Romaine and her circle are alive and doing their thing in this lively and entertaining yet serious farce by Francesco Rapazzini.
Award winning screen writer and creative Suzanne Stroh gives a dazzling interpretation of more than sixteen voices;male and female who make Natalie’s birthday party so entertaining, full of delicious gossip, and fraught with tension.
Lovers of Romaine will find her voiced by Suzanne based on the only known recording of her voice. This is an incredibly easy and enjoyable way to get more familiar with the Paris of the 1920s through this remarkable group of free thinking and living people. Naturally, I loved it!
No Modernism without Lesbians by Diana Souhami Head of Zeus. 432 pages, £25.
FOR THIRTY YEARS, Diana Sou-hami has written books about lesbian writers, painters, and actors who were trailblazers both in their lives and work—mostly subjects with big names: Greta Garbo, Gertrude Stein, Vita Sackville-West; Radclyffe Hall, and Virginia Woolf. If it was a star who spoke English and refused to wear a skirt, she was all over it. Souhami’s books have been beautifully published on both sides of the Atlantic, widely translated, and routinely well reviewed in prestigious literary venues such as The London Review of Books and The New York Times.
No Modernism without Lesbians is a new variation on the theme. In spotlighting four of our lesbian foremothers and their circles, Souhami challenges the modernist canon that has dominated cultural education at their expense, foregrounding instead great men and their muses. This book rebalances the historical record with a thoroughly absorbing look at the lives and times of Sylvia Beach, Bryher, Natalie Barney, and Gertrude Stein: their worlds, passions, and lovers.
These were women who were avid for new experiences, hungry for connection, and determined to break conventions. Nothing came easy. These lesbian leading ladies were intense, decisive women fully capable of sleeping in any bed they chose, when they chose. Some of them, like America’s first princess, Winnaretta Singer, the sewing machine heiress who married Prince Edmond de Polignac, were high-maintenance closet cases. Those who were mostly out identified across a broad spectrum as butches, femmes, Sapphists, kikis, dykes, or sometimes just as garden variety queers. Love them or hate them, these were dangerous women: women to watch out for.
Madness runs all through this book. Each section includes protagonists or supporting characters who were mentally ill: Sylvia Beach’s mother Eleanor; Bryher’s life partner, the poet Hilda Doolittle (“H.D.”); Gertrude Stein’s neurotic brother Leo; Romaine Brooks’ mother Ella; Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, who was institutionalized along with Natalie Barney’s godson Raymond Douglas, the son of Oscar Wilde’s famous boyfriend; Joyce’s daughter-in-law Helen Fleischmann; Zelda Fitzgerald, who needs no introduction; suicidal poet Renée Vivien; bipolar ingénue Dolly Wilde; and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, another poet who wandered Paris dressed as a bag lady.
Souhami’s gossipy tone sheds light on their complicated, often secretive lesbian lives. Many burned or destroyed their racy photographs and letters to keep them away from prying eyes. But there are some secrets that Souhami prefers to keep under wraps. It is odd, for example, that she never cites the work of Barbara Will and Janet Malcolm on Gertrude Stein’s active collaboration with Pétain’s pro-Nazi Vichy regime during World War II.
Some of the book’s best writing focuses on Four Saints in Three Acts, a vanguard opera of the 1930s based on Gertrude Stein’s alphabet soup, with a brilliant score by Virgil Thomson and cutting-edge sets and costumes designed by another underexposed artist, Florine Stettheimer. Written in 1927-28, Four Saints languished for six years before its first performance. Directed by then-unknown John Houseman with choreography by Frederick Ashton, Four Saints was the Hamilton of its day. But the all-black cast shocked suburbanites at the traditionalist Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford and contributed to the firing of the museum’s pace-setting director Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr.—a great friend of another lesbian power couple in this circle, Grace Frick and Marguerite Yourcenar.
Original cast of Four Saints in Three Acts, at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 1934. Harold Swahn photo.
Souhami calls for a deeper appreciation of gay lives, and especially women’s lives. Take, for example, Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman), one of Britain’s richest woman who thought of herself as transgender. Bryher’s patronage was crucial in establishing the avant-garde platforms. More needs to be said about her financing of African-American artists and early experiments in film. Souhami asserts that Bryher loved H.D. unconditionally and regarded the sexually fluid poet’s madness as a gift that lent wings to her genius. Souhami also seems to regard Bryher’s tempestuous relationship with H.D. as controlling and insensitive.
