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Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art: the lives and loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks [Paperback]

Diana Souhami
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 July 2005

Natalie and Romaine met in London during World War I and their partnership lasted until Natalie died 52 years later. They were both American expatriates; unconventional, energetic, flamboyant and rich.

Natalie was known as ¿the wild girl of Cincinnatti¿ and had numerous affairs with other women: Renée Vivien who nailed shut the windows of her apartment, wrote about the loveliness of death, drank eau de cologne and died of anorexia aged 30; and Dolly Wilde niece of Oscar, who ran up terrible phone bills and died of a drugs overdose. Her Friday afternoon salons in the cobbled garden of her Parisian house were for ¿introductions and culture¿ and were frequented by Gertrude Stein, Colette, Radclyffe Hall and Edith Sitwell. Romaine achieved fame in her own lifetime and after as an artist. She painted her lovers including Gabriele d¿Annunzio with whom she had a terrible and tortured relationship, and the ballerina Ida Rubinstein. However her relationship with Natalie was constant and in their eventful years together they threw up a liberating spirit of culture, style and candour.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Phoenix; New Ed edition (7 July 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0753819775
  • ISBN-13: 978-0753819777
  • Product Dimensions: 2.2 x 13.1 x 19.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 481,115 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

An entertaining account of the couple's 50-year relationship - one that was never tested by the rigours of co-habitation. (THE INDEPENDENT)

The book really takes off, when we come to Natalie's long affair with the portraitist Romaine Brooks... Diana Souhami is almost incapable of writing a clumsy sentence. (SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)

For 50 years... the love of these two women lasted. Now, thanks to Souhami, it lives again. (THE TIMES)

Souhami handles it with a light touch. (SUNDAY TIMES)

Souhami tells their story in lush... prose, which perfectly suits the subjects and their exotic world. (IMAGE MAGAZINE)

Two wealthy lesbians in 1900s Paris lead the jolly, over the top life you expect from the belle epoque. (EVENING HERALD)

Book Description

Seduction, madness, addiction, suicide - this was the bohemian world of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, two pivotal figures in the cultural life of Paris at the turn of the century.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bittersweet sensuality 18 Aug 2008
A Kid's Review
Format:Paperback
A fascinating read. I'd never heard of Natalie Barney or Romaine Brooks before I picked up the book due to its very scrumptious and sensual cover, and true to its word, I was not disappointed. I got a very revealing look into Bohehmiam Paris and what the world was like for two rich women who decided to live life on their own terms, instead of according to family pressures or traditions. I had alot of respect for the women and the force of passion, poetry and excitement they unleased in life. The book is so beautifully written one almost feels captivated into that era oneself.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant book! 28 Dec 2006
Format:Hardcover
A very interesting book. Souhami's writing style is easy to read and magically evokes the victorian era, and the 1920s. Although it felt as though the book was all based upon secondary sources and not very in-depth Souhami does put all the information beautifully, and the pictures illustrate the book nicely. Natalie was an extroadinary woman, who was way ahead of her time and deserves to be remembered.

The book is equally based upon Natalie and Romaine, and gives a good insight into what their 50 year relationship was really like. I loved the sense of Natalie's vivaciousness and joie de vivre. Romaine on the other hand seemed quite bitter and cruel.

Well worth the money!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cracking good read 19 Jun 2012
By KAW
Format:Paperback
This was a memorable and fascinating read. Souhami brings even the bit players to life and has inspired me to read more about them. I enjoy her writing style which is unusual for biography, especially the little asides between chapters, which may or may not be autobiographical.
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5.0 out of 5 stars literary genius 6 Sep 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Wonderful, unparalleled Diana Souhami - a literary genius in its truest sense...
Her books are superb, her painstaking research for almost every biography she writes is, in itself, equivalent to a PhD.
I am besotted my her magnificent books and her unique contribution to lesbian literature and history.
Wild Girls : Natalie Barney & Romaine Brooks is an intoxicated read - thrilling, moving, heady. Read it!
Dr Judy Davison
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
51 of 55 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A life still left in shadow 11 May 2005
By International Acclaim - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Gray is a difficult colour to master. It is enigmatic, aloof. It can be warm, with tints of peach and pink, or cold, with tints of sapphire and indigo. But no one could ever doubt that American artist Romaine Brooks was a master of gray. From her mysterious, icy portraits of members of the belle époque and the jazz age, to her preference for colorless fashions and décor, to the melancholy of her own day to day existence, Brooks was almost the personification of the colour gray itself. It would take great skill to write a biography of such a woman. Therefore I was ecstatic to discover that Diana Souhami had taken on the task of writing a book on the entwined lives of Romaine Brooks and her long-time companion, Paris saloneuse Natalie Clifford Barney. Both American, both wealthy, both artistic, Barney and Brooks still made an odd pair. Barney was the ever-social butterfly, flitting from flower to flower, beautiful and flamboyant. Brooks was her exact opposite, a withdrawn, flighty creature from a background of insanity, who preferred to live in the shadows, alone. This sounds like perfect material for the talents of Souhami, who has already tackled the lives of such challenging individuals as Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein and Greta Garbo. Souhami also wrote the award-winning "Selkirk's Island", untangling the threads of the life of Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Defoe's classic, "Robinson Crusoe". Yes, Brooks and Barney seemed in good hands.

