Beyond the Sea

Natalie Barney: The Enchantress on Rue Jacob

Impossibly beautiful, endlessly alluring, a revered host of literary salons and an accomplished writer, the American heiress Natalie Clifford Barney reigned for almost 75 years over Paris’s lesbian intelligentsia.
Natalie Clifford Barney, ca. 1890-1910. © Library of Congress

Through a serendipitous combination of circumstances including a sizable inheritance and significant income from the railway industry, the marriage of Alice Pike and Albert Clifford Barney brought together two incredibly rich American families. Natalie Clifford Barney, their first child, was therefore born into a life of extreme privilege on October 31, 1876, after her parents’ wedding earlier the same year. While Mr. Barney was often aghast at the libertarian education devised by his wife for their two daughters, the couple agreed that Natalie and Laura should become perfect ladies worthy of their standing. The girls were given a French governess, violin classes, and horse-riding lessons. And when they were teenagers, they were sent to Europe to attend the finest French and English boarding schools.

Some may assume that being so far from her parents would have been hard for the young Natalie. If it was, she hid it well, reveling in the French language, confirming her love of literature, and flourishing as a social butterfly. Anyone could see that the young woman, who had known that she was a lesbian since the age of twelve, enjoyed the power she wielded over her peers. An influence conferred by her regal confidence, bright blue eyes, and long blonde hair which later saw her nicknamed “Moonbeam.”

Young Natalie and her pony Tricksy, in Bar Harbor, Maine, where her family spent their summer vacations. © Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand
Natalie Barney as a teenager. © Library of Congress

Paris Is Ours!

Natalie felt so at home in Paris that, at the age of 23, she decided to physically conquer the city. And as she seemed capable of having anything – or anyone – she desired, she set her heart on one of the most coveted women in the French capital. One fine day in 1899, Natalie arrived at the home of Liane de Pougy – a renowned courtesan among Europe’s rich and powerful – dressed up as “a page of love sent by Sappho.” The gamble paid off and the beautiful American soon became known as an irresistible, lesbian Don Juan. Two years later, the publication of Liane de Pougy’s novel A Woman’s Affair, in which the Parisian smart-set easily recognized Natalie behind the character of Flossie, only added fuel to the fire.

What’s more, the young woman cared little about being discreet. This incident only encouraged her amorous adventures and she was more than happy to shout it from the rooftops! She even published a collection of romantic poetry entitled Quelques portraits : Sonnets de femmes in 1900. This latest extravagance saw her father fly into a rage, and he went to far as to buy and destroy every remaining copy. In response, Natalie said: “I have no shame. Albinos aren’t reproached for having pink eyes and whitish hair, why should they hold it against me for being a lesbian?” The publication of the poetry collection dashed Mr. Barney’s last hopes of marrying his daughter into a good family. But two years later, the patriarch had the good taste to pass away, leaving Natalie an enormous fortune and the freedom to use it in Paris as she saw fit.

Natalie Barney in Maine in the summer of 1900, probably photographed by her friend Eva Palmer. © Yale University/Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

In Love with Love

The next chapters in Natalie’s love life kept her critics busy. While the City of Light was still reeling from the latest rumors of her affair with Liane de Pougy, the American struck up a relationship with the equally scandalous Colette, who was soon baring her ample bosom at music-hall performances before a stupefied crowd. Then came Renée Vivien, a British poet who wrote in French. She too fell under the spell of the enchantress, who had a unique gift for picking and choosing from the literary and artistic women of Paris. One relationship led to another, or several at once, as Natalie never saw love as exclusive.

On May 1, 1910, the writer Elisabeth de Gramont, then married to Duke Philibert de Clermont-Tonnerre, found herself in Natalie’s bed. Although the two women decided to sign a contract to symbolically cement their union in 1918, American painter Romaine Brooks also arrived on the scene in 1916 – and never left. The U.S. temptress had as many as three simultaneous affairs at any one time, such as in the late 1920s after seducing Dolly Wilde, the flamboyant niece of the great Oscar.

A Literary Salon on Rue Jacob

Natalie published around a dozen works, mostly in French, and also influenced the country’s intellectual life through her Friday events. These literary get-togethers became a true institution after the most Parisian American moved to Rue Jacob in the Latin Quarter in 1908. Boasting gardens, an adjoining neoclassical building with Doric columns in honor of friendship, the pavilion at 20 Rue Jacob hosted thinkers, artists, writers, and all those who supported women’s rights for more than fifty years. Both sociable and highly practical, Natalie was always happy for beautiful people to mingle with this private society in which Sapphic devotees often made up the majority.

An antique-inspired dance in the garden of Natalie Barney's house, on Rue Jacob in Paris. © Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet
Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, 1935. © Smithsonian Institution Archives
Natalie Barney in her garden in Paris. © Yale University/Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

In 1927, in reaction to the Académie Française’s refusal to allow women into its ranks, Natalie founded her own Women’s Academy. The idea was to celebrate and promote talented writers who had been unfairly banned from leading literary establishments due to their sex or so-called morals. The women whose work was championed and praised on Rue Jacob included Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes – whom Natalie inspired to write Dame Evangeline Musset’s character in Ladies Almanack – Colette, Rachilde, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, and Radclyffe Hall, who portrayed the indomitable femme fatale as Valérie Seymour in her famous 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness.

Even at 87, Natalie still had a lust for love. She broke up with Romaine Brooks, her lifelong lover, to live freely with Janine Lahovary, a recently widowed youngster of 62. But according to her final will and testament, she was buried with a photograph of Romaine in Passy Cemetery after she died on February 2, 1972, at the age of 95. Some will notice that she was laid to rest near the grave of Renée Vivien, her partner of years past… Even in the afterlife, she was in excellent company!

Article published in the October 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.