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@@
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 bookNo 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.
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).
Every Spring, without fail, this tree puts out for all to see.
As a writer I am incredibly grateful that I can take a break from being chained to the computer to enjoy these early spring days when things are just beginning to put out flowers. I don’t even mind my allergies kicking into full gear because beauty is the inspiration that drives this writing engine.