To learn more, I spoke with Susan McCabe, whose biography of Bryher is forthcoming from Oxford in 2021. McCabe sees the relationship more as a partnership of equals and suggests that Bryher and H.D. were kindred spirits drawn together by their mutual sorrows in a healing bond. This allowed them to survive punishing cycles of acrimony, oppositions, and flare-ups that ultimately proved unthreatening over a lifetime.
No Modernism without Lesbians makes a compelling case for forgetting everything we thought we knew about the origins of Modernism. As an art historian, I am aware that there are many schools of thought on this. Convincing evidence is cited for the claim that Modernism began in painting with Courbet, or else started with the Post-Impressionists, and so on. Whether it began in Paris in 1905, 1912, or 1922 is irrelevant. Since the dawn of the arts, lesbians have always been at the vanguard of new movements. It has always been a necessity for lesbians to defy patriarchal norms to live freely and survive. This simple truth has been ignored by cultural historians for too long.
Even so, is the claim of “no Modernism without lesbians” too sweeping to be substantiated? Souhami makes her profession in literature, so it makes sense that the publication of Ulysses in 1922 is her jumping-off place. From that perspective, there’s no question that Modernism had many lesbian mothers who nurtured the men that history has privileged. This book offers unambiguous evidence that men were not at the center. For men like Cocteau and Dalí, Joyce, Picasso, Diaghilev, and Hemingway, it was women who published their books, bankrolled their galleries, threw their launch parties, translated their works, reviewed them in The New Yorker, bought their paintings, financed their operas, furnished their film equipment, starred in their pictures, and rescued their failing companies. Souhami’s argument might make better sense as “no Modernism without Paris,” which was the mecca that attracted all creative seekers.
But No Modernism without Lesbians is important for 2020 because it rips apart the prevailing patriarchal model. What Souhami calls for is abandoning the Modernist canon and rebuilding it one lesbian at a time to create a new, inclusive, 21st-century model. This project will send readers back, not only to a cast of characters that Souhami has spent her life compiling, but to works of others writing about lesbians and their role in supporting and advancing the arts.
Cassandra Langer, a freelance writer based in New York City, is the author ofRomaine Brooks: A Life (Wisconsin).
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.
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 orderRomaine Brooks: A Life.
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.
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.
I am wondering where Romaine Brooks’ lost drawings and paintings are. There are so many intriguing clues scattered throughout her letters, papers, and last audio interview. We have reason to believe that somewhere out there are early works from the Capri period, as well as portraits and still-life pictures such as the one Freer bought from her when she was still painting in bright colors. And what of the drawings she refers to in her interview from late 1967 or 68? What were they of? Nudes of Natalie? Portrait sketches? We now know of works from only two periods, and yet she tells us she drew all the time, and Natalie Barney inquires in their exchange of letters whether she has been drawing to amuse herself.
Despite the many masks I have removed from Romaine, it seems as though even more mysteries remain for future researchers to discover.
I’ve just returned from listening to a long-lost analog recording of an interview with Romaine Brooks at age 94. What a fabulous experience! It’s in French, but is being transcribed in English through the generosity of another researcher, translator Suzanne Stroh. What an incredible thrill to finally hear Romaine’s voice! I now understand why she was celebrated for her speaking voice. She spoke French with what people said was a “charming American accent”, and it is perfectly clear that despite living in Europe — mainly France and Italy for most of her adult life — she always thought and titled her drawings in English in her notebooks.
In the interview, she was asked if she’d created drawings other than those that appeared in the 1968 issue of Bizarre — an issue devoted entirely to her with essays by Paul Morand, Eduard MacAvoy, Michel Desbrueres. She responded, “I’ve drawn throughout my life.” So, folks, where are the other drawings??? We only have access to a sampling from two periods of her lifelong output. Where are the rest??? We really don’t know. Did she destroy them? What would they have looked like? Was her style consistent? Much like Frida Kahlo, Brooks is on the threshold of a total reassessment. Who knows what works may still be out there?
Treasure hunters, unite. We need to ferret out her other works.
Here you see Lily de Gramont and Natalie Barney on their honeymoon at Niagara Falls, just prior to returning to France where they united with Romaine Brooks to form the stable three-way family of choice that lasted until Lily’s death in 1954. Who knew?! (Romaine Brooks: A Life tells all!)
FYI: I will be on a panel at the International Biography Conference to present new information on Romaine Brooks that will turn Romaine Brooks studies on their head.