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Natalie Clifford Barney (October 31, 1876 – February 2, 1972) was an American playwright, poet and novelist who lived as an expatriate in Paris.
Barney's salon was held at her home at 20 rue Jacob in Paris' Left Bank for more than 60 years and brought together writers and artists from around the world, including many leading figures in French literature along with American and British Modernists of the Lost Generation. She worked to promote writing by women and formed a "Women's Academy" (L'Académie des Femmes) in response to the all-male French Academy while also giving support and inspiration to male writers from Remy de Gourmont to Truman Capote.
She was openly lesbian and began publishing love poems to women under her own name as early as 1900, considering scandal as "the best way of getting rid of nuisances" (meaning heterosexual attention from young males). In her writings she supported feminism and pacifism. She opposed monogamy and had many overlapping long and short-term relationships, including on-and-off romances with poet Renée Vivien and dancer Armen Ohanian and a 50-year relationship with painter Romaine Brooks. Her life and love affairs served as inspiration for many novels, ranging from the salacious French bestseller Sapphic Idyll to The Well of Loneliness, the most famous lesbian novel of the twentieth century.
Barney was born in 1876 in Dayton, Ohio, to Albert Clifford Barney and Alice Pike Barney. Her father was the son of a wealthy manufacturer of railway cars and of English descent, and her mother was of French, Dutch and German ancestry. Her maternal grandfather's father was Jewish. When Barney was five years old her family spent the summer at New York's Long Beach Hotel where Oscar Wilde happened to be speaking on his American lecture tour. Wilde scooped her up as she ran past him fleeing a group of small boys, held her out of their reach then sat her down on his knee and told her a story. The next day he joined Barney and her mother on the beach, where their conversation changed the course of Alice's life, inspiring her to pursue art seriously, despite, years later, her husband's disapproval. She later studied under Carolus-Duran and James McNeill Whistler. Many of Alice Pike Barney's paintings are now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Like many girls of her time, Barney had a haphazard education. Her interest in the French language began with a governess who read Jules Verne stories aloud to her so she would have to learn quickly to understand them. Later she and her younger sister Laura Clifford Barney attended Les Ruches, a French boarding school founded by feminist Marie Souvestre and attended by such notables as Eleanor Roosevelt. As an adult she spoke French fluently without an accent and made her home in Paris. Nearly all her published works were written in French.
When she was ten her family moved from Ohio to Washington, D.C., spending summers in Bar Harbor, Maine. As the rebellious and unconventional daughter of one of the wealthiest families in town, she was often mentioned in Washington newspapers. In her early twenties she made headlines by galloping through Bar Harbor while driving a second horse on a lead ahead of her and by riding astride instead of sidesaddle.
Barney later said she knew by age 12 she was lesbian and was determined to "live openly, without hiding anything." In 1899 after seeing the courtesan Liane de Pougy at a dance hall in Paris, Barney presented herself at de Pougy's residence in a page costume and announced she was a "page of love" sent by Sappho. Although de Pougy was one of the most famous women in France, constantly sought after by wealthy and titled men, Barney's audacity charmed her. Their brief affair became the subject of de Pougy's tell-all roman à clef, Idylle Saphique (Sapphic Idyll). Published in 1901, this book became the talk of Paris, reprinted at least 69 times in its first year. Barney was soon well known as the model for one of the characters. By this time, however, the two had already broken up after quarreling repeatedly over Barney's desire to "rescue" de Pougy from her life as a courtesan.
Barney herself contributed a chapter to Idylle Saphique in which she described reclining at de Pougy's feet in a screened box at the theater, watching Sarah Bernhardt's play Hamlet. During intermission, Barney (as "Flossie") compares Hamlet's plight with that of women: "What is there for women who feel the passion for action when pitiless Destiny holds them in chains? Destiny made us women at a time when the law of men is the only law that is recognized." She also wrote Lettres à une Connue (Letters to a Woman I Have Known), her own epistolary novel about the affair. Although Barney failed to find a publisher for the book and later called it naïve and clumsy, it is notable for its discussion of homosexuality, which Barney regarded as natural and compared to albinism. "My queerness," she said, "is not a vice, is not deliberate, and harms no one."