I cannot express, then, the disappointment that this anticipated book brought. Distressingly short not only for a biography of two distinct souls, but also an examination of the times in which they lived, the book is riddled with factual errors and blunders. Souhami begins her race by stumbling. In her Foreword she states plainly, one would say almost flippantly, of her use of the Internet as a main source of research-and it shows. The author appears to think that everything you find on the Web is factual, not realizing that the information to be found there is only as accurate as the knowledge of those posting it. This is a fatal error. Souhami seems almost dismissive of her own research, telling us about how much she enjoyed reading the pop-up advertisements she encountered while on the Net for such things as sexy chat, and even giving us a footnote detailing a pill that can help men lengthen the size of their endowment. Souhami further mars the book with the constant insertion of bits and pieces of her own past that, although well written, are disturbingly incongruous and intrusive and give the impression that she would much rather be talking about herself.

Next, Souhami falters in her facts, tripping too many times to enumerate, but here are a few major potholes: Lady Mary "Minnie" Anglesey is said on page 40 to be "about to divorce her transvestite husband." Souhami then footnotes that Mary was married to Henry Cyril Paget, the 4th Marquess of Anglesey. This is a gross mistake. Mary Anglesey was indeed married to the 4th Marquess of Anglesey, but she was married to Henry Paget, not Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, who was not only infamous for his flashy dressing-up and obsession for jewelry, but was also Mary's own son (and, for the record, Henry Cyril Paget's wife's name was Lilian). Next we are told that the Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio's nickname for Brooks was "Cinerana". This is incorrect; his nickname for her was "Cinerina", meaning, "little gray one". Also, the Baroness Madeleine Deslandes was known as "Elsie", not "Ilsie". On page 141 we are told that Brooks described in a letter the "house" on Capri of the eccentric Marchesa Casati as "simply beautiful", but the author fails to point out that Casati's "house" was, in fact, the famous Villa San Michele, rented from Dr. Axel Munthe.

Beguiling anecdotes also slip through the fingers of an author so proud of her diligent international research. No mention is made of the mystery revolving around Brooks' painting "The White Bird" and how some historians believe it is a portrait of Barney's lover, the renowned grand horizontal, Liane de Pougy. Nor are we told that the face of the cat in Brooks' portrait of Baroness Catherine D'Erlanger was deliberately painted to resemble that of her husband's. Nor do we hear of the intriguing story that, after becoming a virtual hermit in Nice, living in a room devoid of everything but a bed and table, and having given away all of her paintings, drawings and writings, beneath Romaine Brooks' death bed was found the only canvas she kept, her portrait of Luisa Casati. Also, there is no mention of the small book, written by Elizabeth de Gramont, another of Barney's paramours, on Brooks' work that was published in 1952. Nor that the normally pathologically reclusive Brooks granted a long interview with French writer Michel Desbrueres that appeared in the Parisian periodical "Bizarre" in 1968, just two years before her death. Souhami also claims that Brooks painted a portrait of artist Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux, but, oddly, there is no reference to this painting in any prior biography of Brooks or in any catalogue of her oeuvre. Has Souhami discovered a hitherto unknown painting? We are given no clue. Perhaps another fifteen minutes of research on the Internet would have cleared up all of this-or better yet some good old-fashioned investigatory legwork and elbow grease that Souhami's research sorely lacks.

