Wild Heart: A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris

Wild Heart: A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris

by Suzanne Rodriguez


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Wild Heart: A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris by Suzanne Rodriguez

Born in 1876, Natalie Barney-beautiful, charismatic, brilliant and wealthy-was expected to marry well and lead the conventional life of a privileged society woman. But Natalie had no interest in marriage and made no secret of the fact that she was attracted to women. Brought up by a talented and rebellious mother-the painter Alice Barney-Natalie cultivated an interest in poetry and the arts. When she moved to Paris in the early 1900s, she plunged into the city's literary scene, opening a famed Left Bank literary salon and engaging in a string of scandalous affairs with courtesan Liane de Pougy, poet Renee Vivien, and painter Romaine Brooks, among others. For the rest of her long and controversial life Natalie Barney was revered by writers for her generous, eccentric spirit and reviled by high society for her sexual appetite. In the end, she served as an inspiration and came to know many of the greatest names of 20th century arts and letters-including Proust, Colette, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Truman Capote.

A dazzling literary biography, Wild Heart: A Life is a story of a woman who has been an icon to many. Set against the backdrop of two different societies-Victorian America and Belle Epoque Europe—Wild Heart: A Life beautifully captures the richness of their lore.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060937805
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/23/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.01(d)

About the Author

Suzanne Rodriguez is the author of Found Meals of the Lost Generation, a social history of Americans in Paris in the 1920s. She lives in California.

Read an Excerpt

Wild Heart: A Life
Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris

Chapter One

Beauty in the Blood ...

All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain.

-- Walt Whitman

I told you once before that there were two times for making big money, one in the upbuilding of a country and the other in its destruction. Slow money on the upbuilding, fast money in the crack-up."

-- Rhett Butler to Scarlett OHara

Double-being. Dyad. Janus. Natalie Clifford Barney was the essence of duality. No matter what one believed about her, the opposite might well be true. A self-described debauchée, she could be proper, even prim. Relishing her ability to shock, she was nonetheless imbued with formal, old-school manners. Far ahead of her time in the politics of personal freedom and feminism, she also harbored extremely conservative philosophies. She could be amazingly cruel and incredibly kind. She didn't always enjoy reading, yet ran the most important literary salon of the twentieth century. Possessed of little formal education, she was considered brilliant by many of the greatest minds in Europe. She celebrated the giving of love to others, but found it difficult to accept love for herself. Although she spent most of her life shining at the white-hot center of a crowd, she was often lonely. With her blond, angelic looks and scarlet blushes, she was the picture of innocence, and yet her private life caused such shock and scandal that some, including lovers and close friends, considered her a mixture of good and evil -- and for a few she embodied the latter word in its entirety.

To begin to understand Natalie Barney we must first look to her family, an only-in-America mélange of Salem Puritans and agnostic Jews, adventurous paupers and careful millionaires, rugged pioneers and effete layabouts. It was a family in which polarities attracted. Like married unlike. In the end, they produced a charismatic dyad, a woman who was at once fire and ice. Natalie's beautiful blood was at war with itself.

From childhood Natalie loved all things French, and so we'll begin by exploring her mother's side -- the French side-of the family.

In the Blood of the Mother

According to long-held family lore, Natalie's great-great-grandfather, Ennemond Meuillion, was a French aristocrat who fled the Revolution. In fact, he arrived in the New World nearly two decades earlier, coming to Louisiana "about 1770, soon after Spain took over the government of that vast territory."

Enough facts exist about Meuillion to piece together a rough outline of his life. He was born in 1737 in the French province of Dauphiné, and the coat of arms on his personal seal indicates that, as his descendants believed, he was of noble birth. Aside from the fact that he trained as a doctor, nothing is known of his early life until he journeyed to America in the 1760s. Crippling taxation had made life difficult in France, even for aristocrats, and young Meuillion might have decided to try his luck in a vibrant new land. The Louisiana Territory, heavily populated by Frenchmen, was a logical destination.

The French presence in Louisiana dated back to 1682 when the Sieur de La Salle claimed possession of the Mississippi River valley, naming the territory for Louis XIV. Over the ensuing decades French soldiers and trappers came to the region, staying on as small-scale planters and traders. Spaniards, too, settled in, emigrating from their own colony in Florida. Control of Louisiana would be tossed back and forth between these two European powers and Great Britain until, in 1803, the territory was purchased by the fledgling American nation.

Meuillion took up residence in one of the earliest French settlements on the Mississippi, Pointe Coupée, and married a widowed Frenchwoman with four children. When she died a short time later, he raised the children as his own. A few years on he married another widow with four children, Jeannette Poiret, daughter of the Chevalier de Brie. They had six children of their own, bringing their combined brood to a total of fourteen.

The Meuillions settled on the Red River near present-day Alexandria. The area, called El Rapido by the Spanish and Rapides by the French, was named for the nearby limestone rapids. A Spanish fort, the Post of El Rapido, fronted the river. Meuillion built a home nearby, cleared trees for a plantation, and prospered growing cotton.

When war broke out between Spain and Great Britain in 1779, Meuillion signed on as a sublieutenant in the service of Spanish general Bernardo de Galvez, who aided the American cause. This wartime service qualified the doctor's descendants for membership in the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution.

After the war Meuillion continued to grow cotton and doctor the community while serving under the Spaniards as commandant of Fort Rapides. He died in his plantation home in 1820 at eighty-three. In 1930 the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a marker on his grave to commemorate his role in the war, leading the Louisiana Historical Review to refer to him, halfjokingly, as "one of the most famous residents of the Rapides Cemetery."

