We live in edgy times not unlike those that Romaine Brooks lived in. As with most authors I am trying to acquaint a new generation of audiences with Romaine Brooks’s life and times. On November 12th I was seated on a panel at the Leslie Lohman Museum in New York City with Art historian, James Saslow and Screenwriter/translator, Suzanne Stroh, seen here beside me, talking about the life and times of Romaine Brooks. The next evening the streets of my beloved Paris were running with blood.
Plus ca Change, in 1933 when the Nazi’s came to power, Romaine Brooks was 57 years old. She, Natalie, and Lily had lived through the horrors of World War I, the war that forever changed their lives and the world. For their generation the very thought of another war was terrifying. As Janet Flanner, wrote “The Armistice,…, settled nothing.”
The Paris that Americans knew was changing, but despite the fact that money and politics were running the show, Fascism was only a term with no real muscle behind it. Most people in the know believed there would be no war. People still enjoyed the cabarets, cocktails at the Ritz, the Folies-Bergere revues, the smart plays, opera, ballet, good restaurants, and high fashion.
Militarism in any form worried Natalie Barney, she was an avowed pacifist. Romaine Brooks, believed “no artist stands for war.” Lily de Gramont was politically more sophisticated and a realist when it came to politics unlike her two intimates. Romaine and Natalie were American and politically conservative and apolitical, Lily, French, a Communist and patriot.
By 1938 people were starting to leave France. What was important to Romaine, Natalie and Lily was the avoidance of war. But it was hard to deny that war was possible and that if it came no one would be exempt.
In the summer of 1939 people still crowded into nightclubs, threw fantastic costume balls and attended the theater. No one believed war might be declared momentarily. On September 3, two days after Hitler invaded Poland, France and Britain declared war on Germany.
In 1940 Romaine makes provisions to store her paintings at the Louvre. She rents and then purchases the Villa Sant’ Agnese in Florence, where she and Natalie are forced to spend the duration of the conflict. Lily remains in France despite attempts by her two partners to persuade her to flee to Switzerland where they hoped to join her.
History repeats itself far too often. Wars happen with brutal speed. On November 13th, 2015, Isis attacked Paris. The French considered it a declaration of war not only on their country but on the civilized world. Even as I was presenting information from my book, Romaine Brooks: A Life. Ironically, Plus ca change–Nous Sommes Unis.
There is no denying, as Romaine, Natalie and Lily found out in 1940, the civilized world was at war with an implacable enemy and their way of life was at stake. Just as we are now becoming aware that our way of life is at stake.