Books

How Modernist Lesbians Made Paris the “Sapphic Center of the Western World”

To do: host salon, create new art forms, manage “18 assignations” in one night.

A black-and-white photo of Natalie Barney.
Natalie Barney. Frances Benjamin Johnston/Library of Congress/Wikipedia

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

When we think of “modernism”—the radical developments in form and style that emerged in the arts and letters in the early 20th century—it’s usually men’s names that come to mind: James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Arnold Schoenberg, Pablo Picasso. But in reality, the modernist milieu was hardly a boys’ club; in fact, in Paris in particular, it was established, invigorated, and heavily funded by women—women who, not incidentally, loved other women. In this month’s episode of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ podcast, the crew takes a trip through this thrilling, rule-shattering world with Diana Souhami, author of No Modernism Without Lesbians. The book is a group biography of four pathbreakers: Gertrude Stein; Sylvia Beach, founder of the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookshop; Bryher, the one-named patron and sometime partner of the modernist poet H.D.; and Natalie Barney, a writer, saloniste, and prolific lover who viewed her own life as a work of art. A portion of the discussion is transcribed below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Bryan Lowder: I was very taken with a line of Natalie Barney’s that you use as the epigraph to her chapter: “I am a lesbian. One need not hide it or boast of it, though being other than normal is a perilous advantage.” You also define modernism as “new ways of seeing and saying.” I’m wondering if you think that there is something about the lesbian experience that made these women readier to take on these new ways of seeing and saying than other people?

Diana Souhami: I think absolutely, because how could they fit into the old patriarchal models? They couldn’t, they just couldn’t, so they were destined, if you like, to break away. I think of modernism as this break from old ways of writing, old ways of seeing, and old ways of being. Of course, to be lesbian or to be gay, you have to break away because look at the patriarchal models, look at the Christian models. You can’t look at the Bible! I mean … leave it, move on. And they did move on in a really trailblazing way.

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Christina Cauterucci: And in fact, even though Natalie Barney didn’t necessarily contribute directly as much to what we think of as the historically important art or literature of modernism, you write that she made Paris the Sapphic center of the Western world. It seemed like maybe people moved there because there were people to sleep with there. She performed a service for Paris and for the movement by making it a meeting place for lesbians, especially well-to-do lesbians who were ready to fund this artistic movement or create work in this movement. They wanted to be there because there were lovers to be had. Is that right?

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Souhami: It’s absolutely true. I mean, Natalie Barney had a Friday salon. I think somebody called them the “Hazardous Fridays” when people went there to discuss their artistic contribution, but yes, it was also to pick somebody up, to make friends and find lovers. How to meet people is always a question, isn’t it, for people who aren’t conforming? And she did provide that. I think there were also strawberry tarts, and alcohol, and little sandwiches. She had this Temple of Friendship, and Sapphic dances in the garden, which the neighbors complained about. Sappho figured quite large throughout the whole culture. The idea of a community of women who would make their own rules, and their own choices, and then follow their own desires.

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Rumaan Alam: In the chapter on Barney, I felt like I was dizzy! She slept with this woman, and then this woman slept with this woman, and then Natalie slept with her, also. And then the three of them got into a fight, and they all slept with this fourth woman. And it’s really this incredible litany of a very real life. It’s so different to me than the way the present always thinks about the past, which is a little condescending, and a little chaste, and a little like that it was all suffering and there was never any color to it.

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Souhami: I think that’s right. I mean, I couldn’t totally approve of Natalie Barney—she said she once had 18 assignations in one night.

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Cauterucci: Assignations!

Alam: That’s exhausting!.

Souhami: How long was the night or how short were the … ? Nonetheless, she does turn these expectations on their head. She had her last love affair when she was 80. She met this woman on a park bench in Nice. … Well, I’ve just turned 80, so maybe I’ll try sitting on park benches. [Laughs.] … But she did confound all these preconceptions of how women should behave, which is always refreshing, isn’t it?

Listen to the full conversation with Diana Souhami below, and subscribe to Outward on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

In my six years at Slate, I’ve written about multiple national elections, social movements, and major cultural phenomena. With support from Slate Plus members, I’ve also gotten to dive deep into stories and angles no other outlets were covering, and that Slate wouldn’t have otherwise had the time or resources to tackle. —Christina Cauterucci, senior writer

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