This well written, well constructed and well researched biography of Natalie Clifford Barney was one of the more satisfying works in this genre that I have read in recent years. Ms. Barney, who is now unfortunately forgotten for the most part, was one of the more colorful, influential and interesting characters this country produced during the late 1800s until the time of her death in 1972. While some of her personal literary works might be called into question, although I must say, she was not half bad, the impact she had upon literary Paris during a crucial four or five decades cannot be ignored.
One of my primary literary interests centers upon the group of men and women known, per Gertrude Stein, as the "Lost Generation." To understand this group of writers, to understand the influences that guided their pens, it is imperative, in my opinion, to know of what occurred before their arrival on the scene. There is no doubt what so ever that that Natalie Barney was a major player in this epic, and therefore a major influence on what, again, in my opinion, was the Golden Age of the American novel.
Secondly, I have a fascination for odd historical characters, those that chose to follow a different drummer so to speak, and have added so much to our culture, even if we are not aware of it. As an example, I have spent years reading and collecting biographies of Sir. Richard Burton, the famed English explorer, linguist and professional rebel and reading his works. These characters attract and fascinate me. Miss Barney fits this category in spades.
Natalie Barney realized and became aware of the fact at a very early age that she was sexually attracted to women and not men. Her first major seduction was that of Eva Palmer, when she was seventeen and shortly after that she went to Paris where the popular and leading courtesan Liane de Pougy quickly became her next major conquest and her long time lover (among many, many others, many quite famous and well known). Throughout her life, Barney had literally hundreds of lovers; some were long time affairs, some short of duration lasting no more than one evening. The fact that she was a lesbian is important on at least two fronts. She seemed to have a hypnotic effect on women (and men to, for that matter), although being filthy rich, extremely good looking, and mentally brilliant, certainly did not hurt. First, she not only "came out" in an era where this type of behavior simply was not acceptable, but in addition, she actually flaunted it. Secondly, it is important because her lesbianism was a central aspect of her being. To understand her, we must understand this aspect of her life.
Miss Barney grew up in a very privileged family, i.e. she and her families were rich, very, very rich. This pretty much allowed her to do things and live a life style that was impossible for someone without almost unlimited wealth. This carried through until the day she died. She simply never had to worry about financial problems and in fact lead a life of extreme indulgence. It would be unjust of refer to her as a dilettante though. She did write, she did participate in the happenings of literary Paris during this period and did establish what can arguably be noted at the most influential literary salons in Paris during an age where these institutions were quite important to the art and literature of that time. This salon existed and was influential until the time of her death. She was also a very outspoken spokesperson for the woman's right movement which was beginning to grow legs at that time and gained much momentum.
Now take note: This work is got, despite what some may say, a gossipy book filled with little stories about lesbian affairs. It is a very scholarly work (thank goodness) and the author treats the subject matter with wonderful sensitivity and good taste. I found there to be little sensationalism to this work, so if you are looking for that type of reading, you had best go elsewhere. The book is also simply packed with references to authors and the works of authors, French for the most part, as that is where Natalie spent almost her entire life, which few remember today. I must admit that French literature and the history of French literature represents almost a black hole in my education. I simply have ignored it for years. Through this book I have been able to add at least 40 books and a like number of authors I want to read and explore before I run of time. I will never get it all done, but hey, as long as I have my list....who knows?
It should also be noted that Natalie Barney was a very flawed individual. Politically she was extremely naïve and she had a cruel cold streak in her for which she was famous and notorious. She was extremely sexually promiscuous and seemed to be absolutely incapable of being monogamous, even into here late seventies. She was a terrible snob, gave her many servants absolute grief, and was extremely class conscious, to the point of absurdity, even by the standards of those days. She could be thoughtless toward those she loved and actually ruined the lives of quite a number of women.
All in all, once I started this work, I simply could not put it down. Natalie Barney is one of those forgotten characters that should not be forgotten. She was unique, did contribute much to our culture and we really should not forget people like this. This is an excellent, well written and informative read and should be added to your own "list."