Blog

If Walls Could Talk

Harmony and cacophony were elements that concerned Romaine Brooks all her life.

“Paris”, as Audrey Hepburn, famously said, “is always a good idea”.

What is most remarkable about Romaine Brooks and her friends is that their generous patronage of writers, poets, musicians, artists, designers and performers made a vibrant cultural scene possible because of their inherited wealth.

From an early age Brooks had a heightened awareness of pattern and decoration, and how objects came together in space. Her aesthetics extend into the realm of both her surroundings, as well as her clothing and art as manifestations of her philosophy. Brooks lived through her eyes and ears. She was fully engaged with the crisis of modernity albeit from a conservative and classicist position which, has been widely misunderstood.

At the age of 14 after returning to the sprawling Chateau Grimaldi that her mother had purchased, Brooks found the flocked wallpaper and elaborate furniture of the rooms her mother had allocated to her intolerable.
She complained that the décor gChateau Grimaldiave her migraines and created a relentlessly screaming sensation in her skull.

Her solution was to cover the baroque patterned walls with gray paper, abolish the elaborately carved, gilded and upholstered chairs and other furniture and replaced them with simple oak tables and comfortable chairs. Creating harmonious modern spaces became a life-long obsession with her that she extended even to her first exhibition in 1910, wherein she covered the walls with a neutral colored material that allowed her paintings to show their individual character.

Throughout her long life she orchestrated her interiors and those of the friends who asked her to decorate their flats as meticulously as she styled her clothing and executed her portraits.

Out of the Blue

 

I am so pleased to be selected by both  pop culture sites AfterEllen and Velvetpak media for my book Romaine Brooks: A Life

2015: The Year in Lesbian/Bi Books

By Marcie Bianco on December 29, 2015
ACADEMIC PRESS

Cassandra Langer dives into the salacious life of one of our favorite queer women of modernism, in Romaine Brooks: A Life (University of Wisconsin Press).

Romaine Brooks - Book
For one and all

In June, the University of Wisconsin Press will publish another book about Romaine Brooks. She plays a supporting role in the erotic novel Women Lovers or The Third Woman. This is a translation from the French by Chelsea Ray of a highly charged erotic novel written by Natalie Barney (and never published) that alludes to two entwined triangles involving Natalie, Romaine Brooks and Lily de Gramont as a stable and consistent household and Natalie, Baroness Mimi Franchetti and French courtesan Liane de Pougy that I reference in my biography of Brooks. This was only one of the challenges Romaine faced over her fifty plus year relationship with Natalie.

Barney-WomenLovers-c

I’d also like to make my readers aware of my thesis that Romaine Brooks could be very much a social butterfly when it suited her. I recently was made aware of a party thrown in 1936 by Glenway Westcott and George Platt Lynes for Leonore Fini and Romaine Goddard Brooks on November 21st, 1936. This was a very chic evening party. After, Muriel King and Romaine came to dinner, and the guests included the culturati of New York and Europe; Joella and Julien Levy, Erika and Klaus Mann, Mina Curtiss and Lincoln Kirstein.

This is from Monroe Wheeler’s journal, which he ends by saying it was “our most successful party of the year, thanks to the beautifully dressed ladies.” Another testimony to Romaine’s taste and style as well as her social flare and popularity.  He certainly refutes previous biographers who seem stuck on their distorted representations of her as a gloomy, anti-social reclusive.

I never thought Natalie Barney would have fallen in love with the person described by most of these other writers. Moreover,  in my research I found that, Romaine had a great sense of humor and loved to dance the night away in Capri, Paris, New York and London as a young woman.

She was born in 1874-so you do the math. She remained vital and full of life in her sixties as several of her friends noted and she was hot to trot at the clubs in Harlem during her visit to New York in the 1930s when she painted portraits of Carl Van Vechten and Muriel Draper. Her style was impeccable as this terrible reproduction of a sculpture of her by Orloff proves.IMG_0214.JPG

 

 

MS. Blog Interview

A terrific and timely interview with me in Ms. Magazine by Mary Meriam.

