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@@
Daily Beast catching up with me
I have already reviewed this here for all Romaine Brooks followers. The British lesbian author Diana Souhami has spent a life time restoring women writers who have loved women to the modernist literary canon. She deserves kudos despite excluding opinions, authors and fresh, if unflattering to some of her subjects.
I, on the other hand do nothing cringe on giving the facts even when revealing our idols feet of clay. We are, all of us, all too human if not always humane, empathetic and kind. Romaine and her circle could be all of the above but they could also be cruel, gossipy, insensitive to the pain of others, jealous and simple-minded when it came to politics.
The Next Time You Admire a Picasso, Thank a Lesbian
Reviewer Arvind Dilawar makes some excellent points in her article for the Daily Beast below.
Reading her review and comparing it to mine for The Gay&Lesbian Review (formally Harvard G&LR) will allow readers to have a comprehensive overview view when they read the American edition of No Modernism Without Lesbians
Diana Souhami’s new book, “No Modernism Without Lesbians,” spotlights the women who ensured history would remember artists like Picasso, Joyce, and Eliot.
Perfection may be the enemy of good enough—but apparently nobody told that to James Joyce. In Paris in 1920, with the printing of his modernist masterpiece Ulysses already underway, Joyce continued making changes to his 600-page novel, over which he had already labored for seven years. He reworked the manuscript daily, then continued reworking the printer’s proofs—meant to set the novel for printing—as if they were mere drafts, adding about a third of the book after it was already ostensibly complete. The handwritten changes not only necessitated the assistance of a typist to make sense of Joyce’s scrawling, but required rearranging the printing press one letter at a time. Two years of seemingly endless changes drove half a dozen typists to quit and added additional printing costs that ate into nearly 5 percent of what the entire first run was expected to net.
Joyce’s publisher, Sylvia Beach, bore these last-minute alterations as no other publisher likely would have. “The patience she gave to him was female, was even quasi maternal in relation to his book,” said Janet Flanner, The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, of Beach and Joyce. The publication of Ulysses is just one of the many cases that author Diana Souhami marshals in her book No Modernism Without Lesbians, to effectively argue that, without women like Beach, there would be no modernist men like Joyce.
No Modernism Without Lesbians is a collection of four biographies of women who were instrumental to the modernist movement in literature and art: Shakespeare and Co. proprietor and publisher Sylvia Beach, patron of the arts Bryher, author and art collector Gertrude Stein, and socialite Natalie Barney.
Souhami convincingly illustrates how these four women are responsible for the modernist movement, despite it being typically associated with men, such as Joyce and Pablo Picasso. Through Close Up, a magazine about film launched by Bryher, the Western world was exposed to the revolutionary pictures of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, whose Battleship Potemkin is still considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Besides writing her own books like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Tender Buttons, Stein was one of Pablo Picasso’s earliest collectors and a lifelong champion of his work. Barney’s weekly salons brought together up-and-coming writers—including T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, William Carlos Williams, and Rainer Maria Rilke—with the French Academy, helping win recognition for the former by the latter. And Beach, of course, had Ulysses as her cross to bear. In that light, No Modernism Without Lesbianscould be considered revisionist in the best sense of the word: that of setting the record straight.
“I wanted to turn the issue around,” says Souhami of women’s contributions to modernism, “gain the upper hand, move from campaign and argument for acceptance and civil rights, and show what women in same-sex relationships achieved—singly and, even more so, collectively—in that crucial twentieth-century transition to new ways of seeing.”
The women that Souhami profiles are likewise united by their love of other women: Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Bryher and Hilda Doolittle, Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Barney and, as the author writes, “all her lovers, too many to list.” Despite these well-documented relationships, Souhami acknowledges the difficulty presented by semantics when describing these women, who lived at a time when society prevented them from openly naming their lovers as such, relegating them to mere “friends.” The author opts for the term lesbian, but other identities along the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender could also be applicable—such as trans in the case of Bryher, who rejected her birth name and gender from a young age.“The freedom that these four women had found for themselves in Paris extended from their personal lives to their artistic endeavors.”
Bryher, Beach, Stein, and Barney were further united by their love of interwar Paris. All were expatriates—Bryher from the United Kingdom, the latter three from the United States—who found their way to France in the 1920s. All were pushed from their homes by prevailing efforts to suppress “indecency” in private life and the arts, as typified by Prohibition and censorship. On the other hand, Paris was cheap, as France was still recovering from the carnage of World War I, and Parisian society placed few expectations on expatriates. A comment from Picasso about Beach could stand in for Paris’ perspective of them all: “They are not men, they are not women, they are Americans.”
