Sunday, April 01, 2007

Wild Heart--A Life, by Suzanne Rodriguez

Wild Heart: Natalie Clifford Barney's Journey from Victorian America to the Literary Salons of Paris, by Susanne Rodriguez

I'm not usually enthusiastic about reading biographies, but I thought this one was captivating, and it has motivated me to read more about some of the people in Natalie Barney's life.

This tome does more than illuminate the life of Natalie Barney; Rodriguez also must journey into the historical events which took place during her long life (1876-1972), the fascinating and famous people who surrounded her, and the culture of the upperclass.

As I read, I found that there were so many anecdotes I'd wanted to remember, that I started sticking mini post-it notes at various places. My copy of this biography is now laden with post-it notes. So, forgive me if I ramble.

Natalie Barney was born in Ohio into a wealthy family, and never, ever, had to go without. Anything. This wealth was the most important factor in her life. The second most important factor was that she was a lesbian, and was aware of it at an early age. This, along with her literary and artistic interests, drove her to Paris. Barney succeeded in living her life as she wished at a time when very few women did.

I must mention that Natalie Barney's mother was someone I'd already encountered in quite a different history book, one about the history of Africa. The explorer Morton Stanley, famed for finding Dr. Livingston, had been madly in love with a seventeen year old Alice Pike. By the time he returned from the Congo, Alice Pike was married to Albert Clifford Barney, and his heart was broken. This is but one of the interesting stories surrounding Barney's life, expertly told by Rodriguez.

Natalie Barney's literary salon was an important fixture in Paris for decades, and it was Natalie's charisma and talent that made it such a success. And yes, being a well-known, wealthy American was important. Barney's charm was indesputable, she found her way into others' hearts, and inspired several other writers.

Barney was a talented writer, herself, but a rather lazy one: she believed in spontaneity, which meant she didn't do re-writes. She once actually paid for Ezra Pound's advice, but--didn't take it! Other writers, such as a young Ernest Hemingway, had taken Pound's opinions and advice to heart, and had greatly benefited from it.

Barney was also famous for her epigrams, which demonstrated that she did have brains and talent. However, once again, these witty statements also demonstrate her constant glibness; Barney tended to skim the surface of an idea, without really thinking it through. Some of her epigrams would seem shocking, if read today, for their anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, anti-Semitic remarks were made very casually at the time, by people who were otherwise more thoughtful.

If we keep an open mind, too much is likely to fall into it.


Also, Barney was rather obsessed with her sexual conquests. She always had one major love in her life, but Barney was never faithful to anyone. However, Barney was also possessive, expecting fidelity from others. I would not call this charming. The tales of her loves are intriguing-- they include Liane De Pougy, a very famous Paris courtesan, Eva Palmer, Dolly Wilde (Oscar's niece), poet Pauline Tarn (or Renée Vivien,), Colette, Romaine Brooks, and a host of other very interesting women.

Natalie Barney "L'Amazone" (1920) by Romaine Brooks.

Barney also had close male friends, and had inspired writer Remy de Gourmont to write Letters to the Amazon, just one of the literary references that made Barney a celebrity.

Eventually, she would also be referenced by Gertrude Stein. The friendship between Barney and Stein was slow to come about, despite the fact that they were both American literary lesbians living in Paris, because they were so very different. For one thing, Stein and Alice Toklas had a committed, monogamous relationship that Barney viewed as being just like that dreaded institution of marriage that kept women locked up, while Stein and Toklas disapproved of Barney's womanizing. They did not exactly seek each other out, in the beginning.

Barney's salon, at 20, rue Jacob in Paris, got its start during the Belle Epoque of late nineteenth century France, and continued during the first world war and the depression. It was interrupted by the World War II, but resumed after the war.

Romaine Brooks owned a villa in Italy, and that is where she and Barney spent the second world war. It was a couped-up exile for two women who were accustomed to traveling whenever and wherever they wished, but again, Barney did not want for anything that was an absolute necessity.

I must interject a word about Barney's amazing housekeeper, Berthe Cleyrergue, who stayed behind in France to look after Barney's property and demonstrated remarkable patience and cleverness, most of which went unnoticed by her employer. Many celebrities, including Alice Toklas, raved about Cleyrergue's culinary talents, but the fact that she endured Barney's demands and complaints for so many years entitles her to some kind of sainthood. Having no idea what life in Paris was like during the war, Barney made impossible demands of Cleyrergue, and never realized how very extraordinary this woman's efforts were. At one point, the Nazis almost seized all of Barney's possessions because they'd heard that she was part Jewish, which was true. It was Cleyrergue who deftly talked them out of the house. (Romaine Brooks was an anti-social person who had a reputation for not liking many people, but she liked Berthe Cleyrergue.)

Personality flaws aside, Natalie Barney is famous not only for celebrating her love of women, but for encouraging and inspiring women writers. She made life rewarding and interesting for herself and others--in one way, or another!

This post has gotten way too long, so I will end it here, but I wholeheartedly recommend reading Susanne Rodriguez's book.

More at the Natalie Barney Website.


Bijoy said...

you have wonderful description on wild heart i really enjoyed reading it, will be back soon be in touch

regards Biby - Blog

TLP said...

Sounds like a great read. Lend it to me?

actonbell said...

Sure! I'll clean it up:)

TLP said...

Don't take out the markers! I want to see what you saw.

Doug said...

That post could have gone on without grieving me. I'm curious about all of it. I suppose I'll have to read the book at some point.

Biography is something I've taken an interest in just in the last few years (which at my current age means, like, ten.

Minka said...

I had no idea. Never heard of her in any connections, although i have been quite fascinated with Gertrude Stein for years...odd!
But I guess taht is why we read blogs, some of them introduce us to new things, idea and concepts. You ave such a blog.
Look at me all female! :)

G said...

These sort of books make history enjoyable to me. Thanks for an excellent outline.