“I Am Alone and You Are With Her”

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.

Grotta d' Azur.

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.

the rocks of Capri

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).

Sept. 2015. 290p. illus. Univ. of Wisconsin, hardcover, $26.95 (9780299298609); Univ. of Wisconsin, e-book, $15.95 (9780299298630). 759.13.

REVIEW. First published August, 2015 (Booklist).

[i]. Natalie Clifford Barney to Romaine Brooks, July 21, 1920, Barney/Brooks Letters.

Sapphic Modernism and Meaning

Romaine's Way
Romaine’s Way

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.

Genealogy

Why should any of us care about family history?

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.

Where are the lost works?

So much is hidden
Always one for secrets

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.

New Event and interview with me about Brooks

Hi, all! Just letting you know about a great online event put together by a colleague of mine. Please tune in for Suzanne’s site reopening on Thursday, October 31, 2013 at www.suzannestroh.com.

It’s a virtual party to celebrate the 137th birthday of expatriate arts patron Natalie Barney (1876-1972). A major reappraisal of Barney’s life and legacy is underway, led by the translation of Francesco Rapazzini’s biography of the woman Barney secretly married in 1918, author and sculptor Élisabeth de Gramont (1875-1954). Forty years after Barney’s death, her secret 1926 novel has finally been published in French. It details the household both women established with American painter Romaine Brooks (1874-1970).