Romaine Brooks’s Villa in the hills of Florence is being restored. This is the place that she and her lover Natalie Barney suffered privations and constant threats of being sent off to an internment camp in Parma before deportation to a concentration camp because of being foreigners, and in Natalie’s case having Jewish blood during WWII.
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).
REVIEW. First published August, 2015 (Booklist).
[i]. Natalie Clifford Barney to Romaine Brooks, July 21, 1920, Barney/Brooks Letters.
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.
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.
First you get interested, then you do the research, then you write the book, then you go in search of a publisher — and when you succeed in getting one, the fun starts! This is truly what a writer’s life is. Chained to the computer until everything is in place. It’s true one can get lost in the process, but there is a world outside our individual bubbles.
Every time I pick up a newspaper or magazine or go online, I am bombarded with that reality. I try to remember we are the world; we make up the world we live in, and it is all part of what makes us human and united.