is a demand for greater seduction.” 

Natalie was wildly creative, but she didn’t enjoy following a project to its conclusion. She preferred the initial rush of inspiration. Another quote: “At first, when an idea, a poem, or the desire to write takes hold of you, work is a pleasure, a delight, and your enthusiasm knows no bounds. But later on you work with difficulty, doggedly, desperately. For once you have committed yourself to a particular work, inspiration changes its form and becomes an obsession, like a love-affair… which haunts you night and day! Once at grips with a work, we must master it completely before we can recover our idleness.” Even so, she had more than 12 volumes published in her lifetime, most in French.

Natalie lived to be 95 years old. She died in 1972 and was buried in Paris. Her works were largely forgotten, until Judy Chicago honored her with a plate in The Dinner Party.

One last quote from the inimitable Natalie: “How many inner resources one needs to tolerate a life of leisure without fatigue.”

After researching Natalie, I thought about how amazing it would be to visit her former summer home in Bar Harbor. Unfortunately, the cottage, which the Barney family had sold in the 1930s, was destroyed in the Fire of ’47. I guess I’ll just have to go to Paris, instead…

Tell me what you think!

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