Romaine Freed Me to Write My Own Story
My book is now available in preorder from Book Baby and on Amazon. It launches on the 30th. I probably would never have written my story if not for the encouragement of my friends. First Itene Javors who was teaching graduate classes at Yeshiva in clinical therapy. Following a discussion over the recent suicides of several queer teens during which, I finally reveal my own experiences with conversion torture and attempted suicide at the age of 14. I had put my these in a lock box and pretty much thrown away the key.
When I did agree to speak to her class, imagine my shock at the fact that what I had to share with this group of future therapists was new to them. They were shocked to learn the history of emerging treatments for gay people in the 1950s, that gay people were treated as mental cases, outlaws, and criminally persecuted. Moreover, they had no idea of the horrible things that could happen to gays under the law or in mental hospitals and conversion treatments, Chemical castration, and shock treatments. Water cures, systematic brainwashing, hypnosis, and when all else failed the miracle cure-lobotomy!
My own experiences as a vulnerable girl in a patriarchal society and system included being unequal as a female in a man made system from birth. The oppression starts from day one of being color coded by a pink blanket. It continues with little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. What that means is growing up in a gender-assigned society that you’re expected to conform to no matter if that just isn’t who you are.
My story is about the whole construct of heteronormity and binary categorization of the sexes. Of course as a new born peaches and cream baby girl I knew nothing of the society or culture I now existed in. Not did I know anything of it’s religions, social classes not power structures that would become the borderline of my life growing up.
I never conformed to my mother’s gender expectations. When my mother fell prey to a cult leader representing himself as a child behavior expert, I was incarcerated for two years as a teenager and barely escaped a lobotomy. My hopes are that those who feel helpless might find some skills to survive and thrive in this book. My story of surviving 20th-century conversion therapy is set in 1950s Miami and upstate New York. My aim is to put secular conversion torture in a historical context to understand the development of homophobic policies and systems active now in red states such as Florida with its “Don’t Say Gay” laws.
Erase Her is the first volume of my survive and thrive memoir. As I embark on the second volume I am available for zoom talks, in person appearances, podcasts, and any and all opportunities to talk about what it’s really like to live like in a society that systematically damages and tries to destroy you as a human being and how you survive and thrive despite it all because of your creativity. Free free to contac@@
Behind the Scenes Of An Exhibition
The first Romaine Brooks solo exhibition in over 16 years opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. on the 17th of June. Most viewers remain unaware of what goes into researching, organizing, and putting on an exhibition. So somewhat like Dorothy’s dog Toto in the film the Wizard of Oz let me pull the curtain back to reveal one aspect of what goes into making it all happen: art conservation.
As a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts in NYC in 1968 I first became acquainted with this subtle art through the pioneering pair of art restorers, Sheldon and Caroline Keck. At the time, like many young art historians today, I had no idea what went into restoring a painting. Sheldon Keck died in 1993 but not before he and Caroline set up the first conservation school in the country. They taught students how to remove accumulated grime, discolored varnish and other signs of wear and tear from paintings, restoring them to their original beauty.
The art of a sensitive conservator is a miraculous thing. At the Smithsonian Tiarna Doherty’s sensitive insights into the art of Romaine Brooks have contributed immeasurably to this exhibition and our knowledge of Romaine Brooks as a skilled painter.
Tiarna will give two gallery talks this summer: the first on Tuesday June 21st at 4 p.m. and the second on Monday August 15 at noon. She will highlight the paintings of Romaine Brooks with an in-depth look at how conservators work to preserve an artist’s intended effects. This is a must see for artists and lovers of art worldwide who want to really appreciate this great painter.
My book devotes a considerable number of words regarding how to look at, see and experience a Brooks painting to get the fullest possible pleasure from it. Happy viewing. The show will run through the end of September.
Interview by Strange Flowers
Take a look at the interview I did with James J. Conway at Strange Flowers about my book, Romaine Brooks: A Life.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Romaine Brooks in the News
What an engaging take on Romaine Brooks by Priscilla Frank in today’s Huffington Post entitled “Meet Romaine Brooks, A 20th Century Artist Who Paved The Way for The 21st Century Lesbian.”
My new book will alert scholars to misinformation in the outdated materials Frank relied on.