Next is the matter of Souhami's innumerable and annoying footnotes. She footnotes everyone and sundry with what she must have felt were charming and witty caricatures-Noel Coward is summed up as being "friendly with the lesbian haut monde", composer Prince Edmond de Polignac's only reference says "he died after eight years of marriage" and Luisa Casati is dubbed "the patron saint of exhibitionists". Such sketches are neither charming nor witty, and consistently get in the way of reading the text. As a reader, I also do not need to know such minutiae as how many seats there are in the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, that Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" was first performed in 1762, or the lyrics to "Auld Lang Syne". It is most interesting to note that even though the author strives to introduce us to every person in the book that some celebrated individuals such as Madame Eugenia Errazuris, a bright grand dame of the beau monde, are left floundering and unannotated, while poet Anna de Noailles, writer Paul Morand, and interior designer, Elsie de Wolfe, each a distinguished sitter for Brooks, are not mentioned at all (nor is the fact that Brooks' portrait of de Wolfe was often sarcastically called "The White Goat", because of the small ceramic goat that sits beside the designer and mimics her simpering expression perfectly). And worst of all, these intrusive footnotes shine a glaring light on the fact that Souhami never footnotes any of her relevant and/or fascinating facts. How do we know that Liane de Pougy's asparagus soup congealed and her risotto went cold while she, at lunch, waited for writer Max Jacob to arrive, or that after being pelted by preserved cherries by boys at the Long Beach Hotel in New York, a young Natalie Barney ran into the arms of Oscar Wilde for comfort. Where does this information come from? Such charming tidbits require references for future researchers.

And here is where Souhami's book fails the most-as a research tool and reference book for the future. Subsequent authors and students cannot use a book rife with easily correctable errors without perpetuating those same mistakes ad infinitum. As a highly respected writer, shame on you, Ms. Souhami. You should have known better.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, But... 8 May 2006
By Charlus - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A fascinating story of two extraordinary lives soaked in the demi-monde at the fin-de-siecle with the world of the rich and artistic as its background. Unfortunately, this telling comes with some irritating costs. The book is studded with bizarrely extraneous footnotes: does any reader of this story really need to be told who Dante, Proust, Cocteau, Sappho, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt (among many others) were? Also, the author interpolates little autobiographical asides that have nothing to do with the dual biography at hand and merely comes across as an egotistical affectation.

When Souhami actually gets to the story at hand (which in fairness is most of the time), historical errors aside, she tells a wonderful tale of the sapphic world in turn-of-the-century Europe.

Very well written when not marred by the author's idiosyncrasies.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wild Girls 23 Jan 2013
By maryon attwood - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I don't feel like this book offered anything more to the knowledge base than what was already written in Wild Hearts.
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wild Girls - A Book Review 1 Aug 2009
By One More Option - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"To love is to see through two pairs of eyes." ~ Natalie Barney.

If a good book is a book that stimulates more new ideas and responses than any other book you've read in a long time, then "Wild Girls" was an excellent book for me. The book is so good, there are more interesting things about it than can be written in a concise review. However, the attribute I liked least about this book was its title. The book is about lesbian and bisexual women and their lifestyles in late 19th and 20th century Europe and the U.S. I would not generally define these women as being "wild." Rather, they were making lifestyle decisions as mature women with mature responsibilities. Further, they were not girls, and most often, they did not act immature or "girlish."

Other titles, such as: "Sapphic Idylls" or "Sappho, Paris, and the Arts" would have been better for me.

"Sensuality, wanting a religion, invented love." ~ Natalie Barney.

Overview: The book gives biographical commentary and snapshots about the lives and relationships surrounding two American women: Natalie Barney, a wealthy lesbian socialite, and Romaine Brooks, a wealthy painter. The two women had a non-traditional romantic relationship for over 50 years. During that time, they also had relationships with other women.

The real value of the book for me was in the author's select choices and opinionated commentary on the lives of the many women involved.

Many people may not realize: When you paint a portrait, take a picture, or write a biography of someone, you almost always are involved in portraying that person is a limiting fashion.

Some people don't want portraits of themselves created, not simply because they are vain or don't want to see their own likeness, but also because they don't want to be portrayed in a limited fashion. People are usually more multi-faceted than their portraits or biographies convey.

Reading this biography of Natalie Barney, you will learn a great deal about her and you will understand how passionately many women became involved with her. But I never fully understood what made her so emotionally, sexually, and relationally attractive. Yet, clearly she was very attractive to many women.

If you were an alien from another planet, and all you had as a reference for human sexual interactions was this book, you might think everyone was easily promiscuous with everyone. There are so many women eager to sleep with Natalie that it is a shame we don't have more narrative portrayals of who she was and the physical and social presence she was able to regularly create around her.

"Peaple call it unnatural. All I can say is, it's always come naturally to me." ~ Natalie Barney.

Natalie's writings, of which we see short quotations at the beginnings of the chapters, are insightful and clearly expressed. I think I would need to read more of her writings to better understand her appeal. I have no idea what her personality was like, but her quotations are concise, bright, and funny. Was she brash? Was she a lesbian version of Mae West? Probably not, but both women were extremely smart and sexually candid.