The second child of Ennemond Meuillion and Jeannette Poiret, Ursula-Natalie's great-grandmother -- was born in 1784. "Ursula Meuillion," her granddaughter Alice Pike Barney wrote more than a century later, "was exquisitely petite, delicate, and adorable. She refused to learn English, which meant that all those about her were forced to learn French."

A favorite family legend told of the time that Ursula received a message from her husband: "Lafayette vient! Préparez inunediatement!" Having no idea who Lafayette was but nonetheless terrified at the thought of his arrival, she urged the household into panic mode. Everyone scurried about, burying the silver, hiding the horses in the bayou, sending the chickens cackling. When everything was locked up, Ursula, the children, and the rest of the household fled deep into the woods. By the time her husband rode home with his illustrious guest, General Lafayette -- American Revolutionary hero and friend of George Washington -- they found not the hospitable welcome they expected, but a deserted house.

Wild Heart: A Life
Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris
. Copyright © by Suzanne Rodriguez. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Reading Group Guide


Charismatic, brilliant, and beautiful, the American writer Natalie Clifford Barney, who lived in Paris for most of her long life, is best known for three things: her Left Bank literary salon, often acknowledged as the most important of the twentieth century; her books of epigrams about life, love, and the nature of womanhood; and a liberated approach to sex that she refused to cloak, even in the midst of the Victorian era.

Born to great wealth in 1876 and raised in Washington, D.C., and Bar Harbor, Maine, Barney was expected to marry well and lead the conventional life of a privileged society woman. But Natalie wasn't interested in marriage and made no secret of the fact that she was attracted to women.

Raised by a nonconformist and artistic mother -- the painter Alice Pike Barney -- Natalie developed an early interest in poetry and the arts. Moving to Paris at the century's turn, she plunged into the city's vibrant social and literary scene, quickly becoming known among the young, cutting-edge literati as "the rarest and most intelligent woman" of her time. She was equally renowned as a notorious seductress, one who effortlessly conquered the hearts of women and the minds of men. The story of her first notorious love affair -- with Liane de Pougy, the most sought-out courtesan of Belle Époque Paris -- was transformed by Liane, with Natalie's assistance, into a bestselling 1901 roman à clef. Natalie's lovers continued to write about her for decades -- sometimes impishly (Colette), or with brutal honesty (Lucie Delarue-Mardrus), or with a disturbing mixture of anger, worship, and grief (the tragic poet Renée Vivien). Men,including would-be lovers such as Remy de Gourmont or Bernard Berenson, tended to write of Barney with admiration, even reverence. Ultimately, her powerful salon and compelling personality attracted the greatest figures of twentieth-century arts and letters, including Edna St. Vincent Millay, Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Truman Capote.

A dazzling literary biography, Wild Heart: A Life is the story of a true rebel who came of age at a time when rebels weren't admired -- particularly if they were women -- and who has since become an icon to many others. Set against the backdrop of two different societies, Victorian America and Belle Époque Europe, Wild Heart beautifully captures the richness of their lore.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you characterize the relationship between Alice Pike Barney and Albert Barney? What roles did Henry Morton Stanley and Oscar Wilde play in their marriage? To what extent were Natalie Barney's views on marriage and life influenced by her parents' relationship?

  2. How do you think Natalie Barney's ebullient sexuality was perceived by her contemporaries? How would you describe her attitudes toward her many lovers? Did you find her chronic infidelity emblematic of her free spirit, evidence of her unwillingness to commit to love, or something entirely different?

  3. What role did lesbianism play in Natalie's own writing? Did it surprise you to learn that lesbian attachments were so accepted in France during Barney's lifetime? How would you compare French attitudes with those expressed by Natalie's American peers, such as her Bar Harbor neighbors and the author Edith Wharton?

  4. How did Natalie's affair with Liane de Pougy transform her? In your opinion, was their relationship the cause for Natalie's sudden celebrity?

  5. Do you think that the salon culture of Belle Époque Paris could exist in America today? Why or why not? What aspects of Parisian society enabled Natalie to ascend to fame?

  6. What was your opinion of Natalie Barney's relationship with Pauline Tarn (a.k.a. Renée Vivien)? How did each woman serve as muse in the other's poetic development? What did you think of Natalie's efforts to win back her love?

  7. Why was Natalie called an Amazon? How did Remy de Gourmont factor in the creation of this identity? How did this persona factor into the duality that defined her personality?

  8. What kind of feminism did Natalie embody in her lifetime? Why did she found the Académie des Femmes? What influences did Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Sylvia Beach have on her life in Paris?

  9. In Souvenirs Indiscrets, which she published at the age 84, Natalie Barney remembers friends and lovers from her early years in Paris. She continued to acquire new lovers well into her eighties, all the while maintaining her longstanding attachment to Romaine Brooks. Would you describe Brooks as the love of her life? Why or why not?

  10. What influence did Natalie Barney have on her immediate society? How did her radically progressive approach and her confessional tendencies in her writing leave their mark on the larger literary community?

About Suzanne Rodriguez

Suzanne Rodriguez is the author of Found Meals of the Lost Generation, a social history of Americans in Paris in the 1920s. Wild Heart: A Life was a 2003 Lambda Literary Award finalist for best biography and a nominee for the 2003 Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award. Rodriguez lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is at work on her next book.

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