The Story of Natalie Clifford Barney

In honor of Pride Month, we thought we would re-share the story of Daytonian Natalie Clifford Barney.

“I built a fire to welcome her
And my voice sighed
Aloud her name. To be with her
This night, I would have died…”

Natalie Clifford Barney was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1876, to an affluent family. By age twelve, Natalie knew she was a lesbian. Although society in the late 1800’s was very conservative, Natalie knew she would “Live openly, without hiding anything.”

Natalie developed an interest in the French language as a child. Her governess often read Jules Vern stores aloud to her in French, and she had to learn the language quickly to understand the stories.  In adulthood, Natalie was fluent in French, and published most of her work in French.

Her first book, Some Portrait-Sonnets of Women was published in 1900. It was a collection of poems about the love of women, which made Natalie the first woman to openly write about the love between woman since Sappho, an ancient Greek poet from the island of Lesbos.

With this type of openness came scandal. That was fine with her, as she considered scandal the best way to get rid of ‘nuisances,’ as she called unwanted male attention. Natalie openly supported feminism, pacifism, and opposed monogamy, having many overlapping affairs of varying lengths.  Natalie’s love affairs included connections to poet Renée Vivien, dancer Armen Ohanian, and a fifty year relationship with Romaine Brooks, a painter. Her exciting love life served as inspiration for many characters in books, including Valerie Seymour in the most famous lesbian novel of the twentieth century, Well of Loneliness.

But with scandal, came backlash. Although Natalie’s mother was supportive of her daughter, contributing artwork for Natalie’s book, her father was so outraged at the scandal that he bought and destroyed the remaining stock and printing plates of the book. To prevent her future work from the same fate, Natalie published her next work under the pseudonym Tryphé. As her father’s death in 1902, Natalie never used a pseudonym again.

Natalie went on to publish more of her works, despite criticism and opposition. In one incident, Natalie’s landlord attempted to prohibit an outdoor performance of her play Equivoque, which was about the death of Sappho.  In response, Natalie immediately cancelled her lease and moved out. Influenced by her mother’s artisitic salon, Natalie hosted a literary salon, a gathering where people met and discussed literature and other topics. Although Natalie often featured women authors, she also included well-known male writers of the time.

During WWII, Natalie and her long-time lover, Romaine Brooks, found themselves trapped in Italy.  As an openly gay, anti-fascist with Jewish heritage, Natalie was forced to write a few anti-Semitic and pro-Fascist pieces, but was able to prevent them from being published. During this time, Natalie reportedly used her American citizenship to save some of her neighbors and prevent herself from being deported to Concentration Camps. In later years, some of her forced writings were used in failed attempts to defame her.

During her long term relationship with Romaine Brooks, Natalie and Romaine often had affairs with other women, but remained steadfast in their devotion to each other. Toward the end of the 1960s, Romaine became depressed, and refused to see the doctors Natalie sent to examine her. Bitter over another affair Natalie was having, Romaine broke off the relationship. Natalie continued to write to her, but received no response. Romaine died in 1970, and Natalie in 1972. They are both buried in Passy Cemetery, in France.

“I cannot weep for you as others weep
My last and dearest dead
For all my tears on lesser griefs are shed!

There is a historical marker downtown by the Dayton Metro Library Main Branch.wp-1623856416930..jpg

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