How to Embarrass Your Parents, by Natalie Barney

Natalie Barney was one of those “poor little rich girls” who decide to do stupid things. She had all her money from a streetcar company in Dayton, Ohio, which apparently did not suit her self-image.

In her case, she decided to become a lesbian, which obviously was not the thing to do in 1900. But she and a bunch of other American heiresses were running around doing just that. (And to be fair, a lot of the trouble may have been the expensive French boarding school where a lot of these American heiresses were sent. It seems to have turned out a lot more lesbians than is statistically believable, and they all seem to have “discovered” their sexual orientation at exactly the time they went there; so one suspects that there was a culture of female pedophilic abuse present.)

Also to be fair, her parents were apparently not all that. Her dad had a nasty temper and thought himself too good to follow the family business; he didn nothing but live it up and chase women. Her mom was a good artist but a flighty kid, who ditched true love with Sir Henry Morton Stanley (of Stanley and Livingstone fame) while Stanley was away on an expedition to Africa. (Without telling him, or even sending a letter, or even bothering to read his letters for that matter. The poor guy found out when he got back, all ready to marry her as agreed. He read a news story about how his fiancee had just had her first kid with her husband. Yeah.)

But also to be fair, a 24 year old American woman in 1900 was more than old enough to know better, or at least to pick a broader life goal than just “be a lesbian in Paris and nothing else.” There were a lot of other things she could have done. (Her mother was flighty but also public-spirited; she achieved a lot, and did a lot of good for theater and the arts. She raised money for charity, and let her homes be used as an office by many good causes. Natalie, not so much.)

But she didn’t run off to do it. Oh, no. She was taken to Paris by her mother, Alice (a whisky heiress who had married Albert Barney, a streetcar heir), to study French culture, while her sister Laura got surgery on her leg. But since Natalie spoke and wrote French and Alice didn’t much, and since Alice was busy improving herself with intense painting classes while Natalie made a lot of female friends, apparently she didn’t notice.

Then Natalie wrote and published (through an expensive vanity printer) a book of sonnets in French. Apparently she told her mother that they were just “sonnet portraits of women,” like the title of her book said. Mom’s French (or her suspicions) didn’t reach to understanding that it was all lesbian poetry.

She conned her mom into doing illustrations for the book.

(Perfectly blameless art-deco illustrations, of course, because of course her mom didn’t know! And actually, her mom did some gorgeous work for her not-so-loving daughter. The rumor is that Natalie was having affairs with all the women she asked her mom to paint for the illustrations, including a Folies Bergere dancer named Liane de Pougy. As far as Mom knew, they were just French friends who’d agreed to be models.)

Then Natalie Barney made sure that her book got into the hands of sophisticated American reviewers.

Well, if she was looking for attention, she got it. The papers all talked about it. Her dad stormed over from Dayton by train and ship, bought up all the remaining copies of her book, and had the French publisher destroy everything connected to it, including the art plates of Mom’s art.

Mr. Barney died in 1902. Natalie Barney went off with the money she inherited and lived a dissolute life in Paris.

Natalie’s sister Laura, who was also dragged into all this scandal, went religious; but as far away from everything American as she could get. She became a Baha’i. You can hardly blame her. What’s startling is that she actually stayed friendly with her sister, and that Mom forgave Natalie.

Natalie Barney’s book on how to embarrass your parents is called Quelques Portraits-Sonnets des Femmes. She wrote it under the name “Natalie Clifford,” since Clifford was her middle name. This is apparently an annotated photo reprint of a surviving copy of the original edition.

If you look around on the Internet, you can learn more about Barney’s special snowflake lifestyle and all her special snowflake friends in Paris. It’s not very edifying, unless you want to know how a lot of Midwestern millionaires got disappointed by their kids.

Before and during WWII, Barney stayed in Paris despite persistent rumors that her family was Jewish. (If she had Jewish ancestors, they were a ways back. Her granddad was a staunch Baptist, and her mom’s family were Episcopalians.) But she wavered back and forth between describing fascism as tyranny, and following the progressive line of her friends by praising Hitler. On the other hand, she did help a Jewish couple get out of Italy and get passage to the US. So maybe she did have a tiny bit of energy to help others.

She died alone in 1972.

Natalie only set foot in Dayton a very few times in her life; she was really a native of Washington, DC; NYC; and Bar Harbor, Maine. But all this gossip history is memorialized on an extremely gaytimonious historical marker, in the park right next to the main Dayton Library downtown. I now realize that this was because of the book. But the once-lovely Cooper Park is now mostly the property of extremely drunk or mentally ill homeless men, so it’s not a great choice for glory and remembrance.

Meanwhile, the Folies Bergere dancer married a prince. After the death in WWI of her son from her first marriage, she became a tertiary order Dominican living in community, working to help children who had birth defects. She may have lived a pretty shocking life at times, but in the end she knew that life wasn’t all about her.

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