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.

Romaine and Her Circle

Romaine Brooks - Book
For one and all

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.0826221556.1.zoom-1

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. shoppingIn 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?

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Here is the book you must read

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.

Please check out my events page for future speaking engagements.

In Search of the Elusive

The quest that never ends. flying to London to meet up with art historian colleagues and documentary film producers in search of more clues regarding the elusive Mrs. Brooks. The hope is to produce a documentary that may peak interest and lead to the missing paintings of Romaine Brooks.

What we have discovered so far is a story oft repeated in the annals of the history of art. In Romaine’s case a shame-based family history that led to many of her letters, books, drawings and paintings ending up at a flea market where they disappeared into the chaos that often follows a once renown artist’s possessions after long neglect. Such is the case with Brooks.

Thus far I have restored two paintings and a couple of drawings to her legacy and I am on the trail of others. Among the ones I seek are the other half of the famous Couteau portrait. Romaine took a dislike to Couteau and cut this painting in half. The missing half featured two young women on the balcony. One was thought to be Natalie Barney’s sister, Laura. In the course of my research, I located a letter referring to this painting being involved in a lawsuit of some sort wherein the plaintive contacted Romaine in hopes of winning his claim to the missing picture.

So where does this leave the earnest researcher/historian? Up in the air more or less unless they have the funds to travel and put in the required time to track down the missing clues and contact the surviving members of an individual’s family to see if a trail exists. It is a “cold-case” situation. So for those of you who follow the adventures, I lead stay tuned for future updates relating to Romaine and her circle.

 

17-plus books for 2017

Romaine Brooks was a cosmopolitan whose circle in Paris and elsewhere included several of the personalities and topics covered in the books that James has listed in his bog. Anyone interested in Romaine and her circle will find much for thought in these selections.

Strange Flowers

In keeping with a theme, this – a look ahead at books of a Strange Flowers flavour coming out this year – was going to be “17 books for 2017”. But so many interesting titles have gathered on the horizon that I had to abandon the conceit altogether. Here, then, is a metric shitload of books for 2017.

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It is a year in which the news already resembles dystopian fiction, so might books like Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin tell us how it all ends? Originally published in Italian in 1977, this grim parallel parable draws on the occult allure of Turin, and features mysterious outbreaks of savagery and intimate thoughts being communicated “across the ether” (cf. right now). Thanks to translator Ramon Glazov it is now finally available in English. Joining it in a violent speculative realm is China Miéville’s The Last Days of New…

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Did she stop painting?

According to Romaine Brooks she never laid aside her brushes. In her audio interview from 1968 she was dismayed that McAvoy had painted her in a background that show her with dried up brushes and a pallet. She said emphatically that he had not shown her glass table that she used as a pallet which implied that she was not painting any more. By implication this suggest that she was still actively making act at the time he painted her.

So for those of you reading Wiki I am in the process of updating the errors in it. It is a work in progress. It was her intention to paint him but he never was available long enough to sit for her. So she painted Duke Umberto Strozzi at the age of 87 in 1961.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Sapphic Modernism and Meaning

Romaine's Way
Romaine’s Way

A new book, The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 by Susan Lanser simply underscores the importance of Romaine Brooks’s and Natalie Barney’s vision of modernity and exposes as theorist Martha Vicinus has remarked “the centrally of Women’s subordination in the construction of social and cultural systems.”

I hope that my book, Romaine Brooks: A Life (University of Wisconsin Press) which is now at the compositors will help to clarify how Romaine and Natalie envisioned true female independence They both faced overwhelming odds against any woman, much less a lesbian feminist being truly her own woman. They both struggled to find themselves and enable other women to be thoroughly modern in their sense of it. I sometimes wonder what people will take away with them from my book. I look forward to finding out.