Natalie Clifford Barney

Natalie Clifford Barney(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Natalie Clifford Barney

(October 31, 1876 – February 2, 1972)

Born into a wealthy Ohio family, Barney lived in Dayton, Ohio until her family moved to Washington D.C. in 1886. Her father was the son of a wealthy railway car manufacturer from Dayton and her mother was a professional artist from a wealthy Cincinnati family. Raised among governesses and in private academies, Barney became fluent in languages and literature as a teenager. Meeting some of the most important artists and writers of the late nineteenth century, she was known as a wild and precocious girl throughout Washington D.C. and Bar Harbor, Maine, where the family spent much time.

In 1900, Barney published her first book of poetry, Quelques Portraits-Sonnets de Femmes (Some Portrait-Sonnets of Women). Barney became the first woman to openly write about lesbianism since the poet Sappho. Early reviews did not discuss the homosexual overtones, but her father discovered the truth and destroyed the remaining stock and printing plates. When she published a second book, Cinq Petits Dialogues Grecs (Five Short Greek Dialogues) in 1901, she used a pseudonym to conceal her identity from her father. After her father passed in 1902, she never again used a pseudonym to hide her name or homosexuality.  Barney published three more books of poetry before switching writing styles. After 1920, she mostly composed epigrams and memoirs.

After moving to Europe permanently, Barney began and hosted a literary salon for over 60 years in various locations in Paris, France. She hosted some of the most celebrated in their chosen fields – it was a mix of poets, artists, musicians, dancers, writers, and philosophers.  During WWI, her salon was known as a safe haven for anti-war rhetoric and she hosted a Women’s Congress for Peace at her salon on Rue Jacob. In 1927, she created an Académie des Femmes (Women’s Academy) to study and honor female writers. Throughout her career, she wrote entirely in the French language and only published one book in English, The One Who is Legion, or A.D.’s After-Life, in 1930.  

Barney had a prolific romantic life and was in many open relationships throughout her lifetime; in fact, she was more well-known for her tumultuous romantic escapades than as a writer. She classified her relationships into three categories: liaisons, demi-liaisons, and adventures.  Barney had a few major partners, or liasions that lasted decades – Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, Renée Vivien, Élisabeth de Gramont, Dolly Wilde, and Romaine Brooks.  In fact, she was in a four-way relationship with de Gramont, Wilde, and Brooks from 1927 till Wilde passed away in 1941. She was with de Gramont till her death in 1954. Barney did not believe in monogamy and was open with her affairs and friendships.

Barney stirred up controversy during WWII when she wrote about pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic quotes by Adolf Hitler. Some scholars believe she only did this to stay out of concentration camps; some believe she was following the current beliefs in Europe at the time. It is noted that she was pro-Allied powers by the close of WWII. Her weekly salon resumed in 1949 and she continued to have many of the brightest new writers and artists in her home, including a young Truman Capote.

By the 1960s, Barney led a quieter, secluded life in Paris. She suffered from bouts of paranoia and depression, often refusing medical care. On February 2, 1972, she passed at the age of 95 from heart failure. She is buried at Passy Cemetery, Paris, France.

Barney fell into obscurity by the end of her life, but in 1979, she was honored with a place in Judy Chicago’s feminist work of art called The Dinner Party. Her legacy began to be explored and discussed in the feminist literary world by the 1980s, and English translations of some of her work began in the 1990s. Today, she is regarded as an early feminist writer and a direct influence on much of the early lesbian literary work of the 20th century. Characters based on Barney appear in Colette and Liane de Pougy and in the bestselling lesbian novel, Well of Loneliness. The bulk of her work is still untranslated into the English language; however, in 2013, her novel Amants féminis ou la troisiéme was translated into English by Chelsea Ray. It was published in 2016 as Women Lovers or The Third Woman.

In 2009, Dayton erected an Ohio historical marker to honor Barney’s life and influence on literature. Her marker is the first one in the state to mention sexual orientation.  It is located in Cooper Park.    Natalie Clifford Barney


In French

  • Quelques Portraits-Sonnets de Femmes (Paris: Ollendorf, 1900)
  • Cinq Petits Dialogues Grecs (Paris: La Plume, 1901; as "Tryphé")
  • Actes et entr'actes (Paris: Sansot, 1910)
  • Je me souviens (Paris: Sansot, 1910)
  • Eparpillements (Paris: Sansot, 1910)
  • Pensées d'une Amazone (Paris: Emile Paul, 1920)
  • Aventures de l'Esprit (Paris: Emile Paul, 1929)
  • Nouvelles Pensées de l'Amazone (Paris: Mercure de France, 1939)
  • Souvenirs Indiscrets (Paris: Flammarion, 1960)
  • Traits et Portraits (Paris: Mercure de France, 1963)
  • Amants féminins ou la troisième (Paris: ErosOnyx, 2013)

In English

  • Poems & Poèmes: Autres Alliances (Paris: Emile Paul, New York: Doran, 1920) – bilingual collection of poetry
  • The One Who Is Legion (London: Eric Partridge, Ltd., 1930; Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1987) facsimile reprint with an afterword by Edward Lorusso

English translations

  • A Perilous Advantage: The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney (New Victoria Publishers, 1992); edited and translated by Anna Livia
  • Adventures of the Mind (New York University Press, 1992); translated by John Spalding Gatton
  • Women Lovers, or The Third Woman (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016); edited and translated by Chelsea Ray

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