Many women wanted to have ongoing "lasting" relationships with Natalie. Other women wanted to enjoy the sexual and courtship aspects of Natalie, but may have also been drawn to her because she did not present the obligations of maintaining an exclusive, monogamous relationship. For women who were sexually attracted to women, Natalie, who was independently wealthy, possibly presented an attractive, potentially lower maintenance, and discreet option.

You know a book is good when the footnotes are as interesting to read as most book's main text, and that is the case with this book - the footnotes are fascinating snapshots of people and lives that would also be interesting to explore: from Jean Cocteau to Tallulah Bankhead to Gertrude Stein to Gluck to Una Elena Troubridge, on and on. This book is so full of interesting ideas and historical facts that it would be a disservice to read it fast. I wouldn't want to miss anything in or between the lines.

The artist Romaine Brooks wrote a memoir "No Pleasant Memories" that has never been published, and I think it would be fascinating to read, attempting to discern her mindset and perspectives.

One concept that is implied in the book, but not plainly stated is that women who chose to have their portrait painted by Romaine Brooks were taking a great risk. To be painted by Brooks was to increase your risk of being identified as a lesbian in an era when being homosexual was criminal or socially ostracizing. Once your portrait was painted, you would not necessarily be able to control who would own and who would see the painting.

Some of the women who wanted Brooks to paint their portraits may have wanted to make a long term "permanent" statement to future generations, proudly identifying themselves as a member of a rebellious, lesbian social culture.

This book would be a good read for many heterosexual men to learn more personal narratives about how some lesbian women are extremely averse to the thought of having sexual relations with men. Many men understand a strong aversion to sex with other men. But I suspect fewer men are empathetic to how strongly averse some women are to having sex with men. One of the characteristics that may attract some women toward other women, in any era, is the knowledge that pregnancy will never be a risk. The "consequence" of "going all the way" sexually with another woman never creates the same burdens, lifelong obligations, and associations of carrying a pregnancy and raising a child for the rest of your life.

And because some lesbian relationships are often less-visible and less-public than heterosexual relationships, some women may enjoy lesbian relationships because they don't have to deal as much with the social issues involved in being with or having broken up with an intimate social partner. Often there is less explaining to do and less accountability for actions done in secret and out of public view. But in "Wild Girls" we see that there often may be significant lifelong consequences and ongoing repercussions that accompany discreet lesbian liaisons.

Of Barney and Brooks' relationship, the author Diana Souhami speculates:

"Romaine's conundrum was irresolvable. She did not want a sustained one-to-one relationship with Natalie, with all the business of home, commitment and coupledom: she found proximity to her impossible after a short time, but she was nevertheless jealous of Natalie's pursuit of other women." p. 146

I recommend this book highly for anyone wanting to learn more about sexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and relationships in general. The writing is uncommonly candid and insightful. The topics and information are very well selected and presented.

Other reviewers have pointed out factual errors in the book. When I read biography or autobiography, I'm not looking for "The Truth," and I don't devalue a story because of insignificant factual errors. Having said that, the author in this book too often assumed she knew the mindsets and intents of the women discussed. Also, the author did not often enough show the personal correspondence and research used to support her statements. But even with those caveats, it is extremely difficult for any author to communicate the intent and rationales of another person. So, in biography, I appreciate it when authors take the time to give us their best educated guesses.

"We do not touch life except with our hearts." ~ Natalie Barney.

The UK Guardian review of this book by Jad Adams takes a pot shot at Barney and Brooks, saying these rich women didn't change the world and make homosexuality acceptable in the early 20th century. I think Adams' assertion is mean, incorrect, and inconsiderate of these women's context. How do you persecute a member of a persecuted class for not doing what would have likely been impossible and deadly during their lifetime? Further, the book communicates clearly that Brooks and Barney made regular and notorious social and artistic statements supporting the acceptability, pleasantries, and merits of homosexual love.

Brooks and Barney were remarkably bold and brave. Barney published homoerotic books and held regular lesbian social activities. Brooks publicly displayed homosexually-sympathetic paintings. They both worked consistently to promote and create lesbian artistic expressions, social communities, and relationships in a time when homosexuality was criminal, socially ostracized, and a constant threat to their family's wealth and reputation.

"In love there is no status quo." ~ Natalie Barney

"Our shadows are taller than ourselves." ~ Natalie Barney.
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating 19 Dec 2013
By julia hawkins - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An absolutely fascinating book about the lives and loves of two stimulating and brilliant women! A must read for those who are interested in women historically
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