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Friday, 18 May 2012 00:00

Natalie Barney, Renée Vivien & Romaine Brooks

Written by 

Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks


Dear Sappho,

Love your blog.  Love you.  I recently watched the Vita-Violet kiss again. And again. Yum. Yes, It was so lovely.... Do you have any favorite notorious lesbians you would like to share with us?




Vita & Violet Portrait Of A Marriage Lesbian Kiss


Dear Lovely Athena,

Natalie Barney and Renee Vivien

Thank you very much for the love. One of my favorite lesbians is Natalie Barney (1876 -1972), born in Dayton Ohio. Natalie was one of the most notorious lesbians since Sappho. She had literally hundreds of lovers in her lifetime and she lived to be 95. In 1900 she published her first collection of poems called Some Portrait-Sonnets of Women. By publishing them, Barney became the first woman poet to openly write about the women who loved women since Sappho. When her father found out, he bought up every copy and paid the printer to destroy the plates. So she moved to Paris, where she published ten more books and for sixty years held a weekly salon that was the epicenter not only of lesbian life but also the city's literary culture. 

“Living is the first of all the arts” said Natalie Barney. In1901, Barney argued in favor of multiple relationships and against jealousy; in Éparpillements she wrote, "One is unfaithful to those one loves in order that their charm does not become mere habit." While she could be jealous herself, she actively encouraged at least some of her lovers to be non-monogamous as well. Natalie considered herself free to love as she felt. She practiced polyandry, meaning many or several loves is the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

In 1899 after seeing the famous courtesan Liane de Pougy at a dance hall in Paris, Barney showed up at her house in a page costume and announced she was a "page of love" sent by Sappho. Barney charmed her. Their brief affair became the subject of de Pougy's tell-all Sapphic Idyll, published in 1901. This book became the talk of Paris, reprinted at least 69 times the first year. They broke up over Barney's desire to "rescue" de Pougy from her life as a courtesan.

Barney met Pauline Tarn, better known as poet Renée Vivien. For Vivien it was love at first sight, while Barney became fascinated with Vivien after hearing her recite one of her poems. Renée Vivien (1877 -1909) was a British poet who wrote in French. Their romantic relationship was also a creative exchange of amusement that inspired both of them. They adapted the imagery of courtly love to describe love between women using examples of heroic women in history and myth. Sappho was an especially important influence and they studied Greek so as to read the surviving fragments of her poetry in the original. Both wrote plays about her life. They traveled together to Lesbos, where they lived happily together for a short time and talked about starting a school of poetry for women as Sappho, according to tradition, had founded on Lesbos some 2,500 years before. Barney dislikes suffering and fidelity, but alas, Vivien thrives on it.

Barney's longest relationship was with the American painter Romaine Brooks, born Beatrice Romaine Goddard, (1874-1970). Brooks was a portrait painter who was noted for her somber palette. Brooks tolerated Barney's casual affairs and had a few of her own over the years, but could become jealous when a new love became serious. While Brooks was devoted to Barney, she did not want to live with her as a full-time couple; she disliked Paris, hated the constant socializing and felt that she was only fully herself when alone. They built a summer home with two separate wings, leaving Natalie free to live and love as she willed. Brooks also spent much of each year in Italy or somewhere in Europe, away from Barney. They remained devoted to one another for over fifty years. Ironically they stopped communicating the last few years of their lives after Natalie became lovers with her nurse who was twenty some years younger. Afterwards, Brooks refused all of Natalie’s love letters, flowers and correspondence for the rest of their lives. Romaine died in 1970. Barney died in 1972. 

Natalie Barney, I salute your lesbianity and your taste in poets!



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