Sexual politics are alive and flourishing in the GOP presidential race and in the current debates regarding Hillary Clinton’s qualifications for the office. So having independent women like Romaine Brooks and her circle, having their say about real women’s lives and creativity is a blessing.

Romaine’s circle of women and lesbians forged their own notions of a room of one’s own, in their case several houses and shared households, as well as space to spread their creative wings wide. Their notions of how to live authentic lives are much more contemporary than they have previously been given credit for.

Not everyone will want to emulate their lifestyle, but we have to give them full credit for demanding one given the limitations placed on women during the interwar period and beyond.

Romaine Brooks - Book
For one and all

A Banner Year For Romaine

Wishing each and every one of you Brooks fans a very happy holiday and a good New Year. Let’s lift a glass to our girl.

2015 has been a banner year for all things Romaine. After 40 plus years of on and off energy devoted to rediscovering the real Romaine Brooks my new book completely revises how the artist and woman is seen. I count myself very happy to finally see this critical biography in print. Be sure to catch our recent panel of November 12 on the Leslie Lohman Museum in New York City web site.

Romaine Brooks - Book
University of Wisconsin Press

As an added bonus a spectacular show of Romaine Brooks’s work opened on my birthday, December 18,  at the Fortuny Museum in Venice, Italy. It is a groundbreaking showcasing her many faceted talents as a world class  artist, designer and stylist. All points my new book  Romaine Brooks: A Life highlights.  I am happy to report that the show has been so successful that its run has been extended past its original closing date. More good news is that the catalog is being translated from the Italian into English.

Put June 10, 2016 on your calendar, when The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. opens an exhibition of Romaine’s works from their collection. My biography will be available for purchase in their book store. So Brooks fans, let’s celebrate and keep these dates in mind for the coming year.


Time of Choices

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.

IMG_1332

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.

Nous Sommes Unis’, ‘We are One’

Romaine, Brooks, Natalie Barney and most especially Lily de Gramont would all be standing tall with France and saying give life a chance while defending Paris with all their hearts and might.

For those of us that stand for life, love and liberty today is a day of mourning for all the innocents who have been heartlessly killed by pure evil. The streets of Paris are running with blood.

There is absolutely no excuse for these murders. Anyone celebrating them is part of the problem, not the solution. For love of life, Nous Sommes Unis!NatalieImageProxyNLV8N5FE

For one and all
For one and all

Lily de Gramont

A Peek into Romaine Brooks’ Closet

Romaine Brooks – witty, cautious and brilliant.  Once you see a painting by this talented artist you will never forget it. Taking a peek into Romaine’s closet is at the heart of my book, Romaine Brooks. Contrary to inaccurate accounts written by other biographers, Romaine Brooks had a vibrant sexual and family life with two other women; Natalie Barney and Lily de Gramont. A closely guarded secret she took great pains to keep until she passed away in 1970.

This previously unsolved mystery had thrown a 40 year, dark cloak over Romaine Brooks’ life until my research slowly began to reveal the truth. Unfortunately, her closely guarded secret has made the work of refuting inaccurate accounts of her life to be one of my most difficult challenges as her 21st century biographer.

In the past, people have questioned, “Wasn’t she anti-Semitic or a fascist sympathizer?”  Providing fresh information about the loves, life and art of such a secretive and talented artist has proved especially challenging for an introvert such as myself, particularly in a public venue.  Luckily for me, Romaine Brooks had provided some pointers through her life experiences. She had an air of self-confidence and elegance as was demonstrated when she took Paris by storm in 1905. She was a master of the performative self and beautifully dressed. She was wildly in fashion among the upper classes that adored her and her elegant apartment on the right bank quickly became the talk of the town.

I can only hope to equal her performative skills.  Even so, Brooks fans that are in the New York City area can treat themselves to a fascinating free panel discussion at the Leslie Lohman Museum, 26 Wooster Street, from 6 PM to 8 PM. The panel features myself, screenwriter and translator Suzanne Stroh, and art historian James Saslow. Following the panel discussion will be a book signing and reception. For those unable to attend the discussion panel and Q & A, the event will be video recorded and available later this month on my website. It will also be found on the Leslie Lohman Museum’s website.

