Two new books; Joan Howard’s, We Met in Paris and Caroline Weber’s, Proust’s Duchess reference individuals who were part of Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and Lily de Gramont’s circle.
The first is a biography of the entwined lives of Grace Frick and Marguerite Yourcenar. Yourcenar, was the first modern women elected to the L’Academe francaise, an institution created in 1635. It is the pre-eminent council for matters pertaining to the French language. It is limited to forty seats and each member is assigned a number. Its members are known as the “l’immortaliete. They serve for life. This honor was granted to Marguerite Yourcenar despite having lived in America and becoming an American citizen since the 1940’s. She was the first woman, elected in 1980 largely due to the advocacy of her friend and mentor, Natalie Barney.
Yourcenar’s highly complex historical novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, lovingly translated by her partner, Grace Frick won her the recognition she needed to be elected. Yourcenar’s number was 3.
Natalie had been aware of Marguerite’s talents and encouraged her early on. It was through Natalie’s friendship with both Grace and Maguerite, (known as Madame to her American friends and acquaintances) that Romaine Brooks became friendly with the couple. In fact, as Howard explained to me, Marguerite, in 1954 specifically requested to have a meeting with only Natalie and Romaine excluding Lily. Natalie had asked to bring the duchess along as she was part of the three-way marriage that Natalie had with these women. But Yourcenar and Grace scotched that plan much to Natalie’s chagrin.
I speculated with Howard that one of the reasons may have been Marguerite’s intense interest in art. She wanted to have a serious conversation with Romaine about her portraits. The writer and painter would have had much to discuss since Yourcenar visualized her plots and characters before writing them down. She was interested in how Romaine, who was known as the thief of souls in the popular press created her portrayals.
She might have said, Romaine tell me how you see your models? And, Romaine would have been reluctant to reveal her secrets. But my book, Romaine Brooks: A Life attempts to reveal some of them. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall to listen in on what these four modernist women had to say. it must have been a fascinating conversation.
Lamentably, Caroline Weber’s, Proust’s Duchess, configures Lily as the invisible woman. In the publicity referencing Marcel Proust’s models for his Duchess of Guermantes in Remembrance of Things past, Lily is barely mentioned. This is perhaps because the biography by Francesco Rapazzini’s has yet to be translated into English. Yet, Weber who is fluent in French seems to overlook it despite her extensive bibliography. Why?
Rapazzini, Elisabeth de Gramont: Avante-gardiste (Fayard in 2004 unfortunately not translated into English) proves over and over again that Elisabeth de Gramont, Duchess de Clermont-Tonnerre who was a close friend of the famous author, a star in her own right, and marvelously portrayed by Romaine Brooks was the source of Proust’s intimate knowledge of the French aristocracy and their carrying-ons.
At the very least, one has to question is Lily left because of her lesbianism. Once she left her husband (and eventually divorced him) she made no bones about the joys of her new life and moved in with Natalie Barney who supported her and her daughters. Leaving out Lily’s central role in forming Proust’s impressions only creates a host of future problems for Proust scholars. It is my sincere hope that Rapazzini’s book will soon be translated into English thus giving English speaking readers an opportunity to enjoy the life and adventures of one the most fascinating woman of this era.
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