Romaine and the Duchess

Romaine at the Polk Museum, Lakeland, Fl.

After having a wonderful interactive Q and A following my talk which I will blog about next time, I came home to a talk at the Proust Society.

Lily de Gramont biographer, Francesco Rapazzini

It was upsetting because I was trying to discern truth from fiction by asking a simple question concerning my research and the research conducted by Caroline Weber that centered on the models for Proust’s Duchess which I mentioned in my last blog. Unfortunately, I hit an exposed nerve because Weber opined that my citation of Italian/French author Francesco Rapazzini was “wrong, wrong, wrong”. She was put out because of his critique of her which appeared in the New York Times (August 17, 2018) and my own suggestion that her research wasn’t the definitive word on Proust’s models for his fictional duchess.

To my mind it is imperative that we appreciate different points of view. Rapazzini, Bruce Kellner (formerly of the Van Vechten Trust) and Edward Burns, Director of the Van Vechten trust and expert on Alice B. Toklas, myself and Alice B. Herself (1948 letter) opine that Natalie Barney’s lover, Lily de Gramont, Duchess Claremont-Tonnerre, was a primary model. Weber seemed exasperated by my daring to suggest Lily as a model and dismissed me like an untutored school girl. But the fact is that Lily is the lost Duchess because to Weber’s mind because she is a lesbian (by default unfashionable) therefore she could not possibly be among the models–this despite Weber using all four of Lily’s books for knowledge of the la noblesse of Faubourg.

Lily as a young child was moved from chateau to chateau and put in the care of her father, Agenor, 11th duc de Gramont and his wife, nee Princesee Isabelle de Beauvau-Craon. Her mother died giving birth to her. Her father then married the wealthy Marguerite de Rothchild who Lilly adored and the feelings were mutual. She escaped an abusive marriage which Proust refers to in a letter where he said her husband made her life hell. After two miscarriages caused by his brutality they separated. She met Natalie six years later and they became lifelong lovers and wrote one of the first lesbian marriage contracts ever constructed. In 1916 Natalie met and fell in love with Romaine Brooks and they became an eternal trio.

Lily immortalized her cousin, Robert de Montesquiou who Proust loved in her amusing book of memoirs. But according to Rapazzini little Marcel gleaned a major portion of his inspiration for the young Oriane de Guermantes from Lily and her family. Proust was introduced to Montesquiou by the painter, Madeleine Lemaire at a fancy ball 1893. Through both Lily and Robert, Proust became privy to the scandalous details , and secrets of high society. Proust thirsted for and thrived on gossip which he integrated into his fictional creation of a decadent upper classes.

Lily, after the first flush of her youth was never a fashion plate although she could be stylish as required of her as a princess of the blood. She left that to others like Countess de Greffuhle. Even so, Lily was, like her cousin Robert, an arbiter of taste and a wit whose pen could be dipped in acid when necessary to put some inferior in his or her place. She authored the page six of society of her time. Her warmth, sense of humor, knowledge of food, wine, pears and all the pleasures of life was renown. And, Marcel took full advantage of their friendship when he created the young Oriane.

Weber appears to have focused her attention on the older construction of Oriane who Proust may have created first rather than the younger version which probably was fully fleshed out after his having discerned the true nature of his aristocratic acquaintances and gotten them down on paper.

To be clear, Both Rapazzini and Weber seem to be running parallel but different tracks where Lily is concerned. This question came up as an inquiry concerning Romaine’s intimate relationships and her supposedly being a loner without family and close friends. A point I took pains to research and refute in my Romaine Brooks: A Life.

Lily, Natalie and Romaine

So tune in for more on Romaine and her fascinating circle of modern women and men.

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