Romaine Brooks Lives

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!

Modernism’s

The Engines of Modern Art

By CASSANDRA LANGER

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).

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.

Revelations in Gay and Lesbian history

Much has been made of heterosexist models of relationships as applied to gay and lesbian lives. Recent publications have done a lot to overturn these stereotypes of gender and relational norms. With the marriage debates and LGBTQ rights, the focus has been mainly on gaining equal rights through heterosexist institutions. This may be one reason so many members of the LGBTQ community are signing on to the idea of marriage, aberrant as it may seem.

Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and Lily de Gramont never signed on to the notion that women were somehow the property of men to use and abuse as they saw fit merely because they had the brute strength to subjugate women and possess them. Nor did they believe in laws that allowed men to oppress women. They believed women were superior to men and lived their lives in this belief.

Blue is the Warmest Color recently exploded off the screen, garnering a number of prizes and rave reviews. I just saw it and have to say it is a film that promised much and failed to deliver on these promises.

Here is the book you must read
Here is the book you must read

As a primer on lesbian sex, it’s fine for as far as it goes — which is not nearly far enough. It showcases a male perspective, with two women acting out a male notion of what lesbians do in bed. It’s not half bad, but it certainly in no way captures the true depth, playfulness, or sinuosities of lesbian love and sexual practices. It is shallow and surface despite all the huff and puff and penetration. What does come across is how focused on butt the film maker is. I wonder if he has been studying the nudes that artist Joan Semmel has been creating for the last 40 years or so.

Open, ongoing, multiple-partner relationships are what the trio above had. Committed, eternal, and flexible would best describe their interrelations. We need to realize that these three women did not have the right to vote, had more than enough money for multiple residences, and formed a unique series of linkages and entwined households during their lifetimes. This seriously impacts on how we relate to them and their times. I outline and flesh out more in my forthcoming book Romaine Brooks: A Life.