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.
A new book, The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 by Susan Lanser simply underscores the importance of Romaine Brooks’s and Natalie Barney’s vision of modernity and exposes as theorist Martha Vicinus has remarked “the centrally of Women’s subordination in the construction of social and cultural systems.”
I hope that my book, Romaine Brooks: A Life (University of Wisconsin Press) which is now at the compositors will help to clarify how Romaine and Natalie envisioned true female independence They both faced overwhelming odds against any woman, much less a lesbian feminist being truly her own woman. They both struggled to find themselves and enable other women to be thoroughly modern in their sense of it. I sometimes wonder what people will take away with them from my book. I look forward to finding out.
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 never started out as a biographer. It was always about how I took in the picture before me, tasted it, rolled it over, let it sit in my sensorium, and savored all its flavor — appreciating the artistry of the maker; composition, color, execution, emotions. In short, I was able to follow along when an artist grabbed me with just one look and took me to places both familiar and strange.
From childhood, even as a small toddler, I’ve had this uncanny ability to experience words and pictures in the most intense way. It was one of these experiences (as I write in my introduction to Romaine Brooks: A Life (forthcoming from University of Wisconsin press in 2015) that set me on a 44-year course of investigation. I left me with a need to know so intense that throughout my academic and teaching career I felt compelled to follow the elusive trail that Beatrice Romaine Goddard (Brooks) had forged.
An Intriguing Subject…and Audience
It began with the first scholarly/critical article to be written in America on Brooks’s intriguing, chromatically painted portraits. I followed up with a lecture that garnered the attendance of an ACLU representative from Florida International University. This was, after all, the early 1970s, and I was an out lesbian dealing with an out subject and painter of lesbian and gay subjects. Over the years I continued to write critical commentary on any Brooks articles and/or essays that appeared.
Finally, in 2000, after reading yet another essay sidestepping the problems of Brooks’s complicated relationship with D’Annunzio and right-wing conservative politics of the period, my frustrations propelled me to deal with the issue head-on. I then published two more articles to set the framework for an in-depth look at Romaine’s fascist aesthetics in my new book.
Thus, the Accidental Biographer
In order to unearth the truth of Romaine’s life, I had to become an accidental biographer. That determination set me on a course I never intended to take. If you truly want to understand the real nature of the biographer’s art, you’ll have to read my introduction as to how this studio/art history/philosophy student was compelled to become a reluctant biographer by default.