IN 1976 TWO BIOGRAPHIES of the American expatriate Natalie Barney appered, one in English by George Wiches, an American professor, and the other -- now published here in translation -- by a young Parisian journalist, Jean Chalon. It might seem ironic that the long life of Miss Barney should be chronicled by men since she had some reputation as a feminist (Chalon calls her the "first emancipated woman of her time"), but this would not have dismayed her particularly. very few things did; moreover, she wished to have her epitaph record her as "the friend of men and the lover of women."
In fact, by today's standards Natalie Barney was not a serious feminist despite a brief effort to establish an "Academie des Femmes" to honor women writers excluded from the Academie Francaise. Otherwise she showed little inteest in the social or economic problems of women (or anyone, for that matter), vast inherited wealth having spared her such inconveniences. she was a lesbian hedonist -- known as "The Amazon," "The Pope of Lesbos" -- luckily landed in a time and place tolerant of such self-indulgences, especially when buttressed by the "the fabulous fortune of the Barneys," unabashed assertiveness, a certain wit and some charm.
Natalie herself was even more fabulous than her fortune. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1876, to a railroad-car tycoon father and a portrait-painter mother, she spent a gilded if not guiltless youth in Washington, Bar Harbor and Europe. She did consider marriage once or twice -- Oscar Wilde's disastrous beau, Lord Alfred Douglas,was one candidate, but that fell through, and it was to be Wilde's niece Dolly who became one of her favorite lovers.
Natalie's father's death in 1902 released her from conventional compromises and chaperones; it also gave her the means to settle permanently in Paris for the rest of her very long and luxurious life. There she pursued her careers as a minor writer, a major hostess and above all as an indefatigable seductress, or rather seducer. In her salon, which Truman Capote called a "kind of cross between a chapel and a bordello," she held her famous "Fridays" for guests like Gertrude Stein, Mata Hari, Colette, Bernard Berenson, Ezra Pound and the ubiquitous Ford Madox Ford.
As an adolescent at Bar Harbor, Natalie had her first romance with Eva Palmer of the biscuit dynasty. "Eva was the nymph, Natalie her shepherd," the suitor, as she was always to be. However, Liane de Pougy, the renowned courtesan and "Croqueuse de Diamants," then 30 to Natalie's 23, was to be her first great love. Liane was also to be a lifelong friend, another pattern; as Natalie said, "I am very lazy; once I confer friendship, I never take it back," (although Liane, turned nun and pious in old age, called Natalie her "greatest sin"). But their affair took place before Natalie's inheritance, and Liane's lifestyle as a Grand Horizontal required subsidy by grand dukes and princes, so Natalie soon moved on to the English poet Renee Vivien. After that, there was to be one conquest after another, often several at once. Speculating on "where does she get 'em?" the acidulous Alice Toklas opined, "I think from the toilets of the Louvre Department Store." but actually many were very distinguished, like the novelist Colette, the painter Romaine Brooks and the Duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre, reputed to have been a model for Proust's Mme. de Guermantes.
To Chalon, her bedazzled confidant, Natalie boasted of some 40 liasons. Romaine Brooks was the sultana of her harem for 55 years; even more incredibly, Natalie fell in love at 83 with a Rumanian beauty who stayed with her till her death at age 96. Such loyalty from her lovers is impressive, even allowing for the fact that Natalie made very good coy; Liane do Pougy, Colette, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, and Djuna Barnes all depicted her in novels. (Her most sensational appearance was as the heroine Valerie Seymour in Radclyffe Hall's notorious Well of Loneliness.)
In A Moveable Feast, Gertrude Stein instructed Hemingway that while male homosexuals always change partners and are thus miserable, lesbians can live monogamously and contentedly. Yet Natalie was both promiscuous and apparently happy. Her biographers call her a Don Juan, but a more accurate paralle might be Casanove, since her affairs seem to have been motivated not by the Spaniard's desire to dominate but by the Italian's love of pleasure. Devoid of religious restraints, untroubled by social sanctions, she excused her pursuit of women and her infidelities with the bland "It's my nature." Pleasure -- taking, but also giving -- was her only concern. She never took her writing seriously, and she lived through two world wars as if they did not exist. "I rejoice in being completely useless."
Despite such flagrant egoism she mesmerized both women and men. She certainly charmed Jean Chalon whose book grew 10 years of weekly visits -- beginning when she was 87, he 28 -- sprightly chats and giggles over "Eva, Olive, Mimie, Henriette, Liane, Romaine, Emma . . . Odette, Micheline, Rachel, Sonia," etc. Charmed him rather too much, the reader may feel, since this biography is quaint and giddy hagiography. Professor Wiches, having met her only once or twice just before her death, was able to be more judicious. Chalon, whom Wiches describes as seeming to "specialize in old ladies," also specializes in rhapsodic gush sounds more fulsome in English than in French. He says of Natalie that she "never submitted to any influence, never suffered any injury to, or diminution of, her being. She went right through her century unchanged." He calls this a miracle. Some might regard it as not having really lived, or at least as not having truly grown up at all.