Romaine’s Villa Sant Agnese

Romaine Brooks’s Villa in the hills of Florence is being restored. This is the place that she and her lover Natalie Barney suffered privations and constant threats of being sent off to an internment camp in Parma before deportation to a concentration camp because of being foreigners, and in Natalie’s case having Jewish blood during WWII.

MS. Blog Interview

A terrific and timely interview with me in Ms. Magazine by Mary Meriam.

Sexual politics are alive and flourishing in the GOP presidential race and in the current debates regarding Hillary Clinton’s qualifications for the office. So having independent women like Romaine Brooks and her circle, having their say about real women’s lives and creativity is a blessing.

Romaine’s circle of women and lesbians forged their own notions of a room of one’s own, in their case several houses and shared households, as well as space to spread their creative wings wide. Their notions of how to live authentic lives are much more contemporary than they have previously been given credit for.

Not everyone will want to emulate their lifestyle, but we have to give them full credit for demanding one given the limitations placed on women during the interwar period and beyond.

Romaine Brooks - Book
For one and all

“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.

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.

Out of the Blue

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!

Romaine Brooks Drawing of the ImpedersAs 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.