That being said, I loved Priscilla Frank’s conclusion:
“Today, the slipperiness of sexual preference and gender identity–and identity in general–often pops up in relevant contemporary art. However, during Brooks’ lifetime, the fact that a woman could be an object of female desire, or that she could be completely uninterested in being the object of male desire, was rarely visualized or communicated. Brooks changed that — and, with those same brushstrokes, helped to change the history of art and gender equality.”
Romaine’s sultry femininity is strikingly evident in her 1908 photograph that perhaps explains her allure for both sexes and her unique style that Frank underscores in her post.
My book will finally be published in September, when readers will discover a Romaine Brooks they never knew. Beyond biography, it’s also a critical study of her work.
Meanwhile, it’s satisfying to see this great American artist finally getting the attention she deserves.
The manuscript is awaiting copy editing
Romaine Brooks: A Life is now in the pipeline and just awaiting copy editing. As the author, I must admit that it has been the journey of a lifetime. My take on Romain’s life and times is entirely new, based on fresh research coming out of France, as well as collections relating to her which other biographers may not have analyzed as closely as I have.
Networking across disciplines yielded fantastic connections that allowed for an unprecedented stage of fact-matching and checking. The process yielded a new and more fully nuanced reading of this fascinating woman’s artistic and daily life that was simply unavailable to earlier biographers, through no fault of their own.
Simply put, Romaine Brooks was not the psychologically challenged lesbian artist as which she has been portrayed by previous biographers.
My book paints a new — and, we now know, much more accurate — picture of her that refutes most of what has been written about Brooks and her art.
The new book also corrects many false impressions, most importantly that she was a fascist sympathizer and virulent anti-Semite. Reading her On The Hills Of Florence during the war and about the six years she and Natalie Barney (who was a quarter Jewish) makes her position as a conservative American living abroad much clearer than the simplistic and unexamined readings of her attitudes that have gone before.
All I can say is the evidence is now online from the Smithsonian institution for you to read for yourselves. What my book does is to contextualize this material in accord with Romaine’s life and choices to achieve a better understand her personality and thought processes.
Equally Intriguing is the true nature of her love life with Natalie Barney and her relationship to Lily de Gramont. I hope you will look forward to reading all about the fascinating Mrs. Brooks come 2015-16.
For those of you who will be in Washington November 20th I will be doing a talk for the Smithsonian fellows lunch time series at the Archives of American art. You are welcome to come at noon to the second floor conference room. Just present I’d and take the elevator to learn more about the Romaine we never knew and the missing works by her that we still need to rediscover and bring before the public. So stay tuned for more news.
The Accidental Biographer: Beware!
I never started out as a biographer. It was always about how I took in the picture before me, tasted it, rolled it over, let it sit in my sensorium, and savored all its flavor — appreciating the artistry of the maker; composition, color, execution, emotions. In short, I was able to follow along when an artist grabbed me with just one look and took me to places both familiar and strange.
From childhood, even as a small toddler, I’ve had this uncanny ability to experience words and pictures in the most intense way. It was one of these experiences (as I write in my introduction to Romaine Brooks: A Life (forthcoming from University of Wisconsin press in 2015) that set me on a 44-year course of investigation. I left me with a need to know so intense that throughout my academic and teaching career I felt compelled to follow the elusive trail that Beatrice Romaine Goddard (Brooks) had forged.
An Intriguing Subject…and Audience
It began with the first scholarly/critical article to be written in America on Brooks’s intriguing, chromatically painted portraits. I followed up with a lecture that garnered the attendance of an ACLU representative from Florida International University. This was, after all, the early 1970s, and I was an out lesbian dealing with an out subject and painter of lesbian and gay subjects. Over the years I continued to write critical commentary on any Brooks articles and/or essays that appeared.
Finally, in 2000, after reading yet another essay sidestepping the problems of Brooks’s complicated relationship with D’Annunzio and right-wing conservative politics of the period, my frustrations propelled me to deal with the issue head-on. I then published two more articles to set the framework for an in-depth look at Romaine’s fascist aesthetics in my new book.
Thus, the Accidental Biographer
In order to unearth the truth of Romaine’s life, I had to become an accidental biographer. That determination set me on a course I never intended to take. If you truly want to understand the real nature of the biographer’s art, you’ll have to read my introduction as to how this studio/art history/philosophy student was compelled to become a reluctant biographer by default.