Romaine Brooks: A Life may be ordered from the University of Wisconsin press,  Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your local book store by request.

“I Am Alone and You Are With Her”

Romaine Brooks had a lifelong love affair with the storied isle of Capri. It began in the summer of 1898 when as a poor student she rented a cheap Gothic chapel to paint in, complete with a courtyard full of fig trees. She loved the island’s easygoing ways and swam daily in the sea off the rocks at the Bagno Timberino.

Sometime near the end of World War I, about a year after she and Natalie Barney became lovers, Romaine purchased the Villa Cercola in Capri. Foremost on her mind was escaping wartime and the sweltering heat of Paris summers, but she also needed to come to terms with the emotional storms she and Natalie were experiencing in settling their three-way marriage. She routinely visited the Roman ruins that brought so many tourists to the island. Naturally daring and athletic, she wasn’t daunted by the dangers that kept so many of them from swimming in the blue grotto.

Grotta d' Azur.

That made her even more conspicuous, for an arresting beauty who regularly attracted the attention of other women. Faith MacKenzie  (whom rumor has it Romaine bedded) wrote that “for the first time in my life I had met a woman so complete in herself and independent in her judgments that she could accept and reject people and things at will without guilt or hesitations.”

Lily de Gramont visited Romaine in the early 1920s and reported back to Natalie Barney that she enjoyed the view of Romaine sunning herself on the rocks, watched over by her current lover. Lily didn’t name names.

the rocks of Capri

But it was already a familiar picture for Natalie Barney. In 1920 Natalie, despite her various ongoing flings, took pen in hand to express both her jealousy and insecurity, writing Romaine:

“I am alone and you are with her. I know you have not bathed without everyone on the island desiring you—that they would follow the glimmer of your perfect form to the ends of the earth – yet can any of them but me so grasp the inner goddess, the real sense of your greatness?”[i]

To learn more about the fascinating life of Romaine Brooks order Romaine Brooks: A Life.

 :Langer, Cassandra (author).

Sept. 2015. 290p. illus. Univ. of Wisconsin, hardcover, $26.95 (9780299298609); Univ. of Wisconsin, e-book, $15.95 (9780299298630). 759.13.

REVIEW. First published August, 2015 (Booklist).

[i]. Natalie Clifford Barney to Romaine Brooks, July 21, 1920, Barney/Brooks Letters.

Plus ça change

Gay Marriage is nothing new. Almost 100 years ago in 1916 when Romaine Brooks became so famously involved with Natalie Barney she accepted the fact that the love of her life had been lovers with her good friend–Elisabeth de Gramont, duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre, since 1909.

Brooks and Barney had only been passionately involved for 18 months when Gramont reached the breaking point. Natalie made no distinction between the two great loves of her life.  A lesbian crisis worthy of a Wagnerian opera occurred.  Lily wrote Natalie a scathing letter, ending their relationship, and left Paris for Evian during a lull in the fighting.

Frantic, Natalie drafted a marriage proposal and pursued Lily hundreds of miles to get it signed. It is probably not the first gay marriage contract in history but it is certainly among the most startling and original between two lesbians.

Romaine and Natalie stayed together, although we don’t know how or when they solemnized their private vows.  Romaine’s 1920 portrait of Natalie is one of the greatest wedding presents ever given by one lesbian to another.  All three women accepted the fact that their marriages would not be monogamous. They would have to live independent lives.  Nonetheless, their love for each other was so great, and Natalie’s sexual allure so magnetic, that all three remained loving partners for the rest of their lives until Lily’s death in 1954.

NatalieImageProxyNLV8N5FE
Romaine Brooks painted this portrait of Natalie Barney in 1920, in the year after Natalie and Elisabeth de Gramont returned from their wedding trip to America. Romaine’s portrait of Lily de Gramont, painted around 1923, hung in Natalie’s house for the rest of their lives. Brooks and Barney were also together for life from the moment they met in 1916.

As we celebrate this 4th of July, Independence Day 2015, many people, gay and straight will be taking a page from this extraordinary playbook for pursuing life, liberty and happiness, understanding that a stable household is best achieved in a family made up of those you love and who love you.