The freedom that these four women had found for themselves in Paris extended from their personal lives to their artistic endeavors. In Paris, Beach not only found and fell in love with Moore, she published Ulysses, which had previously been thwarted by censors in London and New York. There, as in Paris, publication of the novel was supported by lesbians who were challenging society’s control of what they could read as well as whom they could love. Yet it was only in Paris, where self-actualization and artistic advancement were unfettered by patriarchal control, that modernism could fully bloom. Souhami’s lesbians were seeing themselves differently—as independent, rather than as the daughters, wives, or mothers of men—so why shouldn’t they see the world differently too—through stream-of-consciousness in literature or cubism in painting? The personal and political, the romantic and artistic did not need to be divorced in Paris. As Souhami writes in No Modernism Without Lesbians:
They gravitated to Paris and each other, turned their backs on patriarchy and created their own society. Rather than staying where they were born and struggling against censorship and outrageous denials and inequalities enforced by male legislators, they took their own power and authority and defied the stigma that conservative society tried to impose on them. Individually, each made a contribution; collectively, they were a revolutionary force in the breakaway movement of modernism, the shock of the new, the innovations in art, writing, film, and lifestyle and the fracture from nineteenth-century orthodoxies.
If Souhami’s revisionism succeeds in reintroducing the role of women in the history of modernism, it leaves other questions yet begging. The first is the less flattering aspects of some of her subjects—for example, Stein’s relationship with, and early support for, fascists in Spain and France, which Janet Malcolm details in her biography Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, but Souhami mentions only in passing. The second is the question of women of color, who make occasional appearances in No Modernism Without Lesbians—such as Josephine Baker, who was redefining dance in Paris in the ’20s—but whose general absence becomes especially noticeable when Souhami begins tracing Barney’s lovers, and Barney’s lover’s lovers, a long list of white women.
“Availability of research material was one limiting factor,” says Souhami in explaining the absence of women of color in her work. “Another was the reluctance of mainstream publishers to commission books about little-known people. I hope, despite this, I’ve made a contribution.”
No Modernism Without Lesbians is undoubtedly a contribution, correcting the history of modernism to more accurately account for the women who made possible such a lasting transformation in literature and art. Yet despite the strides taken by Bryher, Beach, Stein, and Barney, it’s evident that there’s still a way to go. Souhami says that, after decades of her writing about lesbians, this was the first time that a mainstream publisher was open to using the word on a book cover. With No Modernism Without Lesbians, Souhami has opened the door to history a little further, creating more precious space for the whole truth to enter.
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.
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.
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.
Why should any of us care about family history?
Even I sometimes wonder but am consistently reminded why. As a biographer, researcher, art critic and writer, tedious as tracking these things can be, it’s worth the effort. A case in point is Romaine Brooks and her vague connection to the Bonapartes’ family tree. The question as to which branch comes up in her memoir and now — suddenly — in a Barney letter that is for sale on eBay. One path leads to another entirely.
Independent of the Bonaparte question, tracking down the connection becomes more interesting when you consider that it will establish a date for when Natalie was in Nice visiting Romaine. It requires re-reading of other biographers to see if they are aware of the resulting dates. After that, there’s the cross-referencing of information as the pieces of various puzzles begin to fall into place. And then it’s back to re-checking my chronology of Brooks’ life to see if everything fits.
This is why the small details count in the larger picture of reconstructing a subject’s life and understanding how they lived it as much as anyone removed from a life can.
If you want to read a fictionalized adventure in biography, try Possession. For added enjoyment, see the film.
Out of the Blue
Stranger things have happened. I am not a regular troller on eBay but I do try to keep up with anything Romaine Brooks in the slim hope that something valuable for my research might show up. A couple of days after my talk at the Smithsonian, I saw an eBay auction for a portfolio of Romaine’s drawings — 70 of them!
As those of you who keep up with me and Romaine know, Suzanne Stroh and Jean-Loup Combemale recently completed a translation/transcription from the French of a 90-minute-long audio interview with Romaine. They determined that it was conducted as part of a planned series of interviews of which this is just one–and truncated at that. (We do not know where the rest of this recording is or where the others may have ended up. Add that to the “future research” list.) What we have determined is that the interview was completed in the summer of 1967 in Paris, perhaps at Natalie Barney’s home. Significantly, Romaine says that she “reworked” a series of drawings from her portfolios for the Smithsonian in conjunction with her upcoming exhibition there.
Could this portfolio be one of these? I contacted the bookseller, who is French. I’m working to track down the buyer and find out what his/her interest is, whether there is more Brooks information, and whether he/she is a collector of Brooks items. I am also trying to date and track the Barney letters from that eBay auction to determine exactly when Natalie was in Nice visiting Romaine. The backstory on the items is intriguing, and as I discover more I will keep you updated.
A writer’s life
A writer’s life is simple. We go through our daily lives in the flow, letting life flow through us. I write every day. I get up early in the morning. Feed the newly adopted rescue. Put up the coffee, get some cereal, and sit down on the couch and just let the words and ideas and connections flow. I rarely, almost never, have writer’s block and am as happy as a clam just being able to have the time to get my thoughts and impressions down on paper. Writers — contrary to what many may think — do not necessarily lead glamorous lives (although some may). Generally we simply sit down (now with our computers and tablets) and go to work. It little matters whether we get paid. Although we do want to get paid for our work, that we write is the main thing — to get our ideas out there and let our audiences come as they may if they have an interest and like what we say and how we say it. So, for now, that’s my writer’s life. How about yours?