Sunday, July 01, 2012

In search of a topic: Natalie Barney, Truman Capote, Gertrude Stein

In 1972 I was a graduate student in search of a thesis topic. Actually I wasn't even ready to start on a thesis yet, as I had 2 years more of coursework and exams before I would be considered a PhD candidate. But I was living in Paris in the presence of writers, poets, painters
and photographers, and wanted to find a subject I would become passionate about.

That subject was Natalie Clifford Barney, an American woman of letters who lived in Paris from the 1890's until her death in February, 1972, in her 96th year.

Edouard Roditi and Andre Ostier, literary critic and photographer, told me that she would be leaving her large archive to the Bibliotheque litteraire Jacques Doucet - a research library/archive attached to the Universite de Paris and whose collections include manuscripts of many important 19th and 20th century French writers.

In March, 1972, without much forethought, I decided to find out everything I could about Natalie Barney. I found all her books available either at the old bookstores on the Left Bank where I lived or at the Bibliotheque Nationale where I was spending part of my days studying. As I searched through her writings, and particularly her 2 volumes of memoirs, I started getting a picture of a woman who celebrated life stating: "I don't collect things, I collect people."

So why not meet some of these people, I thought. I was young, enthusiastic, spoke fluent French and had a background in literature. I was a student in search of a subject, and hot
on her tracks.

To this end I interviewed almost 25 septuagenarians or octogenarians.
Some of the writers or public figures were almost as old as Natalie: Paul Geraldy, a sentimental writer very popular in the 1910's and 1920's, was 87 when I interviewed him in April, 1972 and lived another 11 years; Georges Cattaui, a French/Egyptian writer, was only 74 and soon would die. Maurice Goudeket, Colette's third husband, was a sprightly father of a two year old at age 73 when he received me. These French literary figures mingled at Miss Barney's Fridays at 20 rue Jacob with many women and frequent visiting Americans. Janet Flanner, Marcel Jouhandeau and even Anthony Blond in England were co-conspirators in this research. Her salon became an international way station for visiting writers.

When Truman Capote came to Paris in 1947 he got an introduction to Natalie Barney through Jenny Bradley, the top agent for American and English writers in France, and visited Miss Barney, first as he describes in Paris Review #61, pp. 118-123.

In May, 1975, shortly after the "Natalie Barney Garland" appeared in Paris Review, Capote came to San Francisco on vacation, as I remember, and I just had to get in touch with him. Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle's daily "town crier, party chronicler, city swell" mentioned that Capote was in San Francisco and was staying at one of its' fancier hotels. Aha! So I called up The Stanford Court Hotel and asked to speak to Truman Capote.

"Hello" rasped the effeminate contralto of Mr. Capote

My goodness, I had the real thing. No one could answer the phone or talk like him: high, rasping, an arching drawl like an imitation of a Southern drag queen. I had to think quickly, as I hadn't prepared any questions, but just hit pay dirt.

I introduced myself as a graduate student writing my thesis on Natalie Barney and wanted to get some of his memories of her.

"Oh, she was such a nice lady. Wonderful sandwiches, very good drink. She entertained very often. She was one of the first literary people I met in Paris. I was so young, didn't know anyone. She took me around; took me to see these huge paintings - all in gray, black and white - of all these famous women. The artist was Romaine Brooks who was her lover, but who didn't live with her. All these paintings were kept in a studio on the right bank of Paris - maybe in her sister's building. It was far away. Miss Barney kept me like a child under her wing. And she gave me more letters of introduction."

Romaine Brooks, known as the "Thief of Souls", documented the who’s who of a certain wealthy, exclusive and perverse society.  Portraits of Ida Rubenstein, Gabrialle d’Annunzio and Natalie Barney as well as portraits of Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall, authors of “The Well of Loneliness” are now part of the Smithsonian Collection.  

Una Troubridge as seen at the Smithsonian and Radclyffe Hall
were celebrated in the 1920’s.  Lily de Clermont-Tonnerre,  Lily de Clermont-Tonnerre was one of Miss Barney’s and Romaine Brooks’ best friends.

When the subject of our conversation went from Natalie Barney to Romaine Brooks, I asked Capote if he had seen the recent biography of this artist: "Between Me and Life:A Biography of Romaine Brooks" by Meryle Secrest.

"Oh noooo," he said in a dismissive drawl, " I don't read any of those books. I knew the artist, that was enough." Note: for more on Romaine Brooks see the Strangeflowers website.

"Oh", I said, "the book wasn't great at all, even if it was very well received and quite positively reviewed by Anais Nin in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books".

"Well", Capote gushed,"That doesn't mean anything. Anais Nin is a silly little cunt who doesn't even know how to thread a needle!"

If he could have seen me gasp and almost swallow my tongue on the other side of the telephone he would have burst out in laughter.

"Well, I've got to go now", said Mr. Capote, "But you can write me at my home. Just send me mail to Truman Capote, Bridgehampton, New York. They all know me there, you don't need any more of an address.  Everybody knows me there"

He repeated Bridgehampton again, and cordially wished me luck.

I hung up the phone and immediately transcribed our conversation. What impressed me was how fluent he was: how the words flew off his tongue without rage or even disapprobation. Just a statement of fact, his fact.

Since I'm talking about dead writers and places, there's one more piece of urban legend I would love to dispel.

Gertrude Stein in 1906 by Picasso.

Her quotation in the 1930’s about Oakland, where she lived from ages 4 - 16 approximately, "There is no there there" has often been interpreted derisively as a slight to the town. Quite the contrary. Not at all a slight to the town across the bay from San Francisco, she simply notes that her life in Oakland was her family, and that presence, that "there" is no longer there.  And it seems she wasn’t able to find her childhood home when she made the trek there.

On February 3, 1974, we celebrated Gertrude Stein's centenary at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, not more than 7 miles from where she lived as a child. There was there there.

Note: Several biographies on Natalie Barney have been published since her death in 1972. George Wickes (editor of the Paris Review #61 Natalie Barney Graland) published "The Amazon of Letters" in 1976 - her chosen American biographer, and Jean Chalon's "Portrait d'une Seductrice" (a French newsman whose relationship over 20 years with Natalie resembles "Harold and Maude" type story) show 2 sides of Miss Barney. Suzanne Rodriguez-Hunter's bio benefits from the previous writers works and archive access. Wild